I am a Southeast Alaskan writer and photographer who is deeply passionate about the power of story for inspiring positive social and environmental change. My photography and writing have been published with local and international magazines and...
Focus:Photojournalist, Writer, Science, Documentary, Creative Director, Photography, Culture, Arts & Culture, Conservationist, Visual Artist
Mike Jackson’s (Kaa.oosh) memories from the years building up to Kake Culture Camp are visceral. As the magistrate judge in remote Alaska during the ’80s, he also served as the de facto coroner. During that period, he says, a suicide epidemic struck Kake.
“I had to go investigate all of these suicides before the state troopers came and make sure the scene was locked down. But I also had to make the determination if a person was dead on the scene if there was no doctor,” says Jackson.
In a community of fewer than 700 residents, there are very few strangers.
“It was emotional responding because all the people who committed suicides here I knew.” Jackson, like too many in Kake, lost cousins, lost friends, lost neighbors.
“You aren’t here to meet your boyfriend. You aren’t here to meet your girlfriend.”
A room of fidgeting kids, excited and anxious for the week ahead, roll their eyes while still hanging on Coordinator Mona Evan’s every word. “You aren’t here to isolate yourself with your cell phones.” Evan gathers all electronics from sticky fingers. “You are here to learn. You are here to participate. You are here to contribute.”
“That kind of stuff weighs pretty heavy on your mind when you are a little kid being told you are a devil because you participated in dance or culture. Kids were becoming young adults and were losing hope, losing culture, losing values, and they turned to suicide to end their misery,” Jackson recalls.
“We would bring in consultants and they would leave after they came in for a day or two because they are expensive. What did they leave us with besides waiting for the next consultant to come in and solve our problems?” asks Jackson. He confronted the city council and offered an idea.
“I think we are going to have to do this ourselves. We need to step up,” he told the members.
In 1988, with the self-determination of the council and community, Culture Camp was born.
“We never had mental health, behavioral health professionals in our midst like we do today,” Evan says. “But our culture seems to handle that by having stories, and these stories gave the youth the ‘why’ and the ‘why not.’” For example, she explains how processing food requires a particular state of mind and how this belief system helped the community to cope.
“You try to process with a happy heart, with no sadness or anger or fear, because that is going to be transferred into what you are working on,” says Evan. “If you are working on something with anger, it’s not going to turn out, it will spoil.”
This concept of introspection and pause helps us lay down grief down and step into the present moment. While working hard with family and friends, our hands deep in nature’s gifts, we can focus on joy.
Seal meat is so dense in iron, Tlingit people have used it as a remedy for anemia for thousands of years. According to the camp’s cooks, 4 ounces of seal meat boast the same density of minerals as 48 hot dogs, or 24 hamburgers.
Campers take turns dipping and cleaning the intestines in the sea. They braid and weave them for the smokehouse, training the delicate muscles of their growing fingers to twist and dance in ways familiar to these shores for generations.
“It wasn’t just the Culture Camp, but camp was one of the main tools in our community to create a safe place, a proud place for people to grow up. We have doctors that went through camp, we have attorneys, we have professional people in corporations all around the world.
We are also looking at kids, that have their heads screwed on right, knowing who they are, where they grew up, and the value of the resources around them, that still choose to come home and help the community become a better village. To me, that’s everything, people going off to get their degrees, coming back home to help our community. To us, this is our world, this is our heaven,” says Jackson.
When we read about food between the pages of a magazine full of glorious recipes and families sitting around tables, we admire only a tiny fraction of its power. The beauty and difficulty of Kake’s Culture Camp story is a reminder of the profound, rich complexity that can manifest in every bite we choose to cultivate, harvest, honor, and share in Alaska. Food connects us to each other, to our values, to our ancestors, and our future. This complexity is one that only a seasoned culture bearer can properly settle in two sentences.
“We don’t call this subsistence,” says Demmert. “We call it our way of life.”
In 1988, the Anchorage Daily News published "People in Peril a Willingness to Take Risks" as part of a series on rural suicides and drug and alcohol abuse that would win an elite Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. This segment began, "Half the villagers in this Southeast fishing and logging community have licked alcohol turned it down on their own, or with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous or their church. But Kake still acts like a drunken village, with the same sad, self destructive behavior. Why?"
At the time this article was written, the small Tlingit community of Kake suffered from, what community members call a 'suicide epidemic'. Kake led the state of Alaska in suicides and attempts and the story describes in painful detail how this tight-knit community began taking their lives.
After returning from the 30th Culture Camp in Kake, I re-read that article and cried at a piece that felt brutal and untrue. Tthat story felt nothing like the village of Kake I have come to know over the years-- the place where many of my friends thrive.
The community I know is proud, powerful, and empowered and the Culture Camp I had just been so damn lucky to participate in, was one of the most beautiful weeks I imagine I will ever experience. I wanted so damn bad to work with Kake to rewrite that story, to erase it with a new one. That’s what this is. Of course, any written piece is a clumsy attempt to capture the true profound complexity of Kake’s story, but I’m endlessly grateful for the opportunity to try. Gunalchéesh to the Organized Village of Kake and the community for their generosity in sharing their powerful words, memories and stories.