Water, Language and Fish, A Sealaska Intern Experience

The following is by Sealaska intern, Kayla Roberts

It’s 60 degrees, and the misty rain feels like someone is constantly flicking water on my face. The Mendenhall Glacier and Thunder Mountain loom across the Mendenhall River. Seeing the snow in summer makes the water I’m about to step in look colder than it is.
These may not be ideal conditions to stand-up paddleboard, but I struggle onto the floating board with the help of Anthony Mallott, Sealaska’s CEO. He and his wife Mandy are hosting all the Sealaska interns for an evening at his house in Juneau, Alaska.

With a few close calls, I dig my paddle into a rock on the shore and push off.
“Don’t fall in!”
“Don’t get swept down the river!”
“Go Kayla!”
I hear my fellow interns calling from the muddy river bank.

I kneel down. Water sloshes over the board and onto my jeans with each paddle stroke, but I am on my way toward Mckenna Hunt who is already out on the water. This was her idea.

I had met Mckenna just four days before. We are two of 18 interns at Sealaska this summer. She’s interning with Spruce Root, Inc. in Juneau, an independent non-profit Sealaska helped create. I intern with the communications department, and I’m based in Seattle, Washington. For this one week out of the ten-week internship, the program sent us all to Juneau to learn about the corporation and explore our culture.

I paddle up to Mckenna. She’s standing like a pro, gliding across the water. Out of the blue she asks, “What did you think of today?”
That morning, the interns gathered inside Sealaska Heritage Institute’s traditional clan house, Shuká Hít. Surrounded by cedar paneling that creaked with every move, we scooted our chairs up close to listen to Tlingit elders David Katzeek and Paul Marks. The men spoke in Tlingit for a good ten minutes, introducing themselves and speaking encouragement to us. The Tlingit language has been spoken in Southeast Alaska for thousands of years. For that moment, it was as it used to be.

“It was one of those things you just have to soak in I think,” I reply. She agrees.

We paddle back to shore. A beaver pops his head out of the water to watch us pass. Our toes squelch into the mud as we haul our paddleboards out of the water. The smell of barbequing king salmon floats toward us from the house. Anthony and Mandy have a feast of traditional Alaska Native foods waiting for us.

Salmon is the star – smoked three ways, in a spread, roe on a cracker, barbecued and baked. Intern Sydney Anderson eats an eyeball, and the heads are boiling on the stove. Raw oysters, black seaweed, pickled herring eggs – I can honestly say it’s the best meal I’ve ever eaten.

And I have never felt more closely connected to my roots – traversing the water, hearing the language, tasting the food.

But more so, I am closer to the people that share my heritage. To all the interns, my newest friends, sitting around this table with plates of salmon and seaweed, some trying them for the first time. To elders so full of wisdom and encouragement, it took two languages to impart.

Paddleboards, modern clan houses and barbecues might be how I experience the water, language and food of my Native heritage. But the people I meet along the way – that’s the treasure of having roots in Southeast Alaska.

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