A plaque to Maria Miller at the Skagway Museum. PHOTO BY SARA KINJO-HISCHER

By DAN FOX
EDITOR

Skagway’s Traditional Council has been cultivating a batch of unique spuds – Maria’s Potato to be precise – that have an interesting history in the Southeast Alaska area.

Maria’s Potato, named such after Maria Miller from Haines, is also sometimes referred to as the Tlingít Potato. Elizabeth Kunibe, an agro ecologist who has spent years researching the topic, said in a phone interview that documentation shows Miller’s family has been growing this specific type of potato in the area for generations.

In a paper looking into the origin of the Tlingít Potato, Kunibe wrote that there are multiple possibilities for how potatoes were introduced to Alaska. They might have come as a trade item between Northwest Coast People. Potatoes also could have arrived with Russian fur traders and Spanish or French explorers who established gardens.

Of note is how the potato, and other crops, were grown in a way that fit into the Tlingít and indigenous peoples’ lifestyle.

Alaska Native people lived off a seasonal system of gathering, fishing, hunting and preserving foods, according to Kunibe.

The Tlingít and indigenous peoples would leave home in the summer and go to fish camps. Some family members – oftentimes the grandparents Kunibe said – would travel to shoreline islands to plant crops, then follow their families.

They would plant the crops – including potatoes and other root crops – on sandy, sloping ground. The gardens would be fertilized with seaweed, and then the gardeners would follow after their families. On their way back home at the turn of the season, the crops would be harvested in the fall.

The style of planting was what Kunibe calls “plant it and leave it.” Kunibe said she acquired the information on lifestyles through interviews with families about life in the past.

The Traditional Council recently harvested a batch of 64 Tlingít Potatoes, which were grown from four planted seed potatoes. Stephanie Palmer, program assistant with the Traditional Council, said the plan is to test this current batch of spuds at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Agriculture Plant Pathology Lab for diseases. If the tests come back good, next year the Traditional Council will look at pushing the potato as a sustainable crop, dispersing them out into the Skagway community.

“Everyone loves food, right? What better way to engage the community and teach them about culture and ancestry than through food?” Palmer said. “We want to grow and share and spread this traditional resource with our tribal members, but also with other people in the community.”

The endeavor could stem into a local food source, but as important is drawing attention to the culture connected to the crop, Palmer said.

“I think a lot of it is just creating that educational opportunity to bring people closer to their ancestors and the land,” Palmer said.