Alaska participates in Indigenous aquaculture gathering

In June, members of the Indigenous Aquaculture Collaborative Network, including citizens from Alaska Native tribes, traveled to Washington state to participate in the 2023 Salish Summit. The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community hosted the four-day event that featured the opportunity to work together and contribute to construction of a clam garden at Kukutali Preserve. The Summit also provided rich learning opportunities, celebrations, and conversations with participants from across the Pacific from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Hawaiʻi, British Columbia, Palau, and Guam.

people in a line smiling passing rocks toward the intertidal zone
Participants from Alaska and other locations passing rocks toward the intertidal zone. Photo courtesy of Julie Barber, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community senior shellfish biologist.

Indigenous aquaculture practices have sustained Pacific Ocean peoples since time immemorial. Traditional technologies such as clam gardens support communities and contribute to biocultural ecosystems. Engaging in Indigenous aquaculture practices supports cultural revitalization, continuity of cultural practices, multigenerational knowledge exchange, language reclamation, and tribal self-determination. Sharing knowledge about Indigenous aquaculture across cultures and geographies, including at events such as the Salish Summit, can help to strengthen practices, relationships, and resilient communities for future generations.

Indigenous aquaculture supports food sovereignty, where local producers and consumers of food control the policies and mechanisms of production and distribution. Food sovereignty prioritizes knowledge-sharing and working with nature to produce healthy, culturally appropriate, sustainable food that can be shared. Indigenous food sovereignty recognizes relationships and responsibilities that Indigenous peoples have with their environments.

“Food sovereignty is one of my biggest passions in life, particularly with traditional foods,” said Keenan Sanderson of Ketchikan Indian Community, Alaska. “Growing up in a small community in Alaska with roots to an even smaller village, I had personal connections with the food we harvested and ate.”

Clam gardens have been in use for at least 4,000 years among Pacific Northwest tribes, First Nations in British Columbia, and Alaska Native tribes. Through terracing areas of the intertidal zone and cultivating butter clam habitat, harvesters enhance the number and size of available clams. “I didn’t know that Indigenous people have been ‘artificially supporting’ plant and animal growth forever, but in a minimally invasive and disruptive way,” said Sanderson.

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community clam garden is located at Kukutali Preserve, the first tribal state park in the country with shared ownership and governance by Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and the state of Washington. The Swinomish started planning to build the clam garden many years ago but were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. They started construction of the clam garden in August 2022. Participants at the Salish Summit added to the wall by moving rocks during the month’s lowest tide.

people standing in a line along a rock beach passing rocks to each other.
Participants at the 2023 Salish Summit passed rocks to the intertidal area to extend a rock wall structure that is part of a larger clam garden. Photo by Karen Grosskreutz, Alaska Sea Grant State Fellow.

“It was a beautiful, warm day and people were chatting while working together to move rocks across the beach and into the wall,” said Jen Arvanitis, who works for Ketchikan Indian Community Tribe. Moderately sized rocks, weighing between five and 30 pounds, were passed person-to-person from the upper beach to the exposed intertidal zone. Larger rocks were hauled in wagons or carried by groups using gear nets.

Sanderson recounted, “I could have been on any part of that long stretched-out line of people, but I just happened to be placed right near the rock wall itself. It was a lot of hard work, and down there, we were about to lose our boots in the mud a few different times. The best part was seeing the people who were directly involved with the planning of this event to put this Indigenous clam garden into this world. The smiles on their faces were priceless.”

Clam gardens increase shellfish growth rates, improve harvest efficiency, and produce larger clams. Maintenance of a clam garden with additions of shell hash can create a buffer against coastal acidification, and enhances clam growth rates by increasing the amount of calcium carbonate available for shells. Additionally, the rock structure creates habitat, attracts a diverse community of marine organisms, and increases local biological diversity.

Man depositing little neck claims into a bed a coals.
Adding little neck clams to a bed of coals. Photo by Karen Grosskreutz, Alaska Sea Grant State Fellow.

During the event, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community hosted a clambake, preparing traditional foods such as cockles, mussels, Dungeness crabs, butter clams, little neck clams, and Olympia oysters. The preparation and process took a lot of time and care, and the results were delicious and plentiful. “I left with a full heart and probably 10 pounds heavier,” said Maranda Hamme, of Klawock, Alaska.

“The whole event has inspired me in a number of different ways,” said Sanderson. “First, it just furthers my passion for food sovereignty within my own community. Second, I would really like for my Tribe to pursue investing in a clam garden here in Ketchikan. I think the experience alone of putting one together is worthwhile.”

A future gathering for knowledge-sharing and celebration of Indigenous aquaculture is planned in Alaska in 2024. You can learn more about different Indigenous technologies and sea gardens at the Indigenous Aquaculture Collaborative Network website.