SITKA AND THE HERRING
The first spring we lived in Sitka, so that would be 1964, I was startled one afternoon by the whistle blowing at the Sitka Cold Storage across the Channel. Was there a fire over town, as we 300 Mt. Edgecumbeites (Edgecunians?) called the city of Sitka, population 1,500. I was told later that the commotion was an annual event. The first fishing boat with a load of herring tied up at the Cold Storage dock. The whistle was blown and everyone in Sitka grabbed a bucket and headed for the dock, where herring was given out, free, until the herring were gone.
This also signaled the start of spring, a very welcome time after five dark, cold, and damp months.
Like many small Alaska towns, feuds and arguments flourished in the winter. Everyone became tired of being around everyone else, which led to friction and arguments. The mountains, the ocean, the wooded islands in the sound; all became boring and tiresome. The first winter I had been shocked. Door-to-door flyers; full page ads in the paper beginning, " I thought there were no snakes in Alaska!!" There apparently were disagreements between the mayor and others. I called Sasha, who had lived in Sitka as a child and returned in 1933. She was calm; it is just winter. When the herring come in and the weather warms up, the fishermen will start bottom-painting their boats and the whole thing will evaporate. It did.
Sitka has a long herring history. The little fish has three large schools that hang around the sound, at least in the spring. Since almost time immemorial, (the Tlingit saying for such things is "It is so old the moss has grown over the base of the totem pole"), the herring have come into the area to spawn in the spring. In fact, in 2008, Alaska Fish & Game recorded over 36 miles of spawning herring.Traditionally, Tlingits put hemlock branches down on the beach and after the herring spawn on them, leaving round golden globes on the feathery green branches, pop the branches into boiling water and eat them. Crunchy and very tasty.
They also traditionally hung them on lines to dry for the winter.
Sitka was so famous for its prodigal herring in the spring that Tlingits would come from all around Southeast Alaska to participate in the harvest. In an aside, in 1840 Chief Manager Adolph Etolin invited around 1,200 Tlingits to renew their tradition. They came and a wonderful time was had by all. Dances, songs, gifts, trading; and the herring made it even better. This also shows the Indians and Russians were getting along famously as there were around 300 Russians in Sitka at the time.
Unfortunately, eight years later the invitation was withdrawn. Early on, the Russians learned an elderly female slave was to be sacrificed as a symbol of the power and wealth of the owner. They hastened to ransom her. The next year there were several more slaves awaiting ransom, as the Tlingits told the Russians. After this had gone on for eight years, the number of slaves reported due for execution became totally out-of-hand, so that was the end. Once again, the Tlingits had shown their adaptability to outside cultures.
Sadly, in 1855, the town was attacked for reasons that remain cloudy. When I asked a knowledgeable Tlingit friend about that, she pointed out that neighbors have periods of friendship and sometimes disagreements.
We have come quite a distance from the first load of herring and the Sitka Cold Storage, so I will close with the sad news that after the cold storage burned in 1973 and wasn't rebuilt, the old custom disappeared. For one thing, the town had increased in size by then.