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Fertile Ground for Study

For Elizabeth Kunibe, an X on a map marked a path to years of fruitful research.

Elizabeth KunibeThe EPSCoR-funded University of Alaska Southeast undergrad, on a field trip for a class called “Archeology of Glacier Bay,” was navigating an island using a hand-drawn map from 1965 with an X that marked a garden site. Kunibe was surprised to discover that three-foot tall garden rows still stood on the spot. “I was just shocked that this garden was here,” said, Kunibe, a nontraditional student who came to UAS after a career in theatrical set design. “I wrote my final class paper on gardening and potatoes, and started to realize that Tlingit people had been growing them around here for several hundred years.”

The chance encounter led to an enduring interest in Tlingit gardening practices for Kunibe, a senior majoring in social science with an anthropology emphasis. First she discovered two varieties of Alaskan potatoes which the US Department of Agriculture officially classified as Native American potatoes – two of just five such varieties in the world. Then, with funding from a $5,000 EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Cooperative Research) undergraduate grant, she began an exhaustive inquiry into historic and current Native gardens centered in Southeast Alaska. The project has involved research in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Palmer as well as visits to Sitka, Angoon, Haines, Klukwan, Skagway, Whitehorse and Galena.

Kunibe said she’s uncovered a rich but little-known history of gardening throughout Southeast. Residents of many villages would plant gardens of root vegetables — like rutabagas and parsnips — on islands on their way to fish camps, Kunibe said, then harvest them in the fall.

She said the gardens have mostly disappeared over the course of the last century for various reasons, chief among them the islands being parceled out by the U.S. Forest Service for homesteads and fox farms. Also, Tlingits in Sitka lost their island gardens in WWII when the government forbade private water travel. Tuberculosis outbreaks and other disruptions, combined with the increasing availability of imported food, also hastened the end of individual and community gardens.

“In 1952 they grew 4,000 pounds of potatoes in Angoon,” Kunibe noted. “Today they don’t have a garden.” Kunibe’s research has combined the study of archival documents with open forum discussions with villagers about their recollections of local garden practices. “A lot of people forgot about gardens, it got pushed back in their memories,” she said. “It reminded them of a lot of lost history.”

Kunibe is also looking at gardening in the present: some Tlingit communities are restarting communal gardens, mostly as an antidote to the poor nutritional value and troubling additives of much store-bought food. Angoon is reviving its garden, she said, and Klukwan has been planting a community garden for several years after almost a century without one. “The change is coming from within the communities,” she said. “The people within these communities are brilliant and concerned with making dietary changes that contribute to people’s health.” Kunibe was able to expand her study to Galena after winning $750 in an EPSCoR poster contest. She has since received a second EPSCoR grant, this one for over $7,000, to further her research. Her primary goal is to continue her work with communities to foster information-sharing on gardening, and to study which potato varieties and cultivation practices are appropriate for different areas. “It’s a great idea to have a garden, but people have them and they fail,” she said. “So I’ll be doing some comparison of varieties and precipitation levels to obtain potatoes suited to the environment.”


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