November 25, 2019

Cultural Resiliency on Alaska's Annette Island

Raised garden bed with seedlings

On Annette Island in Southeast Alaska, the Metlakatla Indian Community sought to valorize a culture that once cultivated self-sufficiency within their tribe. 

Metlakatla used a $50,000 Section 4 grant for their “Harvesting Sm’algyax” community garden, which became fully operational in June 2018. 

Resilience on the Reservation 

The grant was used to focus on climate and culture resiliency, sustainability and community-building. There was a belief in the Metlakatla community that the area was totally fishing-based and had no agriculture uses. But there is indeed an agricultural history on Annette Island, where tribal members cultivated their own produce and shared it with one another. Younger members of the community galvanized to bring back that part of history when their tribe planted and harvested to help address their agricultural needs. 

“Looking at the community garden idea, this was an opportunity to bring back that kind of community self-sufficiency and reliance and the green house was necessary because of their changing climate,” says Genelle Winter, Climate & Energy Grant coordinator and Invasive Species Program director for the Metlakatla Indian Community. 

Because of incremental changes to their climate, members could not rely on traditional environmental indicators to determine the correct season for harvesting. Younger members wanted to increase the community’s capacity to grow food sustainably in the face of a changing climate, while honoring that cultural history of community gardening.

Reawakening Agricultural Traditions

Until the 1950s and 1960s tribal members were growing and preserving their own food on Annette Island. Over time, new generations adopted the concept of buying food in a box from their local grocery stores and markets instead of cultivating and harvesting their own produce. 

To maintain their culture and resiliency, the younger generation began to rethink their lives, becoming catalysts for environmentalists in their community. They adopted an environmentalist mentality, wanting to see where their food is coming from and not having to rely on markets to provide their produce. Reviving this once-lost tradition has carved a footprint on Annette Island by encouraging members to adopt this practice of becoming more environmentally aware.

“We are bringing them together to get back to where self-sufficiency was once a thing. Our goal is for them to understand that process and connection,” Winter said.

Harvesting classes were led by an experienced community member. Other members learned the traditional knowledge of the edible plants available to residents, the correct time to harvest and how to preserve the harvest for next year. 

screenshots of vegetables in twitter post

Pictured: Community members donated soil, wheel barriers and other gardening tools. Three years later, sustainability continues to move forward.

Moving Sustainability Forward on Annette Island

“Getting the community to participate was a big challenge. The first year was super slow because members weren’t expecting the project to be successful. There was lack of confidence that it would work. In a community like ours, it can be a challenge to build that trust and confidence,” says Winter. 

The harvesting teacher managed to fill every garden box, sharing photos of each harvest on the community’s Facebook page/group. This got community members excited to see all the amazing crops and plants that were growing – particularly sunflowers. 

Because there isn’t enough daylight to grow sunflowers in this area, residents were amazed that the sunflower flourished in their garden. They used the “three sisters” companion planting method, a native principle adopted from tribes on the East Coast. The unique approach and early success increasing people’s desire to experiment and participate. 

Almost all the food harvested from community plots was donated to the Metlakatla Senior Citizens Program, which administers a once-daily hot meal program. 

“There is already good traction for next year. Community members are already excited to see what they can grow next year. So that concept of sustainability is moving forward,” says Winter.

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