duh sich’ qiidlii’a’ (give me a piece of kelp!). duh (kelp).
Historically, dAXunhyuu (the Eyak people) have used many types of seaweed, and around those organisms our knowledges proliferated. Some seaweed we ate when thick with herring spawn. Other seaweed we would boil on the inside of a newly carved dugout canoe to develop a fine protective finish that would prevent cracking. Other times we pressed seaweed in layers. Given a particular pressure, those layers turned into a solid block and would be later soaked in water, or I imagine dipped in hooligan or seal oil, and eaten for its many nutrients. Some seaweeds, named after the way that long hair moves in water, were used as binder twine. Kelp: duh.
Many of these practices were intentionally disrupted, denigrated, and actively dissolved by projects of imperialism and colonialism, first by agents of the Russian Crown and later by those of the American Republic. These enactments of erasure were not solely in relation to kelp—many of our knowledges have been stolen and appropriated from us. (I use “knowledges” in the plural form to acknowledge that Indigenous communities are diverse and have specific fields of expertise that are distinct to their homelands and histories.) dAXunhyuu have not had it easy in this respect, especially as the smallest Alaska Native group in the state. dAXuhnyuuga’ (the Eyak language) was declared dormant in 2007 with the passing of our last speaker, Marie Smith Jones.
But we have also been busy: revitalizing our language, reclaiming our lands, and rebuilding toward a future not seen through a lens of devastation or loss. Instead, we celebrate ourselves as innovators, philosophers, and generators of more just ways of living, as we have always been. Our futures and our present take many forms—as dAXunhyuu we are diverse and multi-talented. We raise babies, we hold cultural revitalization camps, we pick berries, we serve on councils, we eat breakfast, we make music, we give to others.
One project currently taking shape puts kelp at its center—sugar, ribbon, and bull kelp. (Bull kelp is a particularly magical kind of kelp: Hose shaped and ending in a nitrogen-filled bulb with strands of hair-like protrusions, a forest of bull kelp appears almost human, its brown-green tubers standing upright in a reach toward the sunlight as it sways in tidal movements. Sugar kelp, when blanched in hot water, changes from a translucent brown-green to a vibrant chartreuse, its edges curling in upon itself.) This spring in Cordova, Alaska, dAXunhyuu activist Dune Lankard and his team at Native Conservancy have planted six sites of kelp grow lines in a mission to restore the area’s marine ecosystem in ways that also revitalize dAXunhyuu knowledges and create new projects of food sovereignty.
Lankard leads the Native Conservancy, a Native-run and Native-led organization which has made regenerative kelp farming one of their top priorities. After commercial fishing for most of his life, Lankard chose kelp farming as one way that he can give back to an ocean that has played such a generous role in his life.
Kelp forests create habitats that provide safety and stasis in otherwise open water, offering fish and mammals a retreat to feed, birth, and escape predators. Ocean and sea-dwelling herbivores eat kelp—the sea urchin, for example, can decimate kelp populations if not checked by hungry sea otters, which is why sea otters are often seen chomping away atop kelp forests. Historically, when sea otters were over-hunted by colonizing forces, kelp forests also felt the brunt of that loss. Matters were not helped with the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1989, when millions of gallons of crude oil spilled into what’s for now known as the Prince William Sound, causing ongoing habitat decline.
Kelp farming is a growing initiative worldwide—Lankard also serves on the board of Greenwave, an organization that trains people around the world to start their own regenerative ocean farms—and the plant has been heralded as a crop with huge potential amid a changing climate. Through photosynthesis, kelp can sequester CO2, taking it out of the atmosphere. According to some studies, kelp forests can hold more carbon than terrestrial forests, and can intervene in issues of ocean acidification. When harvested, kelp is also a versatile product and is used in a range of commodities. It’s a key ingredient in cosmetics, can be rendered as an alternative to plastics and, most obviously, serves as a nutrient-rich food, safe even for babies. Kelp is high in potassium, calcium, and b-12. As Evelyn Arce Erickson, Vice President of Native Conservancy, says, “Our future depends on the healthy ecosystems of kelp which mitigates climate change and provides food sovereignty for the Salmon Nations of the Pacific. Native Conservancy is returning to our traditional ecological knowledge and relationship to kelp in these rich ocean waters of Eyak-Cordova.”
For Native Conservancy, kelp farming is an ideal project choice because it not only fortifies the planet against climate change but, just as importantly, it creates a regenerative industry led by Native peoples and communities. “Our vision is to ensure that this emerging industry remains in the hands of our families and communities,” says Lankard. This vision is playing out particularly for Native community members in the ancestral homelands of dAXunhyuu, with an eye toward supporting kelp farms for Native peoples across coastal Alaska. Native Conservancy has hired local and Native Cordova residents to lead their projects: Jim Smith, Kelsey Hawley, Logan Arnold, and Rachel Hoover currently run a subsistence foods program to feed elders in town. Hoover has also dedicated her culinary energies toward testing out new kelp recipes like kelp kimchi, fried kelp patties, and pickled kelp. As kelp restoration manager, Smith leads the management and harvesting of the kelp sites around the Cordova and Prince William Sound area with the help of crew and captain Tyler Quales and Grafton Schikora.
For Native Conservancy, kelp farming creates important opportunities for employment and for kelp to become a staple, local food source. Kelp farming also crucially provides opportunities for Native peoples to have control of their own businesses: investing in Native-led industries that prioritize good relations with the land and ocean is an investment in the futures of Native peoples. For dAXunhyuu in particular, a reclamation of kelp knowledge is also a future claim to our lands, ocean, and lifeways.
Originally Appeared on Vogue