S’áxt’ (Devil’s Club): Sacred Medicine
By Vivian Mork Yéilk’
I was born in s’áxt’ harvesting season, but my story begins 10,000 years ago in the Southeast Alaskan landscape. Many people know me as the “Devil’s Club Lady.” S’áxt’ is one of our most sacred medicines in Tlingit Aaní. My life-long journey with this plant continues. I’ve learned about Tlingit traditional foods and medicines from my Elders, aunties, uncles, cousins, clan sisters and brothers, and my community. As I learned about this sacred medicine, I heard their life stories and their connections to our foods and medicines. Some stories are about assimilation, shame, and trauma. Other stories are about grandchildren, knowledge, and love. I bring those stories with me whenever I harvest our foods and plants, and I know, too, that listening to one another’s stories is good medicine.
When harvesting s’áxt’, I clean them under a big tree. Trees are our Grandmothers. As they grow, a symbiotic relationship develops between the s’áxt’ and the trees. This relationship keeps our rainforest healthy. S’áxt’ needs to be wild, never farmed. You will never find good medicine from s’áxt’ grown from seed in a pot. I learned how to harvest from many sources, especially from other tradition-bearers. I only cut one stalk at a time and then clean it from beginning to end. This traditional knowledge allows us to only harvest what we can use and not overharvest. I only clean the plants in the area I cut them. I was taught not to scatter the needles all over, and to avoid cleaning them off the s’áxt’ directly on a hiking trail. Don’t clean them at a campsite, picnic table, your porch, or in your house, either. S’áxt’ thorns are hard to remove and can harm us and the animals if the thorns get embedded and infected.
Take care of this medicine, and it will take care of you.
S’áxt’ Devil’s Club
By Vivian Mork Yéilk’
You cannot hurry her.
You must gently
rub away her thorns
from the base of her being,
make a place for yourself
to hold her
because the real work
has just begun.
She is covered in thorns
from head to toe. —
The best medicine
how to protect itself.
*S’áxt’ Devil’s Club in the Lingít language.
*Previously appeared in Edible Alaska
S’áxt‘ Our Sacred Medicine
Halibut, the Gift Fish
Vivian Faith Prescott
The halibut hits my line with a thud, and it runs with the line, pulling it off the pole as the fish swims across the seafloor. At our fishcamp, halibut fishing is a family event. We take turns heading out to our spots. Sometimes I go, and sometimes I don’t get to go. We go with how many people are safe for the type of fishing and the size of the boat. So we have to take our turn. Just about everyone’s favorite fish to eat is halibut.
Today, I’m fishing with my dad, husband, son, and sister. I’m using my good-luck fishing pole and thick halibut line, and we’re in our favorite halibut spot out front of our island. Traditional carved halibut hook hangs on the fishcamp wall, but we don’t use it: A yew branch, stem-bent to V-shape, lashed on a bone barb with split cedar root, sinew, or bull kelp stem. We bait with octopus if we have it, or any gurrie bait we catch.
I let the halibut tire itself out, then I reel and reel until the fish can be seen just under the surface, where we gauge whether we need to shoot it (if it’s too big, bringing the halibut aboard can be dangerous; the fish can injure us). We’re fortunate that the fish is about 40 pounds, so we shark-hook it and heave it aboard. Back at the fishcamp, we filet the halibut on the fish cleaning table. The family helps package up the meat for sharing. The Sámi value that material wealth is shared and given away is inherent in understanding láhi, our gifts from the land. We catch halibut and package the filets and share them with family.
Audio recording of Vivian Faith Prescott with transcripts below
Transcript: Welcome to Postcards from the Rainforest. I am your host Vivian Faith Prescott. I’m coming to you from Tlingit Aaní, home of the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan and Ḵaachx̱aana.áakʼw, Wrangell, Alaska. I live and write and learn at my fishcamp, Mickey’s Fishcamp, Giitu. Thank you for joining me.
(1:08) Halibut. Like snow falling upward—thousands of halibut eggs reach the surface of the sea. Baby halibut are carried by the wind and currents to shallow waters. Hatched in deep water, developing halibut float freely for the first six months of life. Halibut are shapeshifters. The young halibut’s skull bones bend and shift, a single eye moves over the nose, mouth moves to the side, the body tips sideways. One side of the flatfish pales, the other side is dark and mottled. The halibut turns parallel to the ocean floor and swims for the first time as its new self.
(2:19) I imagine my children’s great grandfather fashioning wood halibut hooks: A yew branch, stem-bent to V-shape, lashed on a bone barb with split cedar root, sinew, or bull kelp stem. Bait with octopus. Octopus is the best.
(2:38) I tell my son that Raven gave all the fish to us as a gift. My grandson has just caught a halibut. My son whacks the halibut on the head with a club. Their ancestors used to tell the halibut it was being hit with a feather. It takes two of us, but we pull the fish aboard our boat. Back home at Mickey’s Fishcamp we filet the halibut and package the filets into small packages. We freeze the fish for use all winter. We save a few large pieces out though so we can grill the fish up for an evening meal.
(3:18) Gunalchéesh giitu. Thank you, halibut.
This is a poem dedicated to the commercial halibut fishermen.
(3:42) Fish On
By Vivian Faith Prescott
The fishermen of the Inside Passage
fish on gray water—waves tumbling
over the stern of the skiff,
huge white bellies float up from beneath
the surface. They gaff and heave—
ganions taut, circle hooks flying,
hands slipped inside orange rubber
gloves, wrapped around baseball bats—
thwack—wood cracking, splattering
blood across the gunwales.
Fish blood flies—fins and tails beat
their ankles with force enough
to break a leg—This one’ll pay the fuel bill.
After the commotion dies, bludgeoned
halibut lay silent, one atop another,
sliding along the skiff bottom.
The fishermen, their hair caked with,
slime oozing into salt-cracked fingers,
shout—whoo hoo—across the inlet—
voices rising with the gulls, mingling
in wind and mist. Fishermen so tired as if drunk
on seventy-two hours of nonstop fishing—red faces,
slurred speech, staggering in green
Helly Hansens dripping with stench.
They trudge up my driveway, gravel clacking
beneath their rubber boots, returning home—
smelling of fish and money and sea.