Reclaiming Native Knowledges Through Kelp Farming in Cordova, Alaska


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.

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