Quinn Aboudara is the community catalyst for Sustainable Southeast Partnership. Image courtesy Kendall Rock, Sustainable Southeast Partnership
Gifts come in many forms, but for Prince of Wales Island (POW) resident Quinn Aboudara there are few things more precious than food he harvests with his own hands. When he returned home to southeast Alaska after serving in the military, one of the last gifts his father gave him before passing on was Tlingit potatoes and the knowledge of how to grow them.
The potato is a small, hardy, delicious fingerling, once cultivated in the region by Tlingit and Haida people. With the cultural disruption that occurred during Euro-American colonization, growing potatoes, as well as other traditional food gathering, became less prevalent. Thanks to Aboudara and many other people, growing Tlingit potatoes is making a resurgence. Aboudara can trace the potatoes he’s currently growing back to his Haida grandmother, who, right after the spring herring egg harvest, planted potato beds on Fish Egg Island near Craig on POW. They’re nutritious and, most importantly, a symbol of the rich Native legacy of Southeast.
For the last five years, Aboudara has worked for Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP) as the Klawock community catalyst. SSP is a network of large and small businesses, tribal governments, conservation groups, and NGOs working and learning together to help sustainable economic development balanced with environmental and social well-being thrive. The organization works on community issues like affordable housing, food security, tourism, and other forms of economic development in rural communities. Sustainable Southeast Partnership’s Program Director Paul Hackenmueller says the SSP network’s power is its people. “It’s about learning and working with people across the region who want to do something good for their community,” he said. “It’s a forum to share different needs, resources, and what is and isn’t working.”
Much of Aboudara’s work focuses on food security. Cultivating and sharing the knowledge of Tlingit potatoes is one of several projects he’s involved in. He also helps create important and empowering jobs for POW residents and conducts fishery research projects to ensure future residents of the island receive the multi-faceted gifts of salmon. One of Aboudara’s goals is to organize the growing of Tlingit potatoes on a large-enough scale that the Klawock Tribe, besides feeding its members, can also support the demand of POW restaurants. He is also helping construct three community salmon smokehouses. His goal is to reclaim ancestral areas in Klawock Inlet and rebuild giant smokehouses that until recent times had fed the tribe for thousands of years. These smokehouses, Aboudara said, will hold 200 salmon at a time and be used to feed people throughout the year.
Growing local in the time of coronavirus
In the time of COVID-19, the work being done by Aboudara and other SSP community catalysts across southeast Alaska has taken on even greater importance. Jennifer Nu, the food security catalyst for SSP, pointed out how vulnerable residents’ food chain is. The region’s food supply is largely reliant on barges and planes—which are delivering less frequently during these uncertain times. Village store’s shelves are becoming increasingly empty. Many people, unable to work due to the current economy, don’t have money to buy what stocked food there is. “Here in southeast Alaska, we have this incredible natural food system. We need to look to the ocean and forest as food sources,” Nu said.
Part of Nu’s job is helping connect people to the traditional food experts in their community to promote cultivating and gathering local foods. From salmon to deer to blueberries to seaweed, the region’s bounty provides the best and healthiest foods on Earth. There are few things richer and more rewarding than having a direct relationship with food on a personal and community level, to which Aboudara will attest. The process of hunting, fishing, gathering, and farming is a transformative experience for a lot of people. Equally important are the bonds that result through sharing experiences, knowledge, and food. Aboudara grew up with a strict harvest formula to which he still adheres—60 percent of what he catches or gathers immediately is shared with the community, 20 percent is kept by his family, and the other 20 percent is reserved for community events like potlatches, weddings, or tragedies. “With COVID-19,” he said, “things are becoming more and more scarce. Our traditional subsistence gathering is way more important this year. I’m into traditional harvesting to provide not just for my family, but the community. The projects I’m working on are another way to decolonize our food and way of harvesting. We’re trying to emulate the old ways.”
By listening to community needs, building trust with people with a long history of being bulldozed by Outside interests, and by helping to build a better future, SSP has become an invaluable part of Alaska’s fabric.