There was an interesting article in Wednesday’s edition of the Juneau Empire about the revival of a Tlingít potato that was a staple in Tlingít gardens for hundreds of years (Click here to read the Juneau Empire article by Kimberly Marquis).
Tlingít and Haida gardeners grew their own vegetables more than 200 years ago, and potatoes were one of their most important crops. In an article in the Winter 2008/2009 newsletter for Alaska EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), University of Alaska Southeast social science/anthropology student Elizabeth Kunibe said residents of many Southeast Alaska villages planted gardens of root vegetables — such as potatoes, rutabagas and parsnips — on neighboring islands in the spring while they headed to their fish camps. They harvested them when they returned home in the fall (Click here to read the article on Pages 4-5).
Kunibe said many of these gardens disappeared over the past century, especially as the U.S. Forest Service parceled out some islands for homesteads or fox farms. She said Tlingíts in Sitka lost their island gardens in World War II when the government forbade private water travel. The increasing availability of imported food and other disruptions, such as tuberculosis outbreaks, also sped up the demise of the individual and community gardens found in many Native villages. Kunibe said in 1952 they grew 4,000 pounds of potatoes in Angoon, but the gardens disappeared and Angoon was without a garden until the last year or two when there was a movement to start a community garden.
The Tlingít potato is a fingerling potato with a yellowish skin and somewhat lumpy shape. They do not do well mashed or fried, but taste great in soups or roasted, said Merrill Jensen, manager of the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau where they expect to harvest about 1,500 pounds of the potatoes next month. The Tlingít potato also is known as “Maria’s Potato” in honor of the late Maria (Ackerman) Miller, the Haines woman who in 1994 gave Juneau’s Richard and Nora Dauenhauer their first seed potatoes. Miller, who died in 1995, told the Dauenhauers the potatoes had been in her family for more than 100 years.
According to Kunibe, who sent samples to a plant geneticist for DNA testing, the Tlingít potato is a distinct variety among potatoes, but they are very similar to two other varieties of Native American potatoes — the Ozette or Makah potato from Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula and the Haida potato from Kasaan on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. In a June 7, 2007, article in the Chilkat Valley News (click here to read it), Kunibe said potatoes arrived in Southeast Alaska aboard Spanish ships as early as 1765. She said the three Native American varieties are closely related to potatoes grown in Mexico and the Chilean coastal areas. (Most modern domestic potatoes are descended from species native to the Peruvian Andes.) The Tlingít potato grows well in our rainy climate and keeps a long time in a root cellar. Kunibe said the potatoes became a prime Southeast Alaska commerce item in the early 1800s and the Russian fleets contracted with the Tlingít and Haida tribes to grow them.
Bob Gorman, a master gardener who works with the Sitka office of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, said off the top of his head he didn’t know of anybody growing the potato in Sitka right now, though he did suggest several longtime gardeners who might know if people grew them in the past. Maybelle Filler, a master gardener who works with the SEARHC Diabetes Program, said they are looking to bring some seed potatoes to give to Sitka gardeners, but she had been told the potatoes can’t be sold at local markets (though they can be given away).