Books

2 books from Wrangell author explore place and heritage through different traditional cultures

“My Father’s Smokehouse: Stories and Recipes from Fishcamp”

By Vivian Faith Prescott. West Margin Press, 2022. 251 pages. $16.99.

“Old Woman with Berries in her Lap”

By Vivian Faith Prescott. University of Alaska Press, 2022. $16.95.

Traditional knowledge instructs us in the ways of our ancestors and of those who preceded us in the places we might now call home. Writer and poet Vivian Faith Prescott, in two new books, shares her life, art and inquiry into the wisdom of two different Indigenous cultures — the Tlingit of Southeast Alaska and the Sami of northern Scandinavia.

Prescott, who was born and raised in Wrangell and lives there today at her family’s fishcamp, is of Sami, Norwegian, Finnish, German and Irish heritage. She was adopted into the Tlingit clan of her children and has spent decades learning about Tlingit culture and Indigenous knowledge systems.

“My Father’s Smokehouse” is a collection of essays that draws upon the author’s life in Wrangell, infused with stories about her father and her own explorations, often with grandchildren, of the natural world. In the now-popular genre of combined memoir and recipes known as a “foodoir,” the book shares Prescott’s family recipes featuring locally-gathered ingredients.

Do you wonder what gatherers of spruce tips — the bright-green spring growth at the end of a branch — do with them besides making beer? Prescott will tell you. As she says near the start of the book, " … you should know I’m obsessed with spruce tips. I love picking them, sniffing them, eating them, drinking them, and cooking with spruce tips ... spruce tips and spruce tip juice, pulp, and salt are in many of the fishcamp foods I prepare.”

The essays cover various aspects of life in Tlingit Aani, Tlingit country, with titles like “Halibut Sustain Us,” “Backyard Glaciers,” “Wrangell Winter Games,” “A Bunch of Hooligans,” “Gifts from the Porcupine” and “Listening to the Forest.” Prescott includes stories passed down from her grandfather (one about his encounter with a giant octopus), quotes from her father (“Sleeping spiders must go” as he lights a smokehouse fire) and teachings from her daughter (“an expert on Tlingit traditional foods and medicines.”) Most of them appeared first as newspaper columns, resulting in a fair amount of repeated information and commentary. Throughout, Prescott emphasizes the importance of learning the traditional values of where one lives, gratitude for what the land and sea provide, and the responsibility to share with community.

The included recipes are basic, likely familiar in similar versions to most Alaskans. They include salmon roasted in skunk cabbage leaves, a herring-egg salad, dried seaweed, salmon spread, salmon chowder, salmon caviar, berry pies, halibut crepes, hooligan spring rolls, jellies and teas. Prescott says, “I consider myself an average cook. What I am, though, is someone who is curious and adept at fishcamp gastronomy.” None of the recipes involve meat.

The title chapter describes her father’s system for smoking salmon, from cutting and brining to glazing and smoking. She sets it in a scene with grandchildren and rounds it out with her own early memories and a brief history of Tlingit smokehouses and their government destruction. She clams up, though, toward the end, when “hours later” the fish is ready to eat. In a parenthesis she tells us, “The smoking time and final step is a secret he (her father) forbids me to reveal.”

Black and white photos throughout, as well as the cover photo of smoked hooligan, are by the author.

“Old Woman with Berries in Her Lap,” as a poetry collection, shares with the first book interests in Indigenous heritage and wisdom. Here, though, the emphasis is on the poet’s identity as a Sami descendant and her imagined experiences of the reindeer people who migrated across northern landscapes. The book title comes from a Sami riddle: “What is an old woman with berries in her lap? A well-traveled lavvu with fire in its center.” A lavvu is a Sami tent, something like a tipi; it’s also a strong cultural symbol.

A unifying feature of the collection is the titling of a majority of the poems, borrowed from the hundreds of Sami language words and phrases that relate to snow, ice, freezing and melting. “Moarri—Thin ice crust that breaks and cuts the hoofs of horses and reindeers.” “Soatma—ice-slush or snow-slush on the water of a river or lake.” “Beallgalmmas—Half-frozen.”

In “Cartography,” the speaker appeals to “Grandmother,” a figure who “chewed alder to red paste” and mixed it with ash to draw on the stretched skins of drums “before black robes silenced our trances.” Although such drums are “now mute behind museum glass,” the speaker still sees the patterns moving, “a map lingering with lichen-scent, signposts herding my migration toward home.”

Another poem, “Drawing Blanks,” consists of lines to be finished. “White Indigenous people are ___________.” “You aren’t Indigenous because you don’t live ______________.” “You are fascinated with the sun and wind because ________.”

Yet another poem, “Drum Jingle,” asks, “Now, how am I going to know when the river bends toward the sky world?” And answers, “I am still here dancing on the rim of sea, picking sea lettuce from the beach.”

The two Prescott books together are welcome additions to a dialogue about place, heritage and the identity of people closely connected to seasons and the cycles of all life, who move between worlds. Prescott tells us that the Sami have a word — baiki — that means “we carry a sense of home within us that endures. This is living at fishcamp: baiki.”

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."

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