Assimilate This! The Politics of Tlingit Food

Herring Eggs

By Frank Hopper

I smell the subtle, nutty aroma of herring eggs boiling on the stove as I lay on the couch watching Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. It is 1968 and my mom, my Aunt Judy, and my Aunt Amy sit at the kitchen table talking and giggling. Dried salmon also boils on the stove in a separate pot, and when my mom lifts the lid my mouth begins watering.

My mother calls me to the kitchen and I turn off the TV. My plate is filled with herring eggs, steaming hot, boiled potatoes and dry fish. We sit around the table and dip pieces of dry fish into Wesson Oil, which stands in for seal grease, the traditional dip for dry fish that’s hard to get in Seattle.

I pick up a stick of herring eggs and bite into the fluffy whiteness. The eggs crunch like pieces of gristle from a chicken bone, only they feel more like tiny pearls that burst when I bite down.

My mom and aunts gossip and occasionally cover their mouths to giggle. The melody of their laughter reminds me of water rushing through a brook or the song of some happy little bird on a spring day.

I pick the hemlock needles and twigs from my herring eggs. Up in Alaska, my ancestors, the Tlingit, knew just when the herring were going to spawn. Just prior to that, they would anchor hemlock branches in the water along the coast. After the herring deposited their eggs on them, the branches were harvested and dried for the winter. To eat the eggs the branches were broken into smaller pieces and boiled twigs and all.

The techniques for preserving traditional Tlingit food have been handed down for nearly ten thousand years. And ten-year-old boys like me have been carefully picking the hemlock needles out of our herring eggs for just as long.

I imagine I’m in Alaska feasting with my tribe. My Aunt Amy gets off a one-liner and my mom and Aunt Judy burst out giggling. The moment becomes timeless; it could just as easily have happened a thousand years ago as today.

We Tlingit have always lived from the bounty of the coastal waters and forests of Southeast Alaska. We thrived for thousands of years by living in harmony with the ecosystem, harvesting fish, hunting, and gathering berries. The land fed us, clothed us, and bound us together as a people.

Now, in 1968, my mother and aunts are separated from their homeland. Each have taken non-Tlingit husbands who brought them to the big city, to Seattle, where they are meant to assimilate. But it’s difficult to assimilate when you look so different from everyone else. So my mom and her sisters keep to themselves and only relax when they are with each other. The unspoken hope is that their half-Tlingit children like me will have an easier time assimilating.

In three years, in 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act will be signed into law by Richard Nixon. My mom and her sisters are excited by all the talk of money coming from the government. They’re finally going to pay us back for taking our land, we thought. They’re even going to give some of the land back and we’re all going to be rich.

None of us knew then that the true aim of ANCSA was to rob the Native people of Alaska of their land, their fishing and hunting rights, and their very way of life.

The provisions of ANCSA required the establishment of twelve regional corporations and about 200 village corporations. The Natives were each given 100 shares of stock in their respective regional corporation and in the village corporations where they lived. Nearly a billion dollars were divided among the twelve corporations and village corporations and about 44 million acres of land were split up between them.

In this way we Tlingit were forced into a relationship with the land that was completely foreign to us. We were told the land must be developed and profited from. Its use must be controlled by Native executives wearing business suits who work in office buildings.

Judge Thomas R. Berger in his book, Village Journey – The Report of the Alaska Native Review Commission, explains the reasons behind this:

Congress wanted to bring the Alaska Natives into the mainstream of American life. Senator Henry Jackson, the principal architect of ANCSA, and, indeed, all of the other key figures in Congress, opposed the extension of the Indian reservation system to Alaska. There was opposition, too, among Alaska Natives to the idea of reservations. Congress also rejected the possibility that tribal governments might be used to implement the settlement. Douglas Jones, assistant to Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska when ANCSA passed, now a professor at Ohio State University, testified that ANCSA was a form of “social engineering.” William Van Ness, staff assistant to Senator Jackson at this period, also asserted that “The act was … a very radical effort at social engineering and it was done on a very, very calculated basis.”

So assimilation was the overt drive behind this half-baked attempt to turn us into capitalist shareholders. We were given capital and the corporate mechanism and set loose in the free market world to make our way.

But we Tlingit are not capitalists. Our culture is based on sharing and working together and providing for all. In his book, Against Culture: Development, Politics, and Religion in Indian Alaska, anthropologist Kirk Dombrowski states:

In villages where older people have less access to fish because they can no longer perform the labor of harvesting, elders will offer the use of their smokehouses and aid in processing fish caught by younger individuals in exchange for a share of the catch. The elders will wake frequently in the night to tend the smokehouse fire, curing all the fish and keeping for themselves a portion. …Many of the village’s poorer families derive significant local prestige from their ability to provide traditional foods to those who spend little time hunting or fishing, but who nonetheless choose to demonstrate to the community their identity and native values.

So even the oldest and poorest in the community are included in our way of life. Everyone participates, everyone benefits. Judge Berger gives this clear overview of our way of life in Village Journey:

The traditional economy is based on subsistence activities that require special skills and a complex understanding of the local environment that enables the people to live directly from the land. It also involves cultural values and attitudes: mutual respect, sharing, resourcefulness, and an understanding that is both conscious and mystical of the intricate interrelationships that link humans, animals, and the environment. To this array of activities and deeply embedded values, we attach the word “subsistence,” recognizing that no one word can adequately encompass all these related concepts.

So into this ancient way of life that provided physical, emotional, and spiritual food to our people for thousands of years was shot the missile of capitalism called ANCSA, intended overtly to cure us of our backward ways and deliver us into the modern arena.

But closer inspection reveals the true, covert agenda of the government and the private corporations they represent. ANCSA took away our aboriginal claims on hunting and fishing. The land that was given back to us was chosen for its potential for profitable development, instead of for maintenance of our ancient “subsistence” way of life. We were given forests rich with old growth timber that we were expected to clear-cut and profit from. Coastal areas and streams important to our old way of life were not included.

The intent is now clear. We were expected to extract the non-renewable resources from the land were given, the minerals and the timber. That was the true goal of ANCSA, to get the non-renewable wealth from the land by giving it to the Natives because of their exemption from Federal conservation laws, then to trick them into selling those resources to private industry. Who cares what happens to the Natives after that? Private corporations will get what they want regardless.

Currently, Sealaska, the regional corporation of which I am a shareholder, is finalizing a land legislation package that will end up adding an additional 70,000 acres of dense, highly profitable rainforest to the corporation’s holdings. Once this land is transferred, Sealaska will begin clear-cutting. They’ve already clear-cut over 40% of the nearly 300,000 acres we were originally given back in the 70s.

Much of that money went to pay hefty compensation packages to members of the Board of Directors. My own cousin did very well as an executive for Sealaska during the clear-cutting heyday of the 1980s. But ordinary shareholders like me receive only a few hundred dollars a year in dividends. Many of us die as paupers, unable even to pay for our own funerals, while board members fly all over the world to conferences on company expense accounts.

But back in 1968, eating herring eggs and dry fish with my mom and aunts, I didn’t think about anything except how good the food tasted, and how good it felt to be nourished by a culture thousands of years old. The first thing babies learn is that food is love. At least that’s what this baby learned. And as I listened to my mom giggle with her sisters, I knew it was a lesson I’d never forget. Assimilate this, baby.

Gunalchéesh áyá x’axwdataaní

About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
This entry was posted in Decolonization, Environment, Village Resilience. Bookmark the permalink.

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