APRIL 1998

APRIL 1998 FULL ISSUE

SUBSISTENCE SURVIVAL: ALASKA NATIVES DEFEND TRADITIONAL WAYS OF LIFE

By KATHLEEN MENKE

Our people have been doing this for hundreds of years," says Marilyn Wilson, a Tlingit woman of the Eagle moiety from Haines, Alaska. Wilson and members of her family use their dipnets to gather truck­loads of small, smelt-like fish, commonly called hooligan, from the nearby Chilkoot River. Hooligan are the first subsistence fish of the season, returning to local rivers each year in early May.  

Several days later along the banks of the Chilkat River, Marilyn stirs a vat of boiling water filled with hundreds of the properly fermented fish, breaking up the flesh and bones and releasing a rich oil that after a few hours rises to the surface.  Family and clan members skim the clear oil off the surface and ladle it into jars for preservation and use throughout the year as a nutritional additive and as flavoring for other subsistence foods. They send jars of preserved oil to other family members as gifts, and trade them for other subsistence foods such as seal oil or dried seaweed.

Traditional ceremonies usually accompany the harvest, along with food, song, dance, and stories. The hooligan harvest in Haines is followed throughout the season by harvests of Chinook, sockeye, coho, pinks, and chum salmon.  For Alaskan natives, maintaining subsistence resources and their rights to gather them during traditional times, in traditional ways, and in sufficient amounts to support their families, is part of what some Natives refer to as a "lifeway," a  complex set of interrelationship between themselves and the land that is inseparable from their culture.

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Paul Koberstein