The Alaskan Way of Life
The Sitka Conservation Society has the goal of connecting youth to the natural environment of the Tongass through hands on experiential education and leadership opportunities. The Sitka 4-H program is our primary tool for achieving that goal. Our program focuses on teaching youth how to live with the land and sea, the Alaskan way. The learning-teaching model facilitates leadership development as youth learn skills from elders then pass on those skills to their 4-H peers and their families back home.
SCS partners with the UAF Cooperative Extension Service to run the Sitka Spruce Tips 4-H Club. This club has many local adult volunteers who are committed to youth development and community service. In addition to the Alaska Way of Life programs, 4-H projects in Sitka currently include sewing, shooting sports, knitting, photography, and food and nutrition.
The Alaska Way of Life programs vary throughout the year. Thus, 4-H member participation is flexible due to interest and availability. Fall programs have included hiking, wild edible harvesting, and food preservation techniques such as jams, drying, and smoking. During winter, 4-H members have enjoyed workshops on risk management, survival skills, deer tracking and processing, using your senses, and repurposing crafts programs. Spring programs have included Leave No Trace camping skills, compass navigation, and Earth Day activities. In the summer, we keep 4-H members busy with gardening, hiking, kayaking, and art projects. Throughout the year, we work with community partners and local expert naturalists to learn about the natural history of the Tongass. These have included bird and mushroom identification, the role of herring in the food web, whales, stream ecology, forest ecology, nature art, bear aware skills, intertidal life, slugs, and so much more!
4-H members commit to learning together, sharing knowledge and giving back to the community. These opportunities are available to school aged children 5-18 years old. Thanks to community support, there is a very minimal cost.
Interested in joining 4-H? For questions or information about current programs, contact Jill at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 747-7509.
Sitka Conservation Society and Sitka Native Education Program teach Sitka’s youth how to respect and process deer
The Sitka Conservation Society’s Alaska Way of Life 4-H program (SCS) and Sitka Native Education Program (SNEP) partnered this January to teach Sitka’s youth how to process one of Sitka’s local bounties: deer. The children from the 4-H program and SNEP Culture Class learned from Chuck Miller (SNEP Youth Program Coordinator) as he removed the hide from the animal and taught much more than just how to butcher a deer.
Miller shared with students what the customary traditional practices of deer processing entail. The first thing he pointed out was that the head of the deer was missing. Chuck explained that the brain of the deer could be mixed with urine and used to tan the hides long ago. Chuck said,
“It is important to not waste, and it is disrespectful to the animal to say ‘eww’ or ‘that’s gross’ because that animal gave up its life for you, so you can live.”
The children were certainly not squeamish. No ‘ew’s resounded from the audience of eager and fascinated onlookers. The children learned that the hoofs could be boiled down and used for rattling sticks to dance with. The hide was removed carefully, and the kids discovered that it could be used for clothing or drums. The children eagerly peered over each other to get a look at the heart, liver, and stomach. Chuck explained that the tendons are so strong that they have been used for battle armor, dream catchers, and to latch many things together.
The class also discussed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations and the importance of limitations on does for protecting fawns to conserve the population.
Miller shared with students how to respect the animal by properly processing the meat, as well as by not wasting parts of the deer. He then explained how respecting the animal transfers to respect for the community; the first deer you get for the year should never be kept to yourself.
“You give it away to somebody who is a widow, an elder, or both. You want to make sure you take care of people in the community who cannot hunt for themselves and our elders.” One of the boys in the group whispered to his friend “I’ll give it to my grandma”.
The class was able see the deer processing steps all the way from removing the hide to wrapping the meat in freezer paper. The kids shared stories of their own deer hunting experiences and favorite recipes as they packaged the meat. Students were enthralled and walked away with both a practical understanding of the deer butchering process as well as a stronger respect for this treasured resource.
The Sitka Conservation Society looks forward to partnering with the Sitka Native Education Program in the future to teach Sitka’s youth how to live with the land and build community.
Chuck Miller shows a captive audience the importance of respecting the animal and native traditions through the sacred process of butchering a deer.
Students were enthused to see the steps of proper deer processing all the way from removing the hide to wrapping the meat in freezer paper while learning values of respect and community.
Hydrologist K.K. Prussian from the U.S. Forest Service taught 4-Hers of the importance and process of stream measurements during a rainy night hike.
The sun sets before 4pm during a Sitkan Winter. This fact leads to most after-school activities being held indoors. During November and December, the Sitka Spruce Tips 4-H Club enjoyed nature after dark as they learned of Sitka’s plant diversity, hydrology, and soil.
Before we started each hike, 4-H members were reminded of the safety tips necessary for our adventure: group behavior, bear awareness and visibility.
On our first hike the 4-Hers learned that having a healthy ecosystem is dependent on having a variety of plants and animals. During the second night hike 4-H members learned of soil properties from U.S. Forest Service Soil Scientist, Jacquie Foss, by getting their hands dirty and discussing color and texture. The last hike focused on stream measurements such as velocity, turbidity, and temperature. The kids made theories on what different measurements could mean for fish and stream health. The 4-H Club was lucky to have a soil scientist and hydrologist explore with us and learn of their careers and the soil and water around us.
The 4-H club had a blast learning of different soil textures with Soil Scientist Jacquie Foss from the Forest Service.
Mary Wood helps 4-H members get settled into their kayak before going on the water or the first time.
As the kids helped load the kayaks and safety equipment into the car, they complained the day’s activities had not been long enough. Their grumbles continued in the van all the way back to town as they begged Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H leader, Mary Wood, for more time on the water the next day. They only had one day left in their kayaking course, the last 4-H class of the summer, and they were not ready for it to end.
“They are developing a love and a passion for this place and that will have an impact on them,” Wood says about the Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H program. From kayaking to gardening to fishing to cooking, her goal is to help the kids appreciate the beauty of their own backyard and grow up knowing they want to protect it.
“They will continue to be stewards of this place and be positive and productive members of their communities,” Wood says. “Even if they leave, they will continue to advocate for the ideals they are learning in 4-H.”
The Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H program was started in Sitka three years ago with a push from Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society. Thoms knows that he came into conservation work because of his own experiences with 4-H growing up.
“I look back and it’s really amazing how much it shaped my life,” Thoms says. Growing up in upstate New York, Thoms did 4-H projects centered around nature – enjoying bird watching, building bird houses, working on a Christmas tree farm, and learning about conservation. “Through all of that, I got really into natural resources and natural resources management.”
Thoms came to Sitka 10 years ago and has been dedicated to building more community-driven programs here. The 4-H program is just one part of that vision.
“We are helping to start 4-H, but for it to continue, it has to have people that are passionate and build the program themselves,” Thoms says.
Part of creating a sustainable community is teaching children to use and respect their environment. Subsistence skills like harvesting berries, fishing, and hunting are all a part of life in Sitka, a community of about 9,000 in the heart of the Tongass National Forest. Thoms wants kids to grow up learning how to best use their environment, respect it and protect it. That’s the Alaska way of life.
But, 4-H can prepare kids for careers and opportunities outside of conservation also. Alison Mazzon volunteered with the Alaksa Way-of-Life 4-H program this summer while she visited Sitka on a grant from Patagonia, the company she now works for. While in Sitka, Mazzon helped chaperone the kayaking classes and taught classes on outdoor gear maintenance.
Mazzon grew up in Ohio and learned to sew at her local 4-H program. From her first project of a pair of shorts to designing and making her own prom dresses, she gained more than just the ability to make to her own clothes and several state-level awards from her 12 years in 4-H. Mazzon says she is grateful to 4-H for the friends she made and the leadership skills she gained.
And, like Thoms, Mazzon took her 4-H skills to her career. After studying fashion design in college and working for a few years on the runways in New York City, Mazzon is currently a technical design manager for Patagonia and is part of the team that make high-performance outdoor clothing and gear.
“I don’t know what I would have done with my life otherwise,” she says.
Just a few short weeks after their kayaking adventures came to an end, the 4-H crew took to the beach and learned fishing skills as their first class of the new school year.
In addition to these classes, the kids will also do community service projects, an important aspect of building a sustainable community, Wood says. For example, the kids make jams and jellies for the senior center. She says it teaches the kids a valuable skill and gives them a chance to connect with older generations.
One of Wood’s favorite memories of her time leading 4-H is from last year on Earth Day. She had brought a group of students out to a local hiking trail to do some trash clean up. She expected the kids to complain – spending a day picking up garbage not the ideal way to spend time for 9-year-olds. But, the complaints she got were not what she expected. They were upset that at how much trash they had collected. How could so much litter be found in their home?
Going on her second year in Sitka, Wood has big plans for the 4-H program. She is excited to start building a wider group of volunteers and seeing more kids join the program. She also wants to develop more classes for high school students, as the majority if the activities over the last three years have been for ages 5 – 10.
Whether the kids are learning to make jams with the berries they picked for elders in the community or learning important outdoor skills for kayaking and hiking, the Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H program is about creating a strong community that exemplifies social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Those Alaskan ideals, and the ideals of 4-H, are seen as intertwined for SCS and they last across generations.
“There is a big need for interdependence here,” Thoms says. “In Alaska we are part of a community, and you cannot do it alone.”
To learn more about 4-H in Sitka and upcoming classes and events, email Mary Wood at email@example.com.