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Carcross/Tagish First Nation harvest heirloom potato crop

The Lingít K’úntsx’ variety has been grown by coastal Tlingit for over 200 years
The seeds for the Lingít K’úntsx’, or Tlingit Potato, were brought to the Carcross/Tagish First Nation garden in February from Juneau, Alaska. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

The smallest potato from the Carcross/Tagish First Nation garden harvest this year was the size of a pea. The spud might be tiny, but its ancestors travelled a long way to get here.

The Lingít K’úntsx’, or Tlingit potato, has been grown in Alaska for over 200 years. The species was once thought to have been brought from Europe, but geneticists have tracked the tuber to South America, where it was traded up by Indigenous peoples along the coast for hundreds of years.

The potatoes have a long history in Alaska and took a long journey to find a new home in the C/TFN community garden this year.

In February, prior to COVID-19 restrictions, the seeds were brought to the community from Alaska by linguist Patrick Moore, who studies Tagish and Tlingit language.

Moore had been in communication with Eleanor Hayman in the Yukon about the garden and was able to obtain two bags of potatoes from Tlingit elders Nora Marks and Richard Dauenhauer’s garden in Juneau, Alaska.

Garden and Farm manager Kevin Bayne, left, digs for potatoes with Isabelle Carriveau, centre, and her daughter Lianna Carriveau at the Carcross/Tlingit First Nation garden outside of Carcross on Sept. 11. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

Marks and Dauenhauer left their garden behind when they died in 2017 and 2014 respectively.

The gift was symbolic: a trade reflecting old trading routes between inland and coastal Tlingit, potlatches and food traditions.

In a world where the seeds of common potato varieties are easy to purchase in stores, it also meant protecting the heirloom variety from disappearing.

“Learning more about it we really realized how very, very important it was. Not only for food sovereignty in food production but also to reconnect to the Tlingit culture, which is so important,” said Johanna Goossens, assistant manager of the C/TFN community garden. “It’s very easy to lose information and to lose knowledge in one generation.”

The C/TFN community garden has been operating off and on for the past 40 years, but the current iteration started up in 2005. The need for food security hit home when the highway was washed out in 2012.

“All the shelves in Whitehorse, all the grocery stores, were empty (of) produce and everything. Out here in Carcross we were handing out vegetables left and right to people from the garden,” said farm and garden manager Kevin Bayne. “That’s when food sustainability came into practice, so we can be more self-sufficient in case anything like that happens.”

Much of the food is donated to community members in need. This year food from the garden and the First Nation-owned farm helped elders and families weather the financial challenges of COVID-19 with healthy food.

“That’s our main goal, was to get them through COVID. We weren’t selling anything; we’re just keeping it to give to the community,” he said.

Of course food isn’t just survival – it’s also culture.

Communities around the world have their own histories with food traditions and harvesting.

The garden beds and two greenhouses support all different types of vegetables in addition to traditional medicines. Students from the First Nation play a role in operations. Goossens said part of the project has been translating the names of each crop, making sure that bilingual labels are available to contribute to language revitalization efforts.

“Food is really very, very important. You meet around food and share food,” she said.

This year's harvest at the Carcross/Tlingit First Nation garden will be saved for seeds to allow a larger crop next season. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

In May, two rows of the Tlingit potato were planted in the community garden outside of Carcross for the first time.

“We didn’t have much instruction,” said Goossens. “I didn’t know for sure if they would work. I knew that they were pretty good potatoes for the coast but I was not too sure about how they would survive our temperatures, especially this year.”

Hopeful community members planted them in spring and returned on Sept. 11 for a harvest ceremony. Tobacco – also grown in the garden – was offered with a prayer before shovels and hands took to soil.

Digging up and loosening the wilted fall plants revealed a bounty of small golden potatoes growing under the soil.

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” said eight-year-old Lianna Corriveau, who joined her brother and mother in the harvest with members of the First Nation and Carcross community who attended the ceremony.

This year the potatoes faced a short growing season with little sunlight, so yield was too low for boiling and baking. Instead, the potatoes will be kept for seed so they can contribute to a larger crop next year.

Bayne said the intention is to distribute some of those potatoes to elders in the community who wish to grow them in their own gardens. This year’s harvest has the potential to continue a centuries-old growing tradition.

“They do have a distinct taste to them because they were grown along the coast with fish guts, seaweed and kelp. I’m looking forward to having a taste of them after next summer,” he told harvesters on Sept. 11.

“We’ll be keeping them for seeds this year and eventually build upon them so we can give them out,” he said.

Contact Haley Ritchie at