Sitkans this week will mark 40 days since the passing of John Littlefield with a traditional celebration of his life. The food will be wild, local, and plentiful — thanks in large part to his legacy. John Littlefield was a clan uncle, a father, a husband, and electrical contractor. But most of all, he was a passionate advocate for traditional subsistence rights.
Littlefield died of cancer on May 24 at age 67. KCAW’s Rachel Waldholz has more on a man who taught generations of Sitkans how to live more connected to place, heritage, and community
A celebration of life dinner for John Littlefield will be held at 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 6, at ANB Founders Hall.
Roby Littlefield met her future husband in Fairbanks, when she was 19 and he was 24.
“We had a mutual friend, from Sitka and I chased him til he caught me. He didn’t know I was chasing him.”
The couple married, and she moved with him to Sitka. Except for a few years, including service in Vietnam, John Littlefield lived in Sitka his entire life — and when he died, in May, his absence could be felt throughout his hometown.
“His legacy is not one dimensional,” says Jude Pate, who was adopted into Littlefield’s Coho Clan.”His legacy is not one dimensional, it’s three dimensional, it’s living, it’s breathing through the economy, through the children, through the language — it’s incredible.
Littlefield’s friends say you see his legacy in Sitka’s fishing fleet — he chaired the board of the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, or NSRAA, and helped guide the growth of the region’s hatchery system. You can see it in the subsistence rights that he fought for: identifying local foods as “customary and traditional” under state law, helping create the local area management plan that gives subsistence fishermen priority in fishing grounds closer to shore, and increasing protections for spawning herring.
But most of all, you see it in the people whom he taught to hunt and fish and harvest food.
To an outsider, this focus on food can be a little bit mystifying.
KCAW: Why was that so important to him? Why food?
Pate: Because it’s not just food! [RL/PE: Yeah] It’s not just food!
Roby Littlefield: It’s life, it’s culture, it’s what your grandfather did. It’s something more precious than just putting nutrition in your body. It’s living with the values of your ancestors, which are good values. The United States should adopt more traditional Tlingit values.
Harvesting food, sharing that food, teaching others to harvest food — in the end, it was all about connecting people to the world — to the place they live, to the food they eat, to their heritage and traditions — and, above all, to their community.
“I used to predominantly fish salmon, and John used to fish halibut all the time,” says Pete Esquiro, who ran NSRAA for many years. Littlefield was on his board. He recalls meeting Littlefield one time while getting ice at Sitka Sound Seafoods. Esquiro had caught a batch of salmon, and Littlefield was icing halibut. Littlefield asked Esquiro why he wasn’t selling any fish. Well, I have some other obligations to take care of first, Esquiro said. Why aren’t you selling any fish?
“He says well, I got just so many halibut this time, and I decided that people that I know in the community need it more than I do. And I said, well, that’s kind of the same boat I’m finding myself in, I’m not selling any fish today because I promised so many people that the next time, they were gonna get some fish. And so, we both kinda went our separate ways, and both of us came back with empty boats [ laughter] but that was John.”
Perhaps the most tangible legacy of Littlefield’s life, and his lifetime partnership with Roby, is the Dog Point Culture Camp, where families learned to fish and hunt, and kids learned wilderness survival skills and sat around a campfire at night to hear stories from elders.
Pate: Practice, day in, day out, living that life, with our children. That is legacy….
Littlefield: The fish camp, actual kids camp, started with the concept of teaching a family how to fish – so that they could teach their own kids, and their kids will teach their kids. It was an intergenerational goal.
The camp had its genesis in the 1970s, when the Sitka Native Education program, or SNEP, started up. SNEP was focused on cultural programs like dance and language, and Roby volunteered teaching food preparation — how to make seaweed, how to smoke fish.
Roby Littlefield: I started thinking, well, this is great but it’s only half the story. Because they know how to prepare it and eat it…but they don’t know how to find it, how to gather it, and how to take care of it.
Roby spoke to her family about running a summer program at the family’s camp at Dog Point, near Nakwasina Sound north of Sitka. The Littlefields ended up running the Dog Point Culture Camp for three decades, until John became too sick last year.
KCAW: And is that something you’re going to try to pick up again in the future?
Littlefield: It’s really hard to do it without him, but he would have been really proud if I picked it back up and started up again. I think it’ll happen.
Like many others, Chuck Miller learned culture and subsistence at John Littlefield’s side.
Miller: John was a, traditionally he was a clan uncle of mine. He was the same clan as me – L’uknaxh.adi — Raven, silver salmon, or we call ourselves the Coho clan. And his Tlingit name was Nas.aaxh, and he carried that name very proudly.
Traditionally, clan uncles play a special role in their nephews’ lives, taking over training and discipline.
Miller says Littlefield embraced that role with gusto. He remembers his first successful hunting trip, as a teenager. Anxious about what was ahead, Miller asked his Uncle John for some advice on the boat ride up to Nakwasina.
Miller: I grabbed my box of shells, and I had never really hunted before and I was really nervous, so I brought them up and asked my uncle, I said, uncle, hey, is this enough bullets. And he smiled really big and he looked at me, and he says, I don’t know. How bad a shot are you? So I learned quite a bit just from that story alone.
Miller recently became the Youth Programs coordinator for the Sitka Tribe. He says that losing Littlefield, and others of his generation, has added urgency to the project of passing on to the next generation the things that they passed on to him.
Miller: Things that the elders taught me, they gave it to me freely, and so I want to give it back freely, and continue in the ways of, like, my uncle John. Be the uncle. You know, hand it down. Gotta pass it on. Have to.
And that determination, too, is part of John Littlefield’s legacy.