Seaweed. Photo by Silas Baisch/Unsplash

By Teal Hansen

Seaweed is all the rage right now, but it has been a diet staple for our ancestors since time immemorial. Our coastal Native populations depend on our waters to provide spiritual, nutritional, and cultural pathways. Seaweed still plays a key role in the cultural heritage of our tribe.  

Prince William Sound has endured hundreds of years of resource extraction, environmental disasters, commercial fisheries, ecosystem fluctuations, and temperate ebbs and flows. Now we are seeing a boom in mariculture development. I love this for our innovative Cordovans, but I figured since this is a hot topic, an article on the traditional uses and names of these resources is fitting.  

For over 10,000 years, traditional food has connected our people with the land and sea through cultural rights and traditional practices that have been passed down through the generations. Our Tribal Members continue to define themselves by the customs and traditions in gathering, processing, and distributing natural resources. The sharing of these cultural customs – traditional procedures and ethics – are an essential element of our subsistence practices and knowledge. Like all Indigenous harvesting methods, there is a guideline when collecting seaweed to insure the continuance of this resource:  

  • Do not harvest all your wild seaweed in a single area. 
  • Selectively cut, or thin, the seaweed. 
  • Never leave a rock bare of seaweed or the habitat is negatively impacted. 
  • Leave the lower base and holdfast to continue providing habitation. 
  • Rinse larger varieties in the ocean to remove small animals. 
  • Only take what you can process. 
  • Provide for / share with your elders.  

Seaweed and kelp were used as sustenance, medicine, for trade, and as tools by our ancestors. Seaweed also supports underwater habitats by feeding and protecting these ecosystems, as well as providing a laying ground for herring roe. Most varieties were collected in the spring and summer, but some larger seaweeds can be picked into the fall and even winter. Many traditional recipes continue to be used today, including sugar kelp-wrapped salmon, bull kelp pickles, and ribbon kelp soup. The Native Village of Eyak’s Subsistence Department distributes herring roe on kelp each season.  

Several species of kelp were used to treat a range of ailments, including headaches, bleeding disorders, and goiters, as well as used as a preventative measure, which is really incredible. Before the modern incorporation of iodized table salt into everyday diets, iodine deficiencies were common. Resulting goiters, characterized by swelling of the thyroid tissue that surrounds the throat, were alleviated by eating kelp. Kelp is a rich source of iodine among other vitamins and nutrients.  

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The following is a summary of traditional medicinal use for commonly used seaweeds along our coast (Garibaldi & Schofield): 

Sieve Kelp (species Agarum): Iituk (Sugt’stun) 

The Sugpiaq would drink a terrible tasting mixture of the seaweeds boiled juice with seal oil to treat colds/flu.  

Sugar Wrack / White Seaweed (genus Laminaria): Sel’aq | cimyaruaq (Sugt’stun) 

Harvested once sun bleached after washing up on the beach, burning/itching feet were soothed by wrapping in a blade of white seaweed.  

Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana): Meq’aq | qahnguq (PWS Sugt’stun), Nasquluq (Kodiak Aluti’stun), duh (dAXuhyuuga’), (Lingít) 

The stems of small bull kelp can be eaten raw or pickled. The stems were used to siphon water from boats, used to make fishing line, nets, or anchor line for securing boats or climbing cliffs. The hollow bulb was used as a bowl to hold hooligan oil or store other foods. The Tlingit used giant kelp to treat earaches and headaches by placing one end of the hollow stalk on a hot wet rock and the other in the ear. The steam traveled through the tube and relieved the pain. 

Black Seaweed (Porphyra species): Caquallqaq (Sugt’stun), Klar kish | thlakusk (Lingít)  

The PWS Sugpiaq chewed black seaweed to prevent goiter. The Tlingit used it to treat bowel/stomach troubles. Klar kish (Prophyra perforate) was cut/chewed into small pieces, boiled in water, and eaten, or dried near a fire, ground into a powder, and then used in their cooking. Thlakusk (Porphyra lacinaiata) was dried and compressed into cakes, or dried and drank as tea. The Tsimshian chewed or used black seaweed as a poultice to control bleeding, treat cuts, or help nausea. It is said that new mothers were given boiled black seaweed to cleanse the body of blood clots following childbirth. 

Red Seaweeds (phylum Rhodophyta): Nepuaq | sal’aq (Sugt’stun)  

The Sugpiaq dried, chewed, or boiled red seaweed with salmon roe to aid in childbirth and promote the mother’s milk flow.  

Pop Weed / Rockweed aka “Bladderwrack” (Fucus species): Caritet (Kodiak Aluti’stun), Tayeidí (Lingít), Elquat epuit (Yup’ik) 

It can be nibbled on raw, stir-fried, or may be cooked with clams and mussels to boost flavor. The inner gel acts as a thickening agent for soups and stews. It is high in iodine and is used as a remedy for joint and bone issues in children. The gel substance can be rubbed on tumors or remedy sore feet. Birket-Smith and de Laguna report that in times of famine, the Eyak would eat the stems. It is one of the most popular seaweeds gathered for food today. Ancestral Sugpiaq would eat it raw, dip it in oil, or pair with sea urchin eggs. The Sugpiaq say rockweed is good for the stomach and prevents vomiting.  

It should be known that some common names may seem inconsistent with your own knowledge. I must disclose that I am not a marine biologist or mariculture authority of any kind. I cannot take credit for this information, nor have I checked with other Tribes for verification. I would like to credit the esteemed following for providing me with traditional knowledge and information conveyed in this article: 

  • Dolly Garza (Haida-Tlingit): Traditional harvester, weaver, and textile artist. Ph.D in Marine Policy. Retired professor from University of Alaska. Former Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory agent. Author of “Common Edible Seaweeds in the Gulf of Alaska.” 
  • My auntie, Kim Aspelund (Alutiiq-Tlingit): Traditional plant harvester and educator. Traditional Healing and Holistic Health educator and practitioner. Apprentice of the late Dr. Rita Blumenstein, our very first Alaska Native Tribal Doctor. 
  • Ann Garibaldi: Ethnobotanist/Ethnoecologist with extensive experience in traditional environmental knowledge and traditional land use. Compilation author of “Medicinal Flora of the Alaska Natives.” 
  • Janice Schofield: Author of “Discovering Wild Plant: Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest,” and of “Alaska’s Wild Plants: A guide to Alaska’s Edible and Healthful Harvest.” 
  • Caitlin McKinstry: Lead Biologist, Department of Environment & Natural Resources, Native Village of Eyak. 

Teal Hansen is the Cultural Coordinator for the Native Village of Eyak. 

The Native Voices Column is a Cordova Times column that highlights and uplifts the experiences and culture of the many Native populations that make up our community through guest contributions to the paper. If you are interested in submitting something about your Tribe, Village or a Native topic that is important to you, you can email us at [email protected]. The Cordova Times covers and is distributed on the historical and unceded territories of the dAXunhyuu (Eyak people), the Prince William Sound Sugpiaq, and the Yaakwdáat Lingít. 

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