Beginning in mid-March in Sitka, there is no escaping the excitement surrounding the commercial sac roe herring fishery. Big seiners from around Southeast raft up in the harbors, waiting for the large masses of herring to school up near shore.
But the annual arrival of the herring marks the opening of another important — and just as exciting — season: subsistence. Tuesday morning (3-25-14), Native leaders and Tribal elders gathered to pour water on the Herring Rock in downtown Sitka, to honor the herring, and the renewal that their return symbolizes.
KCAW’s Robert Woolsey and Emily Forman prepared this audio postcard:
Prayers, in Tlingit
The Herring Rock rests now in front of the Sheetka Kwan Nakahidi, but it used to be down in the Sitka Channel. By long tradition, herring were said to begin their spawn in this location.
Thank you for what we are about to celebrate, The Herring Rock. Given to us by you, and what it signifies: The beginning of our harvest season.
The small crowd gathered to bless the rock acknowledged the efforts of Duck Didrickson, who died over the winter, to relocate the rock to a place of honor. But the rest of the brief ceremony was dedicated to reaffirming the history of Herring Rock, and how it came to be.
We had two herring ladies, playing down by the rock. And they put their hair in the water. And the herring came and spawned on their hair. That’s how they became the Herring Rock Ladies.
The herring landed by commercial seiners haven’t spawned yet. Their eggs are stripped in Asia, and sold as a delicacy. In the subsistence harvest of herring eggs, fishermen sink hemlock branches into shallow water and wait for the fish to deposit thousands — millions — of eggs on the soft needles.
The tradition has been around as long as the Tlingit.
Some of you can remember when it covered the whole of Sitka Sound, from Biorka over to Cape Edgecumbe. And it was all inside waters, all full of herring. And it was beautiful! And all we had at the time was herring bait fishermen. And they would come in here and bring a load, and we thought it was so amazing that they could bring in a load of herring.
There is tension between subsistence harvesters and the commercial fishery — as there usually is when a limited resource is involved. But this year it looks like there will be plenty for all. And that is a blessing.
We are thankful that this tradition has been kept alive by our elders, and passed on to us. Gunalcheesh ho ho. Amen.
With the voices of Andrew Roberts, John Duncan, and Nels Lawson.