Walking Home: An Alaska Book Week Review

24 09 2011

Alaska Book Week is almost here! October 8-15; more info here. Join Hooked in celebrating ABW from wherever you are, by cozying up with one of Alaska’s many talented authors. This is a review of one of my favorites.

Packing for halibut fishing last May was pretty simple. Longlining’s fast pace and grueling hours equate to minimal down time that is best spent sleeping. Practicing great restraint for someone who usually packs more reading material than clothing, only one book went into my sea bag: Walking Home, by Lynn Schooler.

Winner of the 2010 Banff Mountain Festival John Whyte Award for Mountain Literature

As soon as the gear was set, we retired to our bunks for a 2 hour nap. I nestled into my sleeping bag, book in hand. If I’d wanted to prioritize sleep, this was a mistake: Walking Home captivated me from the first page.

The back flap reads, “Lynn Schooler has recently lost a dear friend and feels his marriage slipping away when he sets out into the wilderness to clear his head. His perilous solo expedition – first by boat, then on foot – takes him along one of the world’s wildest coastlines, being battered by the elements, fording a swollen river, and, for several harrowing hours, becoming a grizzly bear’s quarry.

But this barren landscape is also rich with human stories – of trappers, explorers, marooned sailors, and hermits, as well as the myths of the regions Tlingit Indians. Paying tribute to these lives at a lonesome turning point in his own, Schooler aspires to understand what it means to be not only part of nature’s web, but also a member of a human community in the flow of history.”

Though Schooler “set off into the wilderness,” Walking Home is no Into the Wild. Alaskans have little patience for Hollywood-ized stories of poorly-planned jaunts into nature. True to his forty years’ experience in Alaska, Schooler’s precautions were meticulous and humbling. This is someone I’d leave the dock with, I thought. That trust in the individual allowed me to trust the author, losing myself in his gorgeous prose.

Schooler’s geographical subject, Lituya Bay, is a favored oasis of fishermen, a place particularly close to my heart. Close in physical proximity, too: at the time of my reading, we were 40 miles offshore, gazing eastward to the very coastline he trekked. His historical research was as extensive as his personal preparation, weaving several centuries of stories with his own.

Though the region’s history and his adventure are fascinating, it was Schooler’s internal journey that truly resonated with me. His voice sounded familiar – the tone of so many men in this fleet, an entire generation selfless with their knowledge and time, keeping inner tumult as firmly guarded as a hot fishing spot. Following his unflinching gaze, insights absent of self-pity or blame, I found myself wondering if other fishermen had processed their own mid-life losses similarly. As bold a venture as Schooler’s solo hike was, the vulnerability of exposing his internal process seemed a far more courageous act.

Throughout the season, I raved about Walking Home to fellow fishermen who know and love this coastline. One frowned at my summary. “His marriage was in trouble, so he just left? Huh.”

Well… Yes. I understood my friend’s disapproval. But I also recalled my own reaction to deeply troubled times, when I fled to the sea without a backwards glance to the loved ones left behind. Having needed to walk out on my own life a time or two, I recognized the necessity of movement.

Death and decay are constants in this ecosystem, as they are in our lives. Out of loss comes new growth; as nature repairs herself, so do we. Following 1958’s great wave – the largest tsunami ever recorded, worldwide – Lituya Bay’s ravaged tree-line reasserts itself. The remains of shipwrecked vessels vanish from the coastline, as loved ones exit our lives. We grieve their departures, search for the lessons of our shared time, and continue on.

Book lovers all have favorites that we return to, over and over, for familiar comfort and new insights among well-worn pages. When I finished Walking Home and immediately began to read sections to my shipmates, struggling to see the print through thickening twilight, I knew this would be one of mine. For anyone who’s spent time on the water or in the woods, who craves the wild spaces around and inside of themselves and knows the echo of their own companionship, Schooler’s work is utterly relatable. It’s an ideal read for Alaska Book Week.

Those of you in/near Anchorage, mark your calendars for February 10-18, when Perseverance Theatre will perform a stage adaptation of Schooler’s 2003 memoir, The Blue Bear. Stay tuned via Facebook, where you can subscribe to Lynn Schooler’s daily photo posts – stunning meditations on life in Southeast Alaska.

Prayer flags flying, July 4th in Lituya Bay

And you, friends? What’s on your reading list for Alaska Book Week?





“Is There Whale in My Teeth?” Vegetarian on Cultural Vacation

5 09 2011

Year-round, Sitka’s bulletin boards are thick with flyers of talks, classes, performances. My Hokey-Pokey presence – one foot in the community, one foot out – has often meant that if it sounds like something I’d like to experience, it’ll happen while we’re out fishing. The timing of this sign was a welcome exception:

“Tomorrow night… We’ll actually be in town!”

Built in 1914, the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall is a green shingled hulk of a building. It squats on the creosote-coated shoulders of tired pilings, between street and shore, and hosts the farmer’s market, community meetings, fundraisers, and memorials. Locals refer to it with a gently slurred “Ayne bee,” letters exiting larynx with the soft spring of walking on muskeg.

I entered ANB with deja vu. A lifetime earlier, I ran a dinner program for homeless youth. Teen Feed was hosted by generous neighborhood churches, basements that followed exactly this layout: industrial kitchen, heavily-laden buffets with volunteer servers at the ready, carefully spaced folding tables for guests. But instead of asking us to sign in and check any weapons, the bird-like woman at the door opened her cash box.

“It’s $12 for the king salmon dinner. The gorging table is here, and the tasting table is over there.” Clearly stated and segregated for a reason: harvested under subsistence regulations, traditional foods are illegal to sell.

Carefully handwritten labels identified each dish and its harvester. Herring Eggs, Sitka Tribe. Seal Fat, Virginia Phillips. Gum Boots (Chitons), Isabella Brady. I exchanged a grin with the man next to me in line, fellow travelers sharing the wondrous displacement of stepping into another culture, without leaving Baranof Island.

Sea Asparagus with Seal Oil, Aguduk (Eskimo Ice Cream), & Cockles

At the gorging table, I did just that. Baked king salmon heads, halibut, purple potatoes, venison stew, moose sliced like roast beef, herring eggs on hemlock branches; I said yes, please to everything.

From the gorging table.

A friend raised an eyebrow. “You’re really goin’ for it, huh?”

I’d crewed for him years earlier. With a freezer full of venison and elk, his wife struggled to accommodate their vegetarian deckhand. His unasked question echoed between us: You wouldn’t eat the meat I provided, but you’ll eat this?

A fish-slaying vegetarian… I became this oxymoron 7 years ago while crewing for my brother, when we didn’t take any red meat aboard. A day on Mom’s farm, forever after known as the Great Turkey Massacre of ’06, took poultry off my plate. Seafood stayed. If I could embrace the responsibility of taking a creature from its living self to my table, I reasoned, then I could eat it. I don’t enjoy killing fish, but with 24 seasons of blood behind me, I can do it quickly, with gratitude.

Our table was quiet, usually boisterous friends shy with the unfamiliar setting and food. The other woman, a farmer turned first-time deckhand, shared my enthusiasm. We waded through heaping plates, reflecting on our own harvesting experiences of berry picking and mushroom hunting in the Pacific Northwest, and evaluating each bite.

“Ooh – that was a really tart berry!”

“I liked the seal; it was like liver, but milder.”

Eulachon, Tlingit Delight, Cockles, Chiton, & yes, Muktuk (Whale Meat)

Then the morsel of truth: I studied the cube of whale meat and questioned my double standard. Why didn’t I feel conflicted over consuming a creature I hold such reverence for? Knowing that my white self will never be part of an indigenous whale or seal hunt, why did this feel okay? More than okay – why did it seem a privileged opportunity, an invitation to participate in something sacred?

Contemplating Muktuk

Questions that aren’t easily answered. So I popped that glistening morsel into my mouth, a perfect division of white and dark, and chewed. And chewed. The fatty white – blubber – surrendered, while the ridged black skin resisted each bite. Focused on the unyielding texture, I couldn’t articulate the taste. My language – spoken language, ancestral language – doesn’t include those words.

Community matriarch and Alaska Native Sisterhood president Isabella Brady called for attention. Steadied by a walker, her small frame was incongruous to the powerful energy she radiated.

“Let’s have a little prayer.” Head bowed, her voice was firm. “Heavenly Father, thank you for this fellowship, as we share traditional Native foods and regular foods. Thank you for this great country and this life we live.”

Next she gestured to a smiling woman seated nearby, balloons streaming from the arms of her wheelchair. “It’s Evelyn’s birthday today, so let’s all sing Happy Birthday to her.”  The packed hall gave an enthusiastic rendition, with applause breaking out after the final “to yoouuuu!”  But Isabella raised her hands to silence us. Softer, with fewer voices to carry the song, another melody rose to the rafters. The Tlingit tones shivered across my spine.

Approaching to give thanks, I interrupted Isabella mid-birthday cake bite. She was tolerant of my questions, explaining that the dinner was a fundraiser for Celebration 2012, ANB’s 100 year anniversary. The civil rights organization was founded by Peter Simpson, a Canadian-born Tsimshian man.

“Do you know who that is?” She peered at me sharply, and gave a curt nod at my shaking head. “He was my grandfather.” She gestured at the photos on the walls, framed black-and-white portraits of elders whose grandchildren were now wizened and wise.

I thought again of Teen Feed, recalling quiet kids who found excuses to loiter after dinner, craving a moment of undiluted attention. Belly full, spirit hungry. Distracted by their louder, more overtly-demanding peers, too often I swept them into the night with preoccupied goodbyes. Be well, sweeties.

And now, lingering at the borderland of the gorging table, I was that quiet kid. I wanted to sit at Isabella’s feet and listen – to her translation of devil’s club and skunk cabbage rustling in the Tongass, of salmonberries swelling in the spring and pink salmon spawning in the fall, of rainfall’s many songs and raven’s waterfall laughter. To anything she’d share.

Alaska Native Sisterhood President, Activist, & Fry Bread Magician Isabella Brady

But presidents are people in demand. She was surrounded by a crowd of friends, while I was an outsider in every way. Cap’n J and I slipped out the door, sharing a final piece of fry bread slathered with spruce tip jelly as we reflected on the evening.

Joel had struggled with his decision not to try the muktuk. “I thought about it. But it didn’t sound like something I’d like, and in the end, I just didn’t want to eat whale.”  How individual our hearts’ voices are, I thought. The unapologetic carnivore shunned the meat of a being he feels connected to, while the peskatarian who apologizes to the fish she kills chowed on down.

I grinned for his inspection. “Do I have whale meat caught in my teeth?”

“Uh… Actually, you do.”

My tongue toyed with the single fiber of black skin wedged against an upper incisor. I felt otherworldly. A little high. Was it the richness of the food, the radical onset of so much protein? This 33-year old digestive system reeling from so many never-before-encountered substances?

Probably all of the above. But I’d rather interpret that out-of-body sensation as the physical embodiment of belief. Faith that we become, on some small level, that which we consume.

[Want  to contribute to Celebration 2012? Tax deductible donations, made out to ANS Camp 4, can be sent to Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp #4, 235 Katlian Street, Sitka, AK 99835.]





Sharing the Sea: (Too Close) Encounters with Whales

29 07 2011

Cap’n J and I spent the past 12 days chasing coho. They’re always on the move, searching for a steady food source, and they travel incognito, invisible to our above-water existence. But the meal plan they’re looking for, from tiny shrimp-like krill to massive schools of herring, is equally as compelling to other creatures.  Whales, sea lions, porpoises, diving birds, gulls, puffins; the oxygen-dependent are our indicators of the richness of a particular place. They reveal the presence of our target species as effectively as a Hide-and-Seek player with a bad case of the hiccups. As one of our fishing partners says about these spots, “Lotta good groceries here,” and all of the ocean dwellers shop at the same store.

Some travel great distances to find these particular groceries. Southeast Alaska is the summer getaway for thousands of humpback whales. They cruise up for months of easy feeding, bulk up their blubber, and then head south for winter breeding off the coasts of Hawaii and Mexico. A schedule not unlike many fishermen.

In our island communities, where humans always have one foot in the sea, humpbacks are welcome seasonal residents. Each as individually distinct and recognizable as a Down South-based boat pulling back through the breakwater: I see so-and-so’s back in town. The first spouts on the horizon whoosh assurance that summer is actually on its way, while the final arching tails heave goodbyes like great sighs of relief.  Their role in our community is honored with November’s annual Whalefest, now on its fifteenth year. Renowned whale biologist Jan Straley lives here, keeping Southeast at the forefront of cetacean study. We’ve got the Sitka Sound Science Center.  There’s a fantastic website of humpback info, thanks to all of this local expertise and research, here. Sitkans are serious about whales.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has mandated that all vessels maintain a 100 yard distance from whales. A good rule for safe viewing, these regulations are in everyone’s best interest – theirs and ours. Life gets a little too exciting sometimes, when the creatures under protection aren’t interested in maintaining that distance. Graceful, brilliant, confident, curious, and so much more belonging to the environment than us, they seem utterly unconcerned with our presence.

I can’t explain the unusual attraction humpbacks have for us. Maybe it’s our similar size – our 43 foot vessel is right there with their 39 to 52 foot length.  The Nerka is a double-ender, pointy V-shaped ends at both bow and stern, and maybe they like our curves. Could be that the red of our bottom paint is especially provocative.  I can’t explain the attraction, but it’s real: I’ve had far more close encounters in the 6 years I’ve been on the Nerka, than on 16 years’ of previous boat experience.

Most encounters are benign. Several might pace us as we troll along at 2.5 knots, spouting 50 feet off the side, lollygagging on the surface to study us. Others breach in the sun, flinging their 40 ton bulk out of the water far enough away to be breathtaking rather than terrifying, close enough that their landing cracks like cannon fire. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the worst consequence of our interactions is the impact on my productivity. Tough to keep on task, gaze locked down into the fish you’re gutting, when in the midst of your own private National Geographic special.

Cap’n J and I were on our way South several years ago, the salmon season behind us and just a few days’ out of Bellingham. A perfectly still afternoon of glassy water and late September sun, I’d been on the wheel while he slept. He woke up, joined me in the cabin, bleary-eyed over a warmed-up plate of spaghetti. I chattered about how uneventful my watch had been. The Nerka cruised along at 7 knots, when an unspeakably large black mass broke the blue directly below my port helm window. Time stopped. A deafening exhalation, whale air sprayed the glass. (What kind of cleaning spray would you use to remove whale snot?) Our bow rose several feet and rolled starboard.

That time, I responded properly. Yanked the throttle down and threw the boat into neutral. The whale submerged, still so slow and calm, gently returning the Nerka to her even keel. The delicate quiver in Bear’s water dish was the only indicator of the disruption. Eventually I stopped trembling, and we watched our friend spout casually behind the boat, an itch hopefully relieved from his impromptu back scratch.

Other times, our minds fail in moments of critical impact.  On this last trip, we were surrounded by daily whale activity. One day, it was far too close.

We’d had a good day. Found some coho, kept busy enough that it was a throw-something-frozen-into-the-oven night, rather than taking the time for a prepared dinner. I’d rushed into the galley, still in my dripping rainpants while studying the directions on a lasagna, when I heard Joel yelling from the cockpit.

“Holy shit!”

“What?” I hollered back.

He pointed a rubber gloved hand ahead. “It’s right there!”

I grabbed the camera and jumped into the pilot seat. Sure enough, there was a whale directly off our port bow, its broad back splitting the sea within spitting distance. My heart was already beating overtime, when a flicker of motion pulled my attention to our anchor. This is the video from that encounter.

(Salty language in this one. Entirely appropriate to the circumstances, I think you’ll agree, but depending on where you’re viewing this and who’s around, you might turn the volume down.)

You can see I didn’t handle this one properly. So unglued by what seemed like inevitable collision, I completely forgot that the Nerka’s shifter, gears I’ve handled hundreds of times, were immediately within reach. “Fucking neutral” was about six inches from my right hand. And Cap’n J will tell you that he’s never heard that particular tone in my voice before. But once again, we all got lucky. They went about their day, perhaps a bit irritated by their overly-crowded waterway, maybe grumbling to each other about tourists who don’t know how to drive.  It took quite a bit longer for my legs to become solid again.





Chasing Kings: Southeast Alaska’s Summer Troll Season

28 06 2011

The Nerka is moored on New Thomsen’s 4th finger, a trek to the ramp that typically takes my short legs a 4 minute march. But the harbor is a different neighborhood than it was a week ago, and Cap’n J and I now incorporate a half-hour buffer – at least – for clearing the conversational gauntlet up the dock.

The harbor pulses with anticipation and anxiety. Local boats have off-loaded their halibut/black cod gear and rigged up for salmon, exchanging skates of groundline for a rainbow palette of spoons (metal lures) and hoochies (plastic squid-like lures of every imaginable color combination). December is 6 months away, yet a repetitive chorus of “Season’s greetings!” rings through the air. At each finger, we exchange hugs and how-was-your-winter updates. It’s a familiar transition back into this culture of seasonal friendships, decades-old relationships that receive only several months a year of real-time face-time. After the pleasantries, each conversation returns to the focus on everyone’s mind right now: “Well, are you all set?”

The hot hoochies of 2007. (Insert your own bad joke here.)

The Southeast Alaska summer troll season opens for king salmon on Friday, July 1st, and according to Fish & Game’s prediction, we should have 8 to 12 days to catch our quota. The past few days saw trollers from Washington, Oregon and California pulling through the breakwater, one after another. Their fisheries have suffered devastating losses, while Alaska’s waters continue to swell with healthy runs. Meticulously managed, Alaska’s wild salmon stocks support fishing families from all along the West Coast.

Few outsiders imagine the depth of regulation that Alaskan commercial fishermen experience. There will always be those who grouse about state and federal oversight, but this is supervision that I choose to take comfort in, viewing it as a concerted effort to protect our livelihood and honor natural resources.  Alaska Trollers Association, our industry advocates since 1925, works closely with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to ensure we’ll make a living today, while taking care that we’ll still be able to do so tomorrow. It’s this effort that gives me a clear(er) conscience, a response for non-fishing friends who express uncertainty about their love of seafood. “I thought salmon were endangered… Is it really okay to eat them?”

(In a word: Yes.)

Coho fillets for winter meals

After Hooked’s last post, my dad remarked upon its theme of gratitude, that it wasn’t a value he’d observed in the fleet 25 years ago. Every generation has had members for whom the role of harvester includes an accompanying sense of stewardship, those determined to keep this lifestyle available to future generations. But I agree there’s been a cultural shift. These days, more of us articulate our pride in feeding people, being responsible for the highest quality food we can produce. Rather than lingering in doom-and-gloom predictions that our industry’s days are numbered, more dockside conversations mull over legislation and advocacy. Our collective consciousness slowly evolves, expands, and sustainability become less the language of Lefties and more an obvious necessity to our profession.

There’s a bottom line most of us can agree on: this is a life we love. As our friend Sean sums up, “I’ll fish until I don’t.” Most of us would rather delay the “until I don’t” for as long as possible.

A kiss of thanks for this 48-pounder

As I write this, my gaze drifts to the Kettleson Library windows. (My favorite library anywhere, and damn, what a view.) It’s a misty day in Sitka, with a white shroud settled over the water and the kind of rain that doesn’t seem so insistent as it’s falling, but your clothes feel like they’re fresh out of the washing machine by the time you finally make it back to the harbor. A troller just pulled out of Crescent Harbor, heading for their destined hot spot. The exodus has started, the harbors that so recently swelled to capacity thinning out just as quickly.

Us, we’ll get groceries this evening, fill up the water tank, and mosey out of town tomorrow. You can follow our weather here, by clicking on the giant purple section in the middle. I can’t tell you where we’re going… Fishermen are a closed-mouth bunch, and though the same information eventually filters to all of us, we like to pretend that our destinations are a big mystery. One of Hooked’s friends explained his strategy like this:

For the July opener we always follow this exact plan:

We always head south of town, unless we decide to go north,

or we might go deep, or we might leave early, or we might go late,

and (depending upon where we think everyone else is headed)

we might do the opposite of everyone,

unless we decide to follow them and do the same.

And that pretty much sums up trollers.  Good luck out there, friends, and stay safe.  We’ll check with you on the other side of the opening.

F/V Juanita C at sunset, 11:10 pm, 2007






The View From Sitka: Totem Raising, Part 2

13 04 2011

On October 14, 2006, the stars lined up just right (in the alignment of bad ocean conditions) that we were tied to the dock on the day of a totem raising. The newspaper explained this “Wellbriety” totem pole, going up at the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium’s Mt. Edgecumbe campus, was honoring a process to heal the total person – physical, mental, spiritual and emotional well-being.

Just one year removed from tending to Seattle’s homeless youth, I was still seeing “my kids” nightly in my dreams. The concept of Wellbriety deeply resonated. Before I could over-think it, I’d hopped off the boat and started the 3 mile walk from the harbor to the clinic. Anxious excitement curled in my belly, I was almost running by the end.

More than 300 people had turned out for the event. A steady drizzle of Sitka sunshine fell on children, elders, families. We stood in respectful quiet – not silence, not with all those kids running around – as the ceremony began. Tlingit elders from the Raven and Eagle clans named the pole: Yei eek kwa neix. You are going to get well.

Thick rope guidelines stretched out from the 4000-pound pole. When we took our places, it was clear that the left guideline had many young men, while the one on the right largely consisted of women. An older woman in front of me called, “Can we get some more guys over here?”

I heard a little girl’s voice pipe up from somewhere unseen: “Girls can be strong, too!”  Someone’s raising that kid right, I thought.

Our hands clenched, as if braced for a tug-of-war. But totem poles are stories and stories must be handled with reverence, not the teeth-gritted strain of competition.  In unison, under master carver Wayne Price’s instruction, we began a slow march back.

Master carver Wayne Price. Photo Courtesy of SEARHC

Watching intently, an eagle perched on a nearby telephone pole, and a raven on the clinic roof.  As the pole ascended, the outstretched wings of Raven, carved at the top, caught air for their first time. The eagle began keening, welcoming Raven to the sky.

Seeing Yei eek kwa neix in its entirety, I saw all of my kids’ struggles and my hopes for them. A medicine woman stood at the base, a basket of healing herbs in her hands. Above, a shaman and wolf spirit helper prepared to plunge into the darkness, retrieving those lost in addiction, torment and grief. Then, in a sprawling run free of design, the freedom to reflect and heal in the journey from darkness to light. And there at the top hovered Raven, a gleaming brass disc of the sun held in his beak, guiding us to another way.

You are going to get well.

With the pole solidly in place, people broke apart into celebratory groups. I began a slow walk back to the harbor, footsteps heavy with reflection. I thought about the gratitude and honor I felt to participate in a cultural legacy not my own, the pride of sharing a community where Native culture is not held hostage in a museum, a dusty-shelved shrine to the past, but is a living, breathing, singing, dancing present and future.

I’ve sometimes felt that “Southeastern Alaskan” is its own cultural identity. An evolution of shared connectivity that crosses racial and ethnic lines, forges bonds built of skunk cabbage springs and crowded cruise ship summers, autumns where seasonal folk sweep out as winter winds whoosh in.  And I’ve second-guessed that presumption, scoffing that it’s all too easy for someone of dominant culture to imagine connection when we don’t carry the ancestral scars.

A new friend has gently corrected me. “Your culture includes the Tlingit because you are a Southeastern Alaskan. It includes living among an indigenous peoples, interacting every day. There is value in that.”

I think now about the grace in her statement, and recall the initial explanation of the pole. Roberta Kitka, Chairwoman of the sponsoring Kooteeyaa Project, said, “Wellbriety Kooteeyaa means healing, hope, unity and forgiveness for Tlingit people and anyone who is working on the healing of mind, body and spirit.”

We are going to get well.

Does this ring true for you, sweet reader? Are there places in your life where you’ve questioned your role, wondered if your presence was beneficial or baggage? What does wellness mean for you in your own life, and how do you create it?

Me, I think I’ll keep asking questions, and look to ravens for guidance.

Photo by Joel Brady-Power

[As with all totems, the Wellbriety pole is far more complex than a blog post could ever do justice to, particularly when written by someone engaged in such a brief sliver of the journey. A detailed description of the project, pole, and carver is here. You can also read a powerful essay about this day in Heather Lende’s book, “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: Family, Friendships and Faith in Small-Town Alaska.”  My gratitude to Michael Jenkins of SEARHC for granting permission for photo usage.]





The View From Sitka: Totem Raising, Part 1

10 04 2011

I’ve yet to find anywhere in the world that gives me the same sense of peace as Sitka does. Just pulling into the harbor and stepping onto the dock, my body relaxes bone-marrow deep.  And if I had to pick a single place where that slow down, breathe deep, let go effect is strongest, it would be Totem Park.

Photo by Tele Aadsen

 

Strange to find peace on soil so scarred by grief. This dense Tongass rainforest spooning the sea is the site of the Tlingit/Russian 1804 Battle of Sitka.  Formally known as Sitka National Historical Park, these 113-acres gained national monument status in 1910, in commemoration of that combat.

2010 marked Totem Park’s Centennial.  A year’s worth of ceremonies are concluding with the raising of a new totem. Tommy Joseph, world-renowned carver and Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center Artist-in-Residence, was commissioned to do this project.  A project he would typically give 5-6 months, completed in just over one.

An achievement like this takes serious teamwork.  Tommy describes his policy on drafting volunteer as this: If you drop by the carving shed more than twice, “we’re gonna put a tool in your hand and put you to work.”

I considered that. Imagined the honor and responsibility of such a task. And I marveled at Tommy’s casually inclusive attitude, wondering: Would it truly be “okay” for a white person – like me – to participate in such sacred creation?

As a liberal arts graduate and former social worker, I know the weight of my invisible duffle bag of white privilege, luggage that accompanies me everywhere. I’m not one of those fishermen who believe treaty rights are a personal attack, and have walked away from dock conversations with those who do. I have no patience for white “shamans,” and feel uneasy with the appropriation of cultural traditions commodified as “cool.”

I tried to imagine what it would be like to shave away bits of cedar, to witness the story within that particular log revealing itself, a friend who exposes more of their true self as time and trust build. And I wondered, how would Tlingit carvers feel, working alongside hands that wore the same skin as those who chopped down totems, stole homeland and history, stole the very words from their ancestors’ mouths?

In the Carving Shed, May 2008 (Photo by Tele Aadsen)

These are valid questions.  But perhaps they’re more reflective of my own personal process. Sitkans are about getting the work done, and bringing a totem to life requires many workers.

Whenever a pole raising is scheduled, the Sitka Sentinel prints a call for volunteers, reminders that “we need hundreds of people to get this up.”  While I’m hanging back uncertain, questioning my place, Tommy Joseph and other cultural healers are waving their arms in exasperated invitation. “C’mon, we can’t do this alone!”

Because – as Sitkans have taught me – if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a town to raise a totem.

[Raven Radio has a great interview with Tommy and the volunteers, which you can hear/read here. Though the pole was scheduled to go up on April 9, it has been delayed by the potential government shutdown.]





Remembering Senator Eliason

6 04 2011

One of my early boat kid memories is of my parents pointing out the sleek schooner-troller Karmon Dee fishing alongside us on the drag.  “That’s Senator Eliason’s boat.”

I still remember the new understanding born in my brain that day. Politicians could represent their communities, take action for what they believed in, while simultaneously existing as “real” people.  They could even be someone I might pass on the dock – a salmon-scented, broken-bodied, diesel-fingered fisherman devoted to the same livelihood as my family.

And devoted he was. Senator Eliason passed away on April 3, 2011, after a lifetime of political service that demonstrated his unwavering commitment to Alaska’s wild salmon stocks.  He modeled a long-sighted vision of resource utilization and conservation, a balance of harvester and protector that we’d do well to study.  You can read/hear an eloquent remembrance of his life here, thanks to Raven Radio’s reporting.

My heart goes out to his family and friends. Safe seas and good fishin’ to you, Sir.

 

 








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