Faces Behind the Findings: Hoonah Students Discuss Environmental Change with Elders

Raino Hill and his crew of nephews pose for a quick picture before heading out to pull crab pots outside Hoonah. The boys are visiting their uncle to learn skills in coastal harvesting

In October, Capital City Weekly’s Mary Catharine Martin reported on an impressive region-wide effort to document and understand the effects of environmental change across Southeast Alaska. This study is facilitated by the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, Juneau Forestry Sciences Laboratory and Sitka Conservation Society in collaboration with the rural communities of Hoonah, Yakutat, Angoon, Kake, Klawock and Kasaan. The multi-faceted project combines social and ecological research to study the impact of environmental change on coastal subsistence practices.

Alaska Skaflestad and Randy Roberts are the Hoonah high school students involved in the coastal subsistence survey project, having ten discussions with resource users about coastal subsistence in their home community.

For this follow up piece, the Hoonah Indian Association invited me to join a discussion between project participants to better understand an additional goal of the study— engaging citizens in scientific research. In each participating village, organizers selected one or two high school students to have 10 conversations with resource users, including community elders. In this way, the project created formal opportunities to engage the young and old in conversation about something all agree is important— the food we eat.

Randy Roberts and Alaska Skaflestad are the two Hoonah high school students participating in the study. Their first conversation was with community elder Raino Hill.

Hill is clearly no novice when it comes to subsistence. A tired old dip-net hangs above his shed. He greets us dressed in a pair of Grundens and invites us inside to chat over the humming of freezers. We have 30 minutes, because Hill plans to take a few of his nephews out on the water to pull crab pots before last light. He greets us with an enthusiastic, “Come on in and sit down!”

After introductions and general questions, Skaflestad and Roberts jump into the meat (sometimes literal) of the discussion.

RR: What shoreline-related questions are you interested in?

RH: I have concerns about cruise ships. I found a fish that I have in the freezer. It was on the water gulping air on the surface and I grabbed it. It’s weird, almost like a catfish looking thing with yellowish whiskers. It’s something I’ve never seen here in all these years. I thought when I grabbed it, did this come from some bilge water off a cruise ship?

Skaflestad and Roberts take notes and begin asking in-depth questions.

AS: Do you harvest thimbleberries?

RH: Nope, I eat them too fast to harvest any!

AS: Halibut?

RH: Yup.

AS: What slope do you harvest on? In what type of sediments—muddy, sandy, rocky? What mode of transportation do you typically use to access these locations?

Hill answers. The students record.

RR: Do you have concerns for this resource?

RH: The same thing goes for halibut and salmon, just management concerns. Hopefully we can get the checks and balances between subsistence, sport, and commercial fishing settled – with the halibut especially – and all get together and don’t argue about it and actually focus on the resources and not just industry.

The list of subsistence resources is extensive. From spruce tips to skunk cabbage, butter clams to gumboots, and seals to nettles, Skaflestad and Roberts ask Hill about every subsistence resource I can think of.

AS: Do you harvest any clams not listed?

RH: Pink Neck.

AS: Pink Neck?

RH: They are kind of like a razor clams, but flatter with a softer shell. They are very site specific and if I told you where I found them …well, we’d have to stop the discussion and my friends would kill me! There are quite a few sites around, same terrain. You are looking for sand and exposed beaches.

Apparently, there’s always more to learn. The survey listed plenty of resources that piqued the group’s curiosity.

RH: You know what would be interesting? To have a class. I’m 62, I’ve done it all around here but I don’t know what a lot of it is. I’m not stupid, it’s just not something I’ve done. Like mushrooms. I love mushrooms! But, I won’t eat them here because I don’t know what’s what.

AS: Oh, I love shaggy mane mushrooms here, and chicken of the woods. I’d love to have a class too!

Skaflestad and Roberts dive back into the details of each resource. These insights are important. This is the data that the Juneau Forestry Sciences Laboratory is crunching to build a baseline to understand how environmental change is affecting Southeast Alaskan rural communities. But the significance of the project spans beyond the recorded data. This survey is creating a space for spin-off conversations that connect elders and youth with the practice of harvesting. It turns out that one of the group’s key concerns has little to do with environmental change.

RH: A lot of elders are passing away and the subsistence lifestyle is changing. Like with the seagulls eggs here for example, there is less and less people who are doing it in the first place. The culture itself is kind of dying. A lot of that stuff that used to be more pronounced in the culture, with subsistence, is kind of going by the wayside. Like with seal, people are eating less and less seal. There are many changes to the ways of subsistence here and that’s kind of sad.

The erosion of subsistence skills and knowledge is not a new concern for Roberts and Skaflestad. 

AS: The number one concern is not passing down knowledge. We have always been told to pass down knowledge and to always listen to every story and remember them because one day you will need it. Especially in the Native culture, because we technically don’t have a written language, everything was passed down orally and people still practice that in many ways.

A gap exists between the scientific community and the general public. In a time when our communities are facing environmental challenges, the need to close this gap is becoming increasingly urgent. Projects that incorporate community members and prioritize their knowledge and experiences are helping with that. This project not only engages citizens with science but also serves to immerse elders and students in important conversations about a changing world. Elders with decades of experiences and history are sharing their knowledge with the inheritors of this region, the next generation of subsistence users, politicians, land managers, researchers and mentors.

RR: Do you have anything else to add that has not been covered in the conversation?

RH: Yes. What you are doing is good and people need to share more with each other and even start some classes to encourage more harvesting of the different things we don’t all know about. Or, we might know about, but we don’t know what to do with. Spruce tips, fireweed and all that. These are all renewable resources, you know, and let’s get people more into it and make sparks for the younger people. Let’s take it back into the schools.

After the discussion ends, smoked salmon and hugs are exchanged. 

Hill shares a jar of his freshly smoked wild salmon and hugs the Roberts and Skaflestad. He poses for a picture with his crew of nephews who are visiting from as far as Idaho to learn from their uncle about subsistence, harvest and the pride that comes with self-sufficiency. It’s something that with careful management and skill sharing, will hopefully happen in Hoonah indefinitely.

RH: This here is the clan I have been visiting for two weeks that I’m teaching subsistence to. They are good boys, but I am getting tired. A good tired though. We’re headed out to pull crab pots. Show them your smile, boys!

And with that, the conversation ends.

The boys jump into the back of Raino’s truck. They putter off to practice what they preach and they leave Skaflestad, Roberts and me on the curbside. It’s starting to get late and Skaflestad has already rushed here after a full day working at the Chipper Fish restaurant. Randy spent the day working as a dance performer at Icy Strait Point. The two are beat.

“So what’s your drive and motivation for juggling another job, for participating in this research?” I ask.

“I actually think it’s good to know these things,” Skaflestad answers. “Raino did say that our culture is dying and I feel that is true. The only subsistence that young folk really do is deer hunting and fishing and there is so much more we could be doing and it gets the elders happy because they are always saying ‘you need to do this’ but kids our age still don’t. But, something now is starting up, so we are moving forward instead of being in a neutral position. We will make a difference and it’s nice to know we are actually helping. It’s not just one town either, we are helping multiple towns by working together and a lot of people, especially elders, get happiness out of it and happiness is always a good thing!”

This research was funded by the USFS Western Wildland Threat Assessment Center. The researchers hope to next year increase the study’s scope to include communities in the Chugach National Forest as well as Sitka and Juneau