Traditions of the Subsistence lifeway.
Food and culture are entertwined for many Native Americans, and Native groups. Living off the land is called "subsisting" or the Subsistence Lifeway.  Preserving the knowledge of Native foods is part of the struggle of preserving a culture. The foods came with the seasons, the foods contained the nutrients for life, the foods often were the meeting place of the life and culture of Native Americans. This is a series from a compilation about Native foods in Alaska by Madona Moss and Richard G. Newton but the real authors are the Native Americans who grew up in the culture [Alaska Native Lifeways Index ].
food pit, for preserving native foods, in the Native tlingit culture
K. J. Metcalf observing an old cache pit on an ethnohistooric site. Alaska Natives used these pits for preserving food for the lean months of late winter when food could become scarce


"Times could be rough for my people in the early spring. If you are inclined to be lazy you go hungry. Everyone has to keep busy—what it amounts to is struggling for survival. Your winter supply of dry fish is gone, the weather is bad, and your entire food supply is pretty low. You have to replenish it by going out and getting your family going…." 

--George Jim 


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The subsistence way of life is just one of the many way the Tlingit people have reasserted their Native identity. Other cultural traditions are still alive; these include various performance arts, like dancing, singing, and oratory. Objects fashioned by contemporary artists—carvings in wood and precious metals, basketry and beadwork—grace art galleries, museum exhibits, and shop windows, But traditional food was, and in many cases, remains a part of daily life. It is true that contemporary Tlingit people, especially in the large towns, often rely heavily on "store bought " food. But many people continue to depend on wild foods for a considerable proportion of their dietary needs. As Henry Katasse explains, Native food provides more than nutrients: 

Henry Katasse in his home, Petersburg, 10/13/83

"Our bodies are accustomed to the various food that we eat. Our body craves it, we have many things that nature provided by season. There are seasons for vegetables, greens, seasons for fat; seasons for shellfish, and seasons for many things when it’s time for us to eat and enjoy them. All we have to do is accumulate them and put them away for the winter… We never bothered anything out of season… By putting up different foods and making them taste good we make it more pleasant to live … The old timers had a certain way of preparing it, they all had their own methods and tricks… they took a great deal of pride in putting up their food so that people would enjoy eating it." (tape 22)

Tlingit people have special regard for their traditional foods., partially because theirs is a direct connection with the living things that provide the food. Mr. Katasse emphasises this:

"A well-bred Tlingit is never heard making remarks about food put before him. People refrain from making sarcastic remarks in jest about food. For example, a short story is told about a young princess saying, ‘I do not eat this part of the dried salmon--too bony.’ New of this got around the village and people became indifferent to her. Soon a famine set in and she became hungry along with the others." (Tape 24)

As indicated in the above passage, lean years were not unknown to the Tlingit. The changing seasons were probably the most common source of variation in food resource abundance and availability. Autumn was the time to harvest, and the shortening days were busily spent in preparation of the winter’s food supply. This time is described by George Jim:

"In September, October and November, it is the time of contentment and happiness among the Tlingit people, for it is harvest time. Deer, goat, sheep, bear, king salmon, herrings, every species of salmon is fat, ready to be harvested , and plentiful. Streams are full of fish and gardens ready to fill the chat’l (storehouses or caches). This is when men bring the bright salmon to the women to cut up and prepare the first stages of smoking and drying. This is also when loose eggs are collected…."2

Following the putting up of winter stores, the people drew on their underground caches to replenish their supplies. Sometimes these ran low in late winter or early spring as Walter Williams tells us:

"Times could be rough for my people in the early spring. If you are inclined to be lazy you go hungry. Everyone has to keep busy—what it amounts to is struggling for survival. Your winter supply of dry fish is gone, the weather is bad, and your entire food supply is pretty low. You have to replenish it by going out and getting your family going…." (tape 6)

The traditional Tlingit values of hard work and economic self sufficiency were highlighted by several of our cultural specialists. It was customary in times past, to accumulate large surpluses of food and other property to redistribute at potlatches or to trade with neighboring tribes. Social status was accorded to those members of the community who were industrious and who had high ambitions. These values were passed down to children from their elders. In the matrilineal society of the Tlingit, it was the uncle, usually the mother’s brother, who taught these values to a growing boy. John Jackson was one person who grew up within this tradition, and his narrative l illustrates how traditional values were shaped to accommodate the changing economy:

John C. Jackson and Matthew Fred in Kake, 10/13/83

"I lived with my uncle for several years and I recall his advice many, many times. His were wise words and they were handed down to me. He would say time and time again, not only when necessary, but to remind me I think, ‘if you work only for money you will never keep it, but if you divide your time equally gathering food, your money will be saved. If you worked on food and put aside a portion of whatever you put up, soon this will add up. The time will come when you will feel you have enough to take to another town and exchange it with whatever you feel is a good exchange. This way you will be surprised at how much you will gain in no time.’

Maybe there will be moments when you will be offered fur and you will take it because this adds up in a hurry. It is surprising what food will bring and once you realize this, you will continue to work on subsistence living. This is important, I sometimes wonder if it does not actually become more important than working for money. Times and methods may have changed but this applies fundamentally to any young life. (tape 6)

Subsistence food retained its importance even to those individuals who chose to work for wages. People in the villages persisted in the traditional subsistence quest and might trade and those Tlingit living in the larger towns. Food instance, dried fish and meat where transported to Juneau and traded with the Tlingit people working in the mines. 

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From "The Subsistence Lifeway of the Tlingit People--Excerpts of Oral Interviews"

The authors are Richard G. Newton and Madonna L. Moss. Mr. Newton is Tlingit, an expert on Tlingit subsistence, and now (1999) retired and living in Redmond, Washington. Madonna Moss an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon.