Sitka Tribe of Alaska and partners celebrate fifth annual Sitka Herring Camp

A Mount Edgecumbe High School student examines herring gills under a microscope. (Photo courtesy of Bethany Goodrich)

Students in Sitka schools have been diving deep into the study of herring during Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s fifth annual Herring Camp. The Herring Camp programming was centered on the cultural and ecological importance of Pacific herring and timed to coincide with the arrival of herring in Sitka Sound. Sitka Tribe of Alaska staff spent a week at both Mount Edgecumbe High School and Sitka High School studying herring anatomy and collecting oceanographic data. Sitka Tribe of Alaska staff also examined marine food webs with Blatchley Middle School and will present a “Herring in the Hallways” microscopy event at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School next week.

A Sitka High School student collects plankton aboard a Sitka Herring Camp research cruise. (Photo courtesy of Tara Racine)

Students and teachers have responded positively to the herring programming. Chohla Moll, MEHS science teacher said, “The STA Herring Camp curriculum is an amazing integration of science and traditional ecological knowledge. It illustrates to students the strong connection between the knowledge of their elders and the scientific information they are learning in school.”

The purpose of Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s Herring Camp is to invest in youth skills, providing students with hands-on science experience and exposing them to Alaska-based career opportunities. Kyle Rosendale, Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s Fisheries Biologist said, “We hope students will gain a greater understanding and appreciation of their local ecosystems and be motivated to become the next generation of stewards for important cultural and ecological resources like herring.”

Students who participated in the Herring Camp learned scientific techniques, gained exposure to traditional ecological knowledge, and connected with Sitka professionals working on natural resource management. The week-long high school camp sessions included dissection labs, discussions on cultural connections and herring ecology, oceanographic and morphometric data analysis, an introduction to fisheries management techniques, career path discussions, and a research cruise during which students applied a variety of field observation and data collection skills.

Herring provide a rich topic of study for local students. Sitka Sound is the last remaining population of herring in the state that consistently provides a significant subsistence herring egg harvest. Sitka herring eggs are shared widely throughout Alaska. Herring are a forage fish and a critical part of the marine food web, providing food for other important species such as lingcod, coho salmon, king salmon, halibut, sea lions and humpback whales. Coastal archeologist Iain McKechnie called herring the “central node of the marine ecosystem”, adding “they aren’t the base, they aren’t the top, but they are the thing through which everything else flows.

Herring Camp (aka, Yaa Khusgé Yaaw Woogoo, or Knowledge of Herring Camp) was started in 2014 and was originally held at Sitka National Historical Park. Now in its fifth year, the Herring Camp has grown to reach classrooms in four local schools and is made possible through collaboration with MEHS, the Sitka School District, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, the US Forest Service, the National Park Service, the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka Campus, the Sitka Conservation Society, the Sitka Sound Science Center, and Allen Marine. Rosendale explains, “Collaboration is absolutely critical to the success of Herring Camp; we couldn’t do it without our collaborators, all of whom have made important contributions to herring outreach and education in Sitka.”

Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s work with Blatchley students was also a part of another community collaboration on herring and food webs. In addition to working with Sitka Tribe of Alaska staff, BMS science teacher Stacy Golden also planned lessons with Charlie Skulkta, Jr., St. Lazaria National Wildlife Refuge, the Alaska Raptor Center, and a boat trip to St. Lazaria.

Financial support for this initiative was generously provided the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Alaska Conservation Foundation.

This year’s camp is held in loving memory of Michelle Ridgeway of Oceanus Alaska. Michelle was a passionate scientist and youth educator. She helped get the Herring Camp off the ground in 2014 and was an integral part of the camp every year until her passing in January of 2018. Her creativity and enthusiasm are deeply missed.

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SEARHC Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital patients now have traditional food options

A bowl from venison stew served at the Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital cafeteria (Photos courtesy of SEARHC)

As part of the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital’s (MEH) overarching goal to provide the best care possible to individuals receiving medical care at MEH, the Hospital Nutrition staff, in partnership with food service contractor NMS, recently began making traditional food options available to inpatients.

NMS Chef Manager Lexie Smith holds deer hind quarters before preparing them for Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital patients as part of the hospital’s new traditional food options

Providing care means more than traditional medicine, it means comforting those that are not feeling well. One way Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital Nutrition staff thought they could provide additional comfort that was to add traditional foods such as local game, seafood, plants, and berries to the inpatient menu that feel like comfort food. However, adding traditional foods to the hospital’s menu required coordination with more than one Alaska State agency, including the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Fish and Game.

Undaunted by the task and motivated by the inevitable outcome, the MEH Nutrition team set out to develop a policy that would satisfy the state and SEARHC. The Traditional Foods Policy they created took quite a while to finalize, but resulted in a system that now allows Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital to accept donations of locally harvested meat, seafood, vegetables, and berries to be used exclusively for inpatient meals.

“As a team, we truly believe that the food we serve, and the hospitality we provide aid in the healing process. NMS is proud to prepare traditional foods that bring comfort to Mt. Edgecumbe patients, and we are committed to doing so,” said Lexie Smith, NMS Chef Manager at Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital. “The menu is meant to engage our guests, honor tradition, and respect the land. The venison stew, in particular, is a recipe calling for fresh vegetables, herbs, and Sitka venison (as supplies are available). The stew is a popular menu option that many guests relate to and feel comforted by. Our Traditional Foods Policy allows the public to make donations of indigenous foods as long as it has been properly handled,” she added.

“This program is a win-win, great for the health of patients and great for community members who want to donate and be part of systems that emphasize living sustainably off the land and sea,” SEARHC Health Promotion Director Martha Pearson said.

For now, every Friday the MEH “Chef Special” for patients is venison stew. Ideally, however, if MEH were to receive donations of other items like fish, herring eggs, beach asparagus, fiddleheads, berries, reindeer, moose, etc. the Nutrition staff could incorporate those into the menu as well. They could also employ traditional methods of preserving. The hospital nutrition staff would very much like to see items such as local jams and pickles, herring egg salad, bone broths, and smoked fish on the patient menu in the future.

“Patient-centered medical care is a critical component of the way we deliver healthcare at SEARHC. Our Traditional Foods policy is an example of that and an enhancement to our vision of promoting a healthy balance of mind, body, and spirit,” SEARHC President/CEO Charles Clement said. “We are excited to explore ways to demonstrate our appreciation of the area and the local flavor in these offerings and are of course proud to be part of the future of healthcare delivery in the region.”

Additional information regarding traditional foods that may be donated and which are prohibited can be found online at http://dec.alaska.gov/eh/fss/Food/Traditional_Foods.html and reviewing the links under the “Requirements” section near the top of the page.

Individuals that have questions about donating traditional foods to Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital can contact NMS Food Service and Catering General Manager David Alexander at (907) 966-8325 or david.alexander@nmsusa.com, or NMS Chef Manager Lexie Smith at (907) 966-8470 or lexie.smith@nmsusa.com.

• Juneau Empire spotlights harvest of Tlingít potatoes

(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, holds a Tlingít potato next to some borage plant flowers.

(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, holds a Tlingít potato next to some borage plant flowers.

The Juneau Empire on Monday (click here) ran a nice photo package of a sustainable harvest camp at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau that was hosted by the 4-H program run by UAF Cooperative Extension Service and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. The photos feature several children harvesting “Maria’s Potatoes,” a type of Tlingít potato grown from seed potatoes that originally came from deceased Tlingít elder Maria Miller’s garden in Klukwan. These fingerling potatoes do well in Southeast Alaska’s rainy climate and have been around for hundreds of years. The story link above has a link to an audio slideshow by Juneau Empire photographer Michael Penn. The slideshow is worth watching.

By the way, click here to read more about the Tlingít potato posted on the Sitka Local Foods Network site about three weeks ago. Elizabeth Kunibe did want to clarify that in the link to the Chilkat Valley News story she is misquoted so it appears that she “discovered” the Ozette potato (another Native American variety). She said she is not the discoverer.

Kunibe also said the Tlingít potatoes can be sold, but for food only and not for seed. Some of them contain potato viruses, transmitted by vectors, that can affect the soil and other varieties of potatoes. She said when people buy seed potatoes, they need to make sure they have “clean seed” or “virus-free seed” before they plant. She said potato viruses do not affect humans who eat the potatoes, but we need to use clean seed to keep the viruses from destroying crops (like what happened in the Irish potato famine). She said the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, which has offices in Sitka and Juneau, may have more information on how to find virus-free seed potatoes.

Kunibe, who made a presentation on Tlingít potatoes and traditional gardening in Sitka last year, is hoping to schedule another trip to Sitka for a future presentation. Kunibe also wanted share this link from the USDA Agricultural Research Service about newly discovered nutritional benefits of potatoes, especially in regards to phytochemicals and cancer prevention.