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Alaska Bites: Thanksgiving on the table of an Unangax woman

 Haliehana Stepetin prepares a traditional Unangax meal (KTUU)
Haliehana Stepetin prepares a traditional Unangax meal (KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Nov. 22, 2018 at 7:39 PM AKST
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We all have those favorite family stories and recipes we share around the table at Thanksgiving. For Haliehana Stepetin, who is called Alagum Ayagaa or Ocean Woman in the Unangam Tunuu, those stories and recipes take a decidedly oceanic theme.

She welcomed me and KTUU photojournalist Leah Schwartz — two Midwestern transplants, curious to hear what Thanksgiving means to her and what foods are shared at her table — into her home. Haliehana answered initially that the holiday celebrated since colonial times can have multiple meanings: "Well, it's a history based on genocide," she said.

She sees another side, too.

"Instead of using this as an opportunity to discuss the negative of our history," she said, "without losing the clear settler-colonial nature that we live in today, we use this as an opportunity to get together anyway and to eat our favorite foods together."

The food is plentiful: Haliehana's kitchen counters are full of fish from all over Alaska, some caught on Akutan, the Aleutian island where she was born and raised. Some was brought to Anchorage by her uncle, while others she caught herself this summer in Homer, Seward, or on the Kasilof and Russian Rivers. She's traded for alax, or whale, gotten chadux, or seal oil from that same uncle, and made hudax or smoked fish in her back yard.

Plentiful, but not necessarily convenient. A full summer's worth of work is behind the bounty, including uncounted hours of travel, trade and hauling to get her freezer stocked. All the effort was made not just by her and her family, but also by members of her community from across the state.

Haliehana says the effort that goes into the preparation is worth it.

"We want to know the intention of the people who made these foods was, and their relationship to the land and the animals," she said.

For Haliehana's family, food is serious business, and so is fun. For every somber sentence, there are nearly as many jokes. When offering us KTUU staffers baliikax, Haliehana issued a warning in good humor.

"My Auntie Anna - she would say, this Native food, it's our perfume. So you would eat it and you know you're going to smell like smoked fish for the rest of the day," she said with a laugh. "Just so you know, the rest of the day you will smell like Akutan smoked fish."

We eat the fish anyway. It was tender, textured by a subtle wood ocean flavor, and delicious.

Tonight Haliehana will spend the evening gathered eating with family, but that's not where her night ends.

"And then I like to take food out to the homeless people on the streets too," she says.

The colonial history of Thanksgiving isn't what she's aiming to celebrate, but she acknowledges the effect of the movement of people.

"It's a reality of what we all live in today. We all do it," she says.

"I'm Unangax. These are not my traditional homelands either," she says. "I think the best thing we can do as settlers in this place is to acknowledge the land on which we reside, which here in Anchorage, we're on the Dena'ina peoples' land; the Eklutna tribe of the Dena'ina people."

She embraces the opportunity to celebrate her people, her culture, and sharing it all with strangers.

She takes a moment to encourage us to connect to the the land we're on, even if we're just passing through, and to try and make a connection with the foods we enjoy.

"Eat locally. Re-localize your food and your table and your plate," she says. "Have a deeper relationship and connection to the food you're eating."