Subsistence gatherer Helen Watkins' - the photos to her right are her relatives including her mother, grandmother and an image of the cabin off of Mud Bay Road in Haines, Alaska where she would spend the Summers gathering the abundant variety of indigenous foods

Helen Watkins’ presentation on subsistence foods of the Tlingit in Southeast Alaska was a real hit which included information on gathering and preservation, a raffle for a number of jarred items including soapberries, smoked salmon, blueberry jelly, etc., AND a fantastic luncheon.  This presentation was held at the University of Alaska Glacier View Room and was part of “The Art of Place” cultural series sponsored by the UAS coordinated by UAS English Professor, Ernestine Hayes.

Kathy Ruddy tries the fluffy, whipped soap berries

An essay from the Tundra Times, the following on Native Subsistence Rights was the handout at her presentation:


Central to the issue of Native Rights is the fact that Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures exist today as viable human communities.  these cultures have not disappeared into history textbooks or museum shelves.  each culture is composed of human beings who share attitudes, values and social patterns giving meaning and identity to the lives of individual members. food and its acquisition are involved by a culture’s value system and are considered important to a group’s survival.  consideration of Native Rights as they concern wild vegetable foods requires that one respect the importance of wild foods to the cultural survival of Native groups.

Approximately 50+ folks showed up for the presentation; this image shows a small percentage of the eager and hungry audience

Attitudes, values and social patterns affect which foods are considered desirable, how the foods are prepared and in what manner served.  native cultures are functioning communities:  the importance of indigenous foods can be witnessed at Indian parties, celebrations,funeral gatherings, ANB and ANS social functions as well as in individual homes throughout Southeast.  some of the vegetables included in this publication are important foods for Native people of Southeast:  these foods contribute to cultural identity and traditions..

A stock of jarred goodies include soap berries, beach asparagus, smoked salmon, blueberry, raspberry and nagoonberry jams, to name a few

In the past, indigenous foods of Southeast Alaska provide for more than cultural identity:  the foods made possible the vigorous existence of Native people.  The journals, diaries and logs of explorers, traders and missionaries who first encountered the Native people of Southeast reported the people as being healthy and robust.  The people were also noted for their intelligence in trading and their finely crafted material possessions.  The Native diet provided for basic nutritional needs through utilization of indigenous plant and animal foods.  Studies by social scientist, conducted primarily during this century, demonstrate an extensive knowledge of plant and animal resources by Native people.  From their knowledge of the natural environment, Native people were able to effectively provide themselves with the necessary requirements for bodily growth, maintenance and well-being.

Photographs of Native raw or prepared foods

Much of the original knowledge concerning Native plant foods seems to have disappeared.  The loss is directly attributable to the take-over of the land by non-Natives.  As contact between Native and non-native cultures increased, change was inevitable; the Natives’ control of the environment was slowly taken away.  Some changes were beneficial and offered material improvements.  but for the most part, new changes weakened established cultural patterns, creating an unhealthy stress for Native people.  In the transition, old knowledge of how to live off available plant resources became less and less important to survival.  Learning how to adapt to a new economic system became more important for individuals and groups.  Increased exposure to new technology, processed foods, alcohol and commercial goods created new pressures, changing aspects of Native culture along with its relationship to the natural environment.

Based on the decline in everyday use of wild vegetables and in the few species still collected, knowledge of plant foods seems to have suffered in the process.  It is, however, the remaining knowledge and use of plant food which is important to contemporary Native identity.  Some old patterns of plant food utilization have outlived the onslaught of westernization.

Micaela Kunz gives Helen a hug after winning a jar of precious smoked salmon in the raffle

Recognizing the contribution of Native food to cultural identity involves a concern for acquiring that food.  Ownership of land affects how the land will be used.  The Native concept of land ownership differers from that of the non-native.  Native ownership is collective seasonally utilized and concerned directly with land use as a primary food or materials resource, while non-native ownership tends to be private, irrespective of season and to view land in terms of monetary value.  Notice the difference in the following two hypothetical statements by a Native person and non-native person speaking about land at Elfin Cove.

Native:  “Elfin Cove is where my family goes for summer camp.  We collect our food there:  fish, berries and roots that we need for winter.”

Non-native:  “I own five acres of beach front property in elfin cove right beside a small salmon stream.  I am going to build some rental units there.”

Both individuals have a sense of ownership over the land and both will use the land but in different ways.  These two types of ownership have not proven able to co-exist to the mutual benefit of both cultures.  The non-native culture has developed a stronger political and economic base and so largely controls land use.  Consequently, Native use of the land as food resource has suffered; the availability of indigenous food has been limited.

Helen creates a subsistence salad with the help of an audience volunteer

The manner in which Native people traditionally practiced gardening further reflects their concept of land ownership.  Large patches of fireweed and red clover were cleared of debris and harvested carefully so as to allow for regrowth during the following season.  These plots, found throughout the tribe’s territory were the property of either the entire village, a specific clan or perhaps an individual household.

Native rights, as considered in this publication, involve recognizing the importance of Native foods to cultural survival and honoring Native land use patterns.  These patterns reflect Native rights to acquire indigenous foods.  Respect should be based on an understanding and acceptance of the values and traditions of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska.  Respectful attitudes should be extended into respectful behavior.  the person who intends to use this material to teach should seek the approval and guidance of Native elders before exposing the food resources of an area.  too often native people have lost a valuable food resources of an area.  Too often Native people have lost a valuable food resource because of thoughtless non-native ownership.  Wild vegetables are a sensitive issue with many Native people because of the threat to an aspect of their cultural heritage.  Respect for Native rights means:  1) being sensitive to Native culture; 2) accepting the differences, and 3) seeking approval and guidance from Native elders in the community.

I only ask of you that if you do pick from the land, you do so with the thought of us:  the Alaskan Natives who live off the land.  Thank you.”

—   Helen Abbott Watkins

The cross-cultural explosion of a fantastic feast!

Thank you, Helen for keeping up the traditions of our people, sharing your knowledge, sharing your hospitality and sharing your food!  We appreciate every bit and bite!