Resilient Peoples and Place: Alaska Youth Stewards — Where Are They Now?

Banner photo: Hoonah’s Alaska Youth Stewards crew harvests beach asparagus to process for Culture Camp. Photo by Ḵaa Yahaayí Shkalneegi Muriel Reid

Interviews by Bethany Sonsini Goodrich and Shaelene Grace Moler

This story first published in Sustainable Southeast Partnership’s column Resilient Peoples & Place with Juneau Empire April 11th, 2024.

This story comes from the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.

Tlingit and Haida’s Alaska Youth Stewards program is seeking applicants for it’s 2024 season youth crews and crew leaders now. Apply at https://tinyurl.com/Apply2AYS.

(Sustainable Southeast Partnership) – Developing a workforce, when done well, is about much more than career preparedness and the transferal of skills.

The Alaska Youth Stewards (AYS) program acts as a catalyst for change by nurturing a new generation of environmental leaders who actively contribute to community well-being, restoration, and resilience in the face of environmental changes. As an employment program for rural and Indigenous youth of Southeast Alaska, AYS offers place-based on-the-job experiential education and training to care for our lands, waters and communities. 

Led by Tlingit & Haida, AYS is further strengthened by community partners that vary from Tribal governments, Alaska Native Corporations, the USDA Forest Service, Conservation groups, and a Vocational Technical center. Work seasons are dynamic and reflect the priorities and needs of each community that hosts a crew while exposing youth to a diversity of potential careers and professional networks along the way. 

In 2023, 19 crew members in Angoon, Prince of Wales, Kake, and Hoonah, collectively met over 106 different instructors from various Southeast Alaskan institutions. They completed 88 hours of safety training and participated in 31 different workshops. Crews improved or maintained 20 miles of recreational trails, built 2 miles of new trail, built or repaired 29 structures like picnic tables and bridges, and restored 15 different recreation sites that experience heavy public use. They surveyed salmon streams, conducted scientific studies of salmon habitat, restored rivers, planted over 500 trees and shrubs, and collected over 5 thousand pounds of trash from local beaches and forests. They inventoried and collected tree core samples from 50 ancient cedar trees —  helping document and understand this important cultural resource. Nearly 800 gallons of wild foods were harvested and distributed to community members and 17 potlucks and community events were hosted. 

In addition to acquiring valuable professional experience and life skills, youth make friends, meet role models, and stretch their limits mentally and physically. Alongside Community Forest Partnerships (page 16), AYS crews used hand tools to hoist and crank massive trees into salmon streams to complete restoration structures they helped design. They learn to seine and smoke sockeye salmon. Some youth enter the program with family techniques and recipes to share. For others, this is their first time setting a halibut skate. 

Graduates of the program have gone on to lead or support shellfish testing labs with their Tribal governments. They now work with the USDA Forest Service or with their local Alaska Native Corporation to advance community food security. They work for Community Forest Partnerships, are pursuing post graduate degrees in fisheries and importantly, come home to serve as crew leads or help with local youth Culture Camps.

The true success of a workforce development program is best measured over time and through the experiences of those who know the program best. For this story, we spend time with a group of Alaska Youth Stewards graduates. 

Talia Davis gains valuable forestry experience on the Alaska Youth Stewards Crew and Keex’ Kwaan Community Forest Partnership. (Photo by Bethany Sonsini Goodrich)

Talia Davis, Age 26

Ḵéex̱ʼ (Kake)

Years with AYS: 1 as lead

Continued on to Ḵéex̱ʼ Kwaan Community Forest Partnership, current Masters student in Plankton Ecology

Talia grew up on the lands, waters, and old logging roads of Kake. As a Sealaska intern, she became the crew lead of the very first AYS cohort in 2017 on Prince of Wales Island. Later, Talia worked for the Kéex Kwaan Community Forest Partnership and is now a Master’s student at Oregon State University studying Plankton Ecology. She is currently part of Fresh Tracks, an Aspen Institute mentorship program working with youth across the United States providing cross-cultural community building skills, leadership development training, civic engagement opportunities, and resources for innovative community-led action. 

What are you passionate about?

I’m passionate about Native lands, how they relate to the people who steward them, and how I can better help protect those resources while increasing Indigenous power back in that process.

What do you remember about your first AYS experiences?

AYS was kind of the first place I grew up. We were using four-wheelers and other equipment that I had grown up around but deploying them in different ways. One of the projects involved turning an old logging road into a trail system. Our crew spent so much time growing up on old logging roads that we knew what needed to be done to keep that road/trail intact. 

I had just left Kake and I didn’t really feel older than the other AYS members, but I ended up being their crew lead. I would make sure everyone was ready and out-the-door in the morning and made dinner. It was the first time that somebody truly trusted me in a leadership position.

How has that experience influenced your personal and professional journey?

AYS was really the turning point where I knew I wanted to have a career in environmental science. I switched my major to fisheries. Growing up, I didn’t know people doing those kinds of jobs. 

Now that I’ve experienced science and what it looks like down here in Oregon too, I really see how Southeast Alaska has been well stewarded by Indigenous hands, and logically, we should have more people in our communities doing this type of work. It’s not really surprising to me I guess, because people in villages historically have not been given those opportunities to experience those types of jobs. But now AYS is doing exactly that. The value of community care and the mentorship you give and receive in AYS is the type of collaborative science and community work that should be done universally. Now, when I go home, most of the high schoolers have done some type of internship or summer program, which is so awesome.

How did AYS instill values of community care? How have you applied these principles to your life?

It’s very cool how the AYS program pivots each summer to reflect not only what the students are interested in, but also what the community is interested in. 

That’s something I have tried to carry with me in grad school. We need to go out and ask the people on the lands what they want to see and adjust research goals accordingly. It’s just been a hard shift because Western science cuts away everything except for your data, and how you’re going to publish it. That’s just not how academia or science is built right now, but it’s something that I think about as I’m conducting my science.

I’m studying freshwater plankton, which seems irrelevant, but they are important — whether for salmon food or something else. For me, being able to draw those connections so that people understand what’s being done on their land and why it’s beneficial to them is something that’s really important to me. 

Networking is also a really big part of life as you get older, and AYS was my first time experiencing that. Because it was a collaboration with Sealaska, I had my mentor, Bob Girt who was great to have while getting into this field. He also showed me the importance of making connections with different agencies and groups. Now, I have real friends and allies from that experience.

What are some challenges you encountered since your time in AYS?

We, as people who grew up in Kake, know the island, we know the waters, and we know the land. Honestly, we could probably make some pretty good management decisions about what trees we should be protecting and what streams need restoration. We have that knowledge in us, but we can’t make those decisions. It’s frustrating that to be able to maybe make those decisions one distant day, we have to go get an education in a system that’s already built against us. Western science strips a lot of our values away from us and we have to go away and do all that so that we can come home and try to tell Fish & Game how many fish we should catch.

How have you worked to try and overcome this challenge?

It’s a lifelong thing, right? Yeah. It can be really overwhelming but it’s helpful for me to take trips home, work with youth in Kake, or spend time outside because it reminds me why I’m doing this work. Also, looking at other examples of ways people have combined Western science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, that makes me really hopeful too. I have to remind myself that no matter how much I get heated up over these things, I’m not gonna be able to fix all the issues within Western science. It’s gonna be a long process, and I am doing what I can.

Are there any other hopes and dreams you have for youth? For Kake?

I think overall I just really hope for a healthier community–healthier fish, deer, berries, and all those good things. But, I think we need to make sure that our people are healthy, physically and mentally. If we have all these amazing resources, it’s not going to matter if we don’t have people who are healthy enough to be making management decisions or benefiting from those decisions. So I just hope for more empowerment within the community. 

Being able to manage our own resources is a dream. I worked at NOAA Fisheries for the past two years and my boss told me so many times that the government’s gonna be around forever making these decisions. I hear that a lot, and I’m just like, “You just wait buddy!”

Ted Elliott harvests beach asparagus for community distribution as a participant in the Alaska Youth Stewards program, Today he works with the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership with the Hoonah Indian Association. (Photo by Bethany Sonsini Goodrich)

Ted Elliott, Age 18

Xunaa (Hoonah)

Seasons with Alaska Youth Stewards: 3

Now entering second year with Hoonah Native Forest Partnership

Ted grew up in Hoonah, Alaska, where from an early age, he knew his interests were in working outside on behalf of his home community — whether working on the gardens behind Hoonah Indian Association, caring for Moby the Mobile greenhouse, or helping Wayne Price adze a dugout canoe at age 12. When he became old enough to join AYS at 15, he jumped at the opportunity to trade working at the local grocery store for bug nets and raingear. Elliot joined the crew of the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership (HNFP) in 2023. 

What motivates you?

Any work that I can do around the community that helps the community whether it’s just one person, or the whole community —I am happy to do it. I enjoyed running Moby the greenhouse when I was younger. And last year we added new shelves for garden pots and a water collection system to it– so we were able to improve it. Whether it’s working in the greenhouse or going out on a salmon stream and repairing the damage that the loggers did many years ago, I enjoy it. 

I understand that you’re currently working on the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership crew. In what ways did AYS prepare you for that? 

There were a lot of activities shared between the AYS and HNFP programs so I saw HNFP in action and this really piqued my interest because they got to do a lot more advanced stuff compared to where we were and I am always trying to learn more and work harder.  In particular was stream restoration, so repairing salmon spawning habitat, rivers and streams damaged by past logging activities. It is some very physically demanding work that I like to do. I learned about it from AYS and get to do it now through HNFP.

Ted Elliott shows off fresh tomatoes in Moby the Mobile greenhouse during his younger years. (Photo by Bethany Sonsini Goodrich)

The work is physically demanding, why do you love salmon restoration so much? 

It is all about the community. Although it’s just one small stream or even just a tributary that we restore, there can be a few hundred or even a few thousand fish who could use it. It’s not going to be fast, but give it five years and we could have a higher outcome of fish in more local areas– and that’s food. Food here in Hoonah is getting really expensive and having a way to collect food, through cultural harvest, really helps us out.

What does it mean for a program like AYS to be ‘community oriented’?

It was a unique program with how we helped out the community because we would go out collecting food or collecting materials for elders or people that have a hard time getting out there. And that’s what I love about small communities in general, people are willing to do that for others, even if you barely know them. The AYS program includes harvesting for others; however, we also worked on improving the places where we collected. We would remove and monitor invasive species, improve the habitat around where we collect, restore streams and more. 

Have AYS and HNFP exposed you to any important mentors?

So there’s Ian Johnson (Hoonah Community Catalyst) and he’s been a real help ever since I was 13. This year with HNFP, Jamie Daniels from Angoon came over and the cool part about that is he’s actually learning from us too because Angoon wants to start a program similar to HNFP.. He taught us how to harvest cedar bark and a different way to gut a deer from what I was taught. It’s cool how the communities help one another. There’s been others from the US Forest Service that have made an impact on me with their way of life and how they value work too.

What has been the most impactful part of AYS?

The connections that I’ve made outside on the land have definitely been some of the best things that have happened to me. I’ve made friends that have gotten me to laugh so hard, I started to cry. I’ve also had friends that have been there when I was crying. 

What are your hopes and dreams for your community? What do you see as your role in supporting that?

I hope that the community will be able to continue culturally harvesting resources—whether that’s berries, beach, asparagus, deer, or fish. I hope that the community keeps their bonds with one another and continues to help one another. My role in that, both through AYS and now HNFP, is in preserving and repairing the land that supports the community.

Yajaira Ponce-Moran works as a crew member on the original 2017 Alaska Youth Stewards Crew (then called TRAYLS). (Photo by Bethany Sonsini Goodrich)

Yajaira Ponce-Moran

Taan (Prince of Wales Island)

Seasons with Alaska Youth Stewards: 2

Now studying Fisheries and Aquatic and Quantitative Science and leading Prince of Wales Alaska Youth Stewards

Yajaira was born in Mexico and grew up in eastern Washington. After moving to Klawock on Prince of Wales Island as a high schooler she became passionate about the outdoors and joined the first Alaska Youth Stewards Program in 2017. Six years later she returned from her studies in Fisheries and Aquatic and Quantitative Science during the summer to serve as the crew lead for the same program.

Did participating on AYS inspire your career and academic trajectory?

It definitely did. When I was at that age, I had an idea of all these high powered jobs that I wanted to do and that I would leave this small town and go out and make a bunch of money. But AYS helped me see other ways to be “successful.” You could be happy working outside, make a reasonable living and enjoy your life in your community. It changed my perspective, and now I love the outdoors and I go crazy if I’m not going outside at some point each day. Right now I’m studying fisheries to hopefully spend more time outside.

What attracted you to take the summer position of crew lead?

A friend shared it with me and it sounded challenging because kids are challenging, but also there were people there supporting me at that age. So I thought it would be kind of cool to try and be that person for another kiddo.

What do you think the AYS youth most look to their leads for?

Not science questions, which was the only thing I was prepared to answer!

But honestly, it can get real really quick when you’re working with youth here and inevitably it can turn into a personal mentorship. They’re telling me all their problems and I want to help them, and I just want them to have a good time and a better life, but as a crew lead you only have so much control over their lives and it can be very difficult.

How do you approach supporting youth while recognizing those limitations?

I mostly focus on helping them recognize the importance of kindness for one another. They sometimes respond with all of these problems they have and ask, ‘All of this is happening in my life. How can I possibly be kind?’ I just talk to them through respect towards each other and how to be calm and kind. But it’s true you end up with a lot of respect for these kids for being as kind as they aregiven some of  the issues that they’re facing– they are too young to be dealing with a lot of it and I’m sorry for that. The youth can be pretty incredible in these ways and resilient in supporting one another. 

When it comes to transferring skills to the next generation, what do you think is the most important skill participants get out of AYS. 

Problem solving. Especially when we’re building things out in the middle of nowhere, things don’t always work out so easily. The trail is not flat and perfectly even or square for you to just throw some stairs or a bridge on top of for example. We let them struggle and they get mad and I’m like, ‘Okay, now let’s think through and slow down and think about it together’. Problem solving is really a transferable skill and it’s important to have a program where youth use their heads and think through what they have available to them and how they can get to where they need to be by working with each other and using what they have on hand. 

Advice for future Alaska Youth Stewards? 

I would say to slow down for a second and enjoy the place that you’re at. I think I was very eager to leave the Island, go out in the world and explore all these things and now that I’m not there anymore I miss the freedom that Alaska imparts on you. I want to go fishing or mushroom foraging and I have such a hard time finding land that isn’t privatized now. Alaska is really special in that way.

For Klawock, I’d love to see more of the youth stay. There’s a lot of people that leave looking for something ‘better’, and I think Klawock is under-appreciated and a wonderful place. Of course there’s issues like economic development and housing but it’s a great place and I’d love to see it grow and flourish.

Interested in becoming a crew leader or joining an Alaska Youth Stewards crew, apply today: https://tinyurl.com/Apply2AYS

Yajaira Ponce-Moran served as the leader of an Alaska Youth Stewards Crew on Prince of Wales Island in 2023. (Photo by Bethany Sonsini Goodrich)