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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Art of Storytelling
Inside the Circle of a Story  -  Two Stories by Julie Coburn
By Julie Coburn « Prev   Page 2 of 2  

Seed Potatoes and Foxgloves

We have today potatoes that were originally brought into old Kasaan over a hundred years ago. One of our great-aunts on Dad's side of the family brought the seed potatoes from Puget Sound or Victoria, B.C. She and her sisters would travel by canoe to the Seattle area and work in the fields picking crops and probably thought the potatoes especially tasty. Some people call them "finger" potatoes. The missionaries or traders also introduced a type of potato to the Haidas (probably the "Irish" variety). The kind my great-aunts brought to old Kasaan are long, skinny, and bumpy, especially tasty with "setow" (ooligan oil). They have a mealy texture and are more yellow than ordinary bakers. Haidas couldn't pronounce "sweet seed" so they coined the word "sgoo seet."

The Tsimshians pronounce the words exactly like we do. Today, I've given the same seed potatoes to friends and relatives. Some just plain put them in a pot to cook and eat, others have replanted them. A friend in Eureka, California, showed them to a professor at an agricultural college and he said that this potato that my great-aunts introduced is the original potato from Peru. My understanding is that the potatoes that are normally found in the grocery store are a type of hybrid, supposedly "improved" by someone named Luther Burbank.

Back in the '30s an old prospector called Paul Jordon lived in Karta Bay and he grew many flowers in his garden. Grandma Emma and Mom thought the foxgloves were especially beautiful, so they got the catalog from Mr. Jordon and placed an order for five cents a package. Grandma thought that five cents wouldn't buy too many seeds so she ordered $2.00 worth. They were amazed when the order arrived. They gave a package to all the ladies of the village which at that time was about 18 or 20 women.

The flowers did well for a number of years and I can recall there were foxgloves blooming in everyone's garden. Then during the '50s, when the population of Kasaan dropped to about seven, the weeds took over and there was no one here to tend a garden. Lo and behold, in the early '70s, when the sewer and water and light systems were started and a lot of soil was turned over and dug, the foxgloves erupted and Kasaan was in bloom again. Some of the plants stand over six feet tall today.

Raven Speaks to Haidas

The Haidas say that the raven can say words that the Haida can understand. I only learned a few of the words: gulk gulk, the wind is coming; gawk gawk, a boat is coming; aawkshh aawkshh (it sounds like blood squirting), the salmon will be plentiful. Perry, Annie and I took a boat ride to Kasaan Island. We stopped for lunch on a shady beach. I heard a raven say "gawk gawk" as it flew over us, and I told Perry that the Raven told me that a boat was coming. We thought nothing of it.

Later we stopped at Happy Harbor, and Brots, our friend's dog, barked, and she said he always barked when a boat was nearby. The boat did not come into Happy Harbor so we forgot it. About one hour later we buzzed on back to Kasaan and the first thing we heard was that our friend John McVickers had come to Kasaan, looked for us around the bay, and around Kasaan Island. So the raven was right. He had seen the boat as it came in the bay and told me by the words "gawk gawk."

From Alaska Native Writers, Storytellers & Orators: The Expanded Edition copyright @ 1999, Alaska Quarterly Review, all rights reserved. Totem in photo at above right is in Kasaan's Totem Park.

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