Sealaska Heritage

NEWS_Blog_Apprentices go spruce-root gathering, prepping!

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Spruce-root apprentices seeking roots. Photos by Carl Tuzroyluke.

Photos: Apprentices go spruce-root gathering, prepping!

By Kaasteen (Katelynn Drake)​

Sealaska Heritage’s spruce-root gathering and weaving class held its first session on Saturday, June 19. Ten apprentice students in Juneau convened at the start of Boy Scout Camp Trail to learn the art of spruce-root gathering from Tlingit artist Naakil.aan (Hans Chester). Naakil.aan has been harvesting and weaving spruce-roots for twenty years and apprenticed under Delores Churchill, a renowned Haida artist. After some introductions, including students’ Tlingit names and prior harvesting experience, the group ventured off on the trail for a mile hike into the green woods. It was a clear sunny day as the group waded through wild greenery that was up to their waists. Before the harvesting began, Naakil.aan demonstrated in Tlingit how to pay proper respect to the forest and give gratitude to the spruce for the roots it would be offering for the harvest.

Naakil.aan also explained that the ideal spot for spruce-root harvesting would be rich, moist soil, covered by a spongy bed of moss. The flatter the ground, the better – which means to avoid rocky places because roots will grow around rocks rather than laying flat and close to the surface like one would want for harvesting. The group found an ideal clearing where students then gathered around Naakil.aan to observe how the roots are harvested. Much like with the proper Tlingit expression of gratitude and respect, the first thing Naakil.aan emphasized the importance of being mindful of the impact that they were making on the surrounding nature. Whenever someone is harvesting roots, they should be careful to leave the area as close to undisturbed as it was when they came upon it. That means rather than leaving large gashes in the harvesting area, harvesters should be replacing any soil, plants, or foliage that they displaced during their time there. This goes back to respecting nature and making sure not to harm the land that is providing for them. Naakil.aan then went on to show the group precisely how to roll the moss, dig for the roots, and what size root to be on the lookout for.

Students were then tasked to find a good spot and begin searching for their own roots. 

After about two hours of harvesting on their own, the group reconvened to compare the size of their hauls and discuss any difficulties they experienced. Something most students struggled with was tying off their roots after they had coiled them, which is an important preparation for the next step of harvesting: roasting the roots.

After the group ventured back along the trail, and traveled down to Auke Rec, Naakil.aan prepared the fire. Students then learned the importance of having a very hot fire and roasting the roots on the same day that they are harvested.

Naakil.aan demonstrated the process of roasting the roots, stripping the outer layer with éenaa, and then rinsing and bagging the roots.

To end the day, students were then taught how to split and store the roots. The group learned just how extensive the process of harvesting was – and that was only the first day! Many students spent days after the harvest still working to split their roots, a truly tricky process.

There will be more harvesting weekends to come for this group, where they will also be learning how to harvest and process grass for false embroidery. Finally in the last phase of the class, students will begin learning the process for spruce-root weaving. A deep respect and appreciation for the hard work of spruce-root weavers is now ingrained in each and every one of the students.