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Western culture tends to think of arts in segregated groups - storytelling, cooking, gathering, painting. Roby Littlefield, of Sitka, will show people that art is a whole in the University of Alaska Southeast's Art of Place Series.
The art of life 022013 NEWS 1 Capital City Weekly Western culture tends to think of arts in segregated groups - storytelling, cooking, gathering, painting. Roby Littlefield, of Sitka, will show people that art is a whole in the University of Alaska Southeast's Art of Place Series.

Photo By Roby Littlefield

A branch laden with herring eggs is pulled into a boat.


Photo By Roby Littlefield

Two people take branches from herring egg harvesting.


Photo By Roby Littlefield

Herring eggs cook in a pan.


Photo By Roby Littlefield

Herring eggs are being strained.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Story last updated at 2/20/2013 - 2:02 pm

The art of life

Western culture tends to think of arts in segregated groups - storytelling, cooking, gathering, painting. Roby Littlefield, of Sitka, will show people that art is a whole in the University of Alaska Southeast's Art of Place Series.

Ernestine Hayes, UAS assistant professor of English, organizes the series. She said a big challenge she is seeking to address in the series is that western-based cultures have made art a discipline, rather than an incorporated natural element in our daily lives.

"We're schooled to think of art with a capital 'A,' as something else," Hayes said. "Arts is over here, and storytelling is over here, and cooking is here and gathering is there. Everything is in its own school and discipline. There's a taxonomy. But if we look at it from a more human perspective we see that they're not separated, they're blended: our spirituality, our art, the way we speak, dress. It's all part of everything else. It's the art of life."

On March 22, Littlefield will deliver a presentation, "Herring eggs, seal grease and seaweed."

Littlefield, 61, is originally from Fairbanks, and met her husband John, who is of Tlingit heritage, when she was a teenager. Her father had homesteaded in Fairbanks and Littlefield, as the eldest child in the family, assisted in the construction of the family house. She said she enjoyed working hard, and lived close to the land, but as she met her husband in a more urban scene, she didn't realize how similar his family's relationship with the natural environment was to hers.

"But something about him clicked," she said. "As I found out more about him, I enjoyed how he lived and the things he and his family would do: hunting, fishing, smoking (fish), gathering food and sharing."

The couple moved to Sitka in 1971.

"We spent summers at fish camp, putting up food for the winter, sharing with the community what we harvested during the summer," Littlefield said. "It was our way of life."

It still is. Herring run through the Sitka area in April, and Littlefield's husband would generally harvest the eggs with his uncle. One summer, while in her 20s, John was occupied and Littlefield took his place. After that spring, she said, the obligation fell to her. She would take her children out every year, and though they are adults now, she continues to harvest the herring roe April after April.

"When I first learned, my husband's uncle taught me how to harvest herring eggs at low tide," Littlefield said. "Now we have to go out in a boat to find the herring."

She explained that there is a two-week period when the herring runs spawn on the shores, and timing is critical.

"You can't do it too early or too late; you have to be prepared," Littlefield said.

She said she takes her boat out to watch for the schooling fish with bundles of hemlock branches, which she places in the water. She returns the following day, and, if she's hit the run well, the branches are full of herring roe.

"They're heavy, very, very heavy," Littlefield said. "You can't pick it up on your own when it's covered in roe. It feels like Easter. We joke about it, 'It's Easter egg time,' as its right around Easter."

Littlefield said that the roe are about half the size of a large grain of rice. She then cuts the branches into smaller pieces and places them into gallon-sized Ziploc bags, and places them into chest freezers.

"If you don't kill the herring they come back every year," Littlefield said. "But when they're harvested commercially, for their roe, they're killed at four or five years. The reproductive cycle has been impacted terribly by the commercial overharvesting."

Typically, Littlefield said, she scalds the branches for a few seconds, pulls them out, places them into a strainer and peels off chucks of roe. Though some people enjoy them fresh, raw from the ocean, they are often served blanched and dipped into butter or seal oil.

"Some people like to add soy sauce to the butter or oil," Littlefield said, "Although it's already very salty."

She struggled to estimate the quantity of roe she harvests annually, but said she typically fills two and a half large chest freezers. Though Littlefield enjoys consuming the herring roe, she said part of the harvesting process is sharing. That estimation was easier for her: she gives away most of what she harvests, to friends, family and those in need who no longer have the ability to harvest their own.

The Art of Place series, now in its third season, has designated a concept of food, edible art, the collection and preservation of local resources for the series, which began in January.

"Each year I try to take a different stance, occupy a different prospective, take another look at our art, at our place," Hayes said.

When asked who "our" is, Hayes drew a circle with her hands.

"Anyone who feels included when I say 'our place,' and more specifically, talking about you and me," she said.

Roby Littlefield's presentation is on March 22 from 10 a.m. to noon at the University of Alaska Southeast Glacier View room 221. The event is free. Littlefield will have photos illustrating the harvest process. For more information on the Art of Place series, visit www.uas.alaska.edu/arts_sciences/humanities/events.html.

Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at amanda.compton@capweek.com.


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