By Barclay Kopchak
Food from the sea, harvested and prepared with the skills and insights gained over thousands of years, sustains the Chugach people and their culture.
1. What is culturally important about the sea?
2. How do the seasons and weather affect the harvest of foods from the sea?
3. How are successful harvest and preparation techniques shared?
“We put up quite a bit of fish when I was growing up. My umma and uppa would bring in fish to be dried. It would be like one big assembly line – all their daughters and all the grandkids helping out. My mom and aunts would be down at the beach helping Umma and Uppa cut up the fish and gut them. All the kids would wade into the water and rinse off the fish. Then we would carry them up to Umma and Uppa’s house and work on the porch. We would have to strip the fish and put them in the brine. Then we would string them and hang them to dry. It was just one big family assembly line. When the salmon was dry we would have fish all winter long.” - Kathryn (Taca) Kompkoff (We are the land, we are the sea p.56)
During a climatic warming period approximately 10,000 years ago the coastal glaciers of South Central Alaska retreated and indigenous peoples from the north moved into this newly ice-free zone. The land itself was crammed with steep mountains, densely forested, and had relatively few large animals available for food. By necessity the Sugpiat and Eyak people turned to the sea for their livelihood and developed a coastal subsistence lifestyle. The natural resources of the land and especially the ocean allowed the Sugpiat and Eyak to not only sustain themselves through the long winters but harvest enough surplus food and goods to become part of the extensive Alaskan Native trade network.
The Sugpiat and the Eyak people developed efficient techniques and skills to hunt and preserve sea mammals, catch and dry fish, and identify and process the many foods of the intertidal zone, one of the most densely populated habitats in the world. As the saying goes, “When the tide is out, the table is set.” It is important to teach the younger generation what this rich habitat has to offer and how Alaska’s Native peoples have integrated these foods into their traditional diet.
Insights gained through the intergenerational sharing of knowledge, where to hunt seal, when to harvest octopus, and how to ferment fish eggs are the result of careful observation and experimentation. The importance of conservation, don’t harvest more than you need and beware of waste are well-honed cultural directives on how to maintain a healthy relationship with the environment. The details of how to braid seal intestines or singe the hair from a sea lion flipper are both important and practical. All of this is part of traditional ecological knowledge, the life sustaining science of place.
In this heritage kit students learn to recognize and appreciate this ‘store outside their door’ and the traditional subsistence lifestyle of which it is a part. Through interviews and interactions with Elders students learn to appreciate how local Native culture is tied to the sea. Students investigate tides and their cycles and explore the micro habitats of tidal edibles on frequent field trips. They observe how to harvest and process various foods from the sea and then try it themselves. They clean and prepare the foods and share the ocean bounty. Students learn how to set the table.
Pat Norman demonstrating how to cut up a seal
THIS IS INDIAN COUNTRY With Billy Frank Jr.: "Native Alaska & The Big Spill"
Prince William Sound Herring
How to catch a Razor Clam
The Hunt for Elusive Octopus | Alaska: The Last Frontier
Pam Smith, Cordova, Food from the Sea
Leona Olsen, Cordova, Food from the Sea
Michael Hibbets, Seward, Octopus and Crab
• Climate Change
• Food From the Sea
• Honoring Eyak
• Our Water
• Traditional Food & Recipes
• Traditional Housing & Shelters
• Traditional Place Names
• Traditional Transportation
• Traditional Weather Forecasting
• Additional Heritage Kits
1840 Bragaw Street, Suite 110
Anchorage, Alaska 99508-3463
ANA Grant Number S356A150066