Tlingit potatoes continue to thrive thanks to Sitka Tribe, Forest Service

About 20 volunteers and high school students showed up to lend a hand. (Photo by Ari Snider/KCAW)

For the third year in a row, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska partnered with the Forest Service to grow Tlingit potatoes. Alaska Natives have cultivated these tubers in Southeast for several hundred years. Now, the Tribe is trying to raise the profile of the crop both as an important cultural link and as a potential tool in its drive for food security.

In the Forest Service parking lot, David Kanosh is thanking the various clans of the region before sharing the history of the Tlingit potato with a group of volunteers and students who have come to help with the harvest. 

“And there are many stories that run among the Kaagwaantaan, the Deishitaan, the L’uknaxh.ádi, the Kiks.ádi,” Kanosh said. “Many of the clans have their stories, about how the potato, the k’únts’, was brought here.”

The Tlingit potato, also known as Maria’s Potato, is well-suited to Southeast Alaska. It thrives in rainy conditions and shows a natural resistance to slugs. Historically, Tlingit people planted them by the beach, at the forest’s edge, where there was ample sunlight and plenty of seaweed and fish gut fertilizer. 

In 2017, the Forest Service teamed up with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska to promote the crop, which some people still grow at home. And today the small plot by the Forest Service office is ready to be harvested. 

The volunteers dive in, gently unearthing the long, fingerlike potatoes. 

According to potato expert Elizabeth Kunibe, scientists used to believe the potatoes of Alaska were brought here by European colonists. But recent genetic studies disprove that idea.  

“They could tell they weren’t grown in European soils,” Kunibe said.

Rather, the Tlingit potato is related to certain South American tubers, and arrived in Southeast Alaska several hundred years ago, likely through Tlingit voyages and trade routes. 

Some of the potatoes will be saved as seed for next year’s crop. (Photo by Ari Snider/KCAW)

While this revelation may have been new to the scientific world, it was already common knowledge within the Native communities of Southeast. Tammy Young, cultural resources coordinator at Sitka Tribe of Alaska, says oral histories tell of long voyages to the south in which the Tlingit would have come into contact with other Native people growing or trading these foreign potatoes. 

“We’re told that they could be part of a story that is told through the Kaagwaantaan Clan,” Young said. “They have a story where canoes went down, all along the coastline, all the way down as far as they could go.” 

Young has been involved with the potato project since the start. In addition to carrying on a tradition, she sees cultivating potatoes as one way for the Tribe to fight food insecurity. 

“The long term goal is addressing food security,” Young said. “So we hope that as we gather, that people are taking potatoes and keeping them to plant in their own garden.”

Last year they harvested about 90 pounds, most of which was distributed through the Tribe’s food pantry. This year, Young is hoping for more. 

With about 20 volunteer gardeners, the work is going quickly. Soon they fill four five gallon buckets with the narrow, knobbly taters. 

When the harvest is over, David Kanosh shares the story of the Tlingit who returned to Southeast with new crops from the South . 

“And then they became known as S’íxkáxhweidí, those who keep gardens,” Kanosh said. “So as much as we call ourselves the people of the tide, because much of our food was found in the water and at the tide level, we also had gardens. S’íxkáxhweidí, the ones who keep gardens. Even in my village of Angoon, our fish camp, of our family and of our clan, still has potatoes.”   

While most of the potatoes harvested today will end up on a dinner plate, some will be stored through the winter as seed for next spring, when a centuries-old gardening tradition begins another season.