Lillian Petershoare is a passionate Tribal Relations manager who works for the U.S. Forest Service in the Alaska Region. Petershoare is a Tlingit and is part of the coastal maritime tribe who has inhabited Southeast Alaska since time immemorial; anthropological evidence suggests 10,000 years. As Petershoare shares her wisdom, she intertwines the beautiful Tlingit language while she speaks. “Haa Shagoon,” which means we are connected to our ancestors, to the present generations and to the children who are yet to be born.
How long have you been with the Forest Service?
I’ve worked for the Forest Service for 21 years. I started back in 1993 with the Juneau Forestry Sciences Laboratory, Pacific Northwest Research Station. I was looking for work experience related to the academic work I was pursuing in library science and was fortunate to start as a library technician with the lab. Within two years, I earned a master’s degree, applied for and was hired as the librarian. The researchers at the lab are very passionate and vested in their research. My job was to assist them with their research needs and help them find the published information they were looking for.
I worked at the lab for 10 years and really enjoyed it. However, I think that change is an important thing. It’s good to stretch and grow and get outside one’s comfort zone. It was just perfect timing: the lab needed to reduce their admin costs and there was an opening in Tribal Relations in the regional office. I applied and was offered the job. Some may say that I went from the safe world of books to the political world of Tribal relations where there can be uncertainty about the common ground you’re searching for. I’ve learned to love it and find it very gratifying.
What has the Forest Service done to bridge the gap between the agency and the Alaska Native community?
We’ve had a number of meaningful initiatives. One that is perhaps the most significant was a ceremony called the acknowledgment ceremony. Many Tribal leaders were telling us “Why should we partner with the Forest Service?” – particularly since the Forest Service had not yet apologized for the removal of fish camps, smokehouses and cabins on lands managed by the Forest Service between the 1930s and the 1960s in Southeast Alaska.
If you are from this area, you know that salmon play a huge role in the life way of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people. In Tlingit we have a phrase, Haa Atxaayí Haa Kusteeyíx Sitee, which translates to “Our food is our way of life.” So you can imagine the impact of removing these camps, cabins and smokehouses. Forest Service leaders consulted with Tribal leaders and elders, who were protocol advisers, in Southeast Alaska; we worked cooperatively to address the issue.
The deputy forest supervisor for the Tongass National Forest at that time said she would research the issue. If it was confirmed that the Forest Service removed the fish camps then we would do the appropriate thing.
The 2008 acknowledgement ceremony confirmed and acknowledged that the policies of that time did call for the removal of the structures. The formal ceremony paved the way for a healing journey that continues today, resulting in many partnership projects between the Forest Service and the tribes. One of the enduring outcomes is the Alaska Tribal Leaders Committee, which fosters informed dialogue between the region’s line officers and Tribal delegates. The committee helps us focus on common goals and objectives. I believe we’ve established some credibility with the tribes. We’re currently developing a framework for cultural awareness training, which includes an emphasis on engaging young adults because they’re our future. Our Forest Service leaders are role models for the behavior they want to see in the regions and in the field.
We talked a little bit about bridging the gap. What are you doing to help the Forest Service bring Alaska’s native youth into the workforce?
We, as Forest Service employees, all carry responsibility to do outreach. We have to help our agency make gains in inclusivity and diversity.
I have, where possible, encouraged our leaders to involve Alaska Native young adults. For example, we had a Chief's Review at the end of August. My co-worker and I were in charge of planning a key social event. We rented the Juneau Arts Council as a venue because it features walls with beautiful, totemic painted crests. I recommended we invite a Tlingit language professor and four Alaska Native students from the University of Alaska Southeast to showcase their work. The students gave inspiring presentations affirming the value of learning indigenous languages.
One of the four students is Tlingit from the State of Washington. She explained that she chose the University of Alaska Southeast Juneau because it is the only place that she could learn Tlingit and know that she could complete an advanced Tlingit class while at university. To hear her speak was so heartening. The language tells us a lot about our landscape because there are so many concepts in Tlingit that are tied to our land. I could see that our employees were struck by her eloquence, by her passion. Someone said to me, “I want to hire her.”
So I think it's very important that we include young adults and university students in general. We can also achieve this through recruiting Alaska Natives into the Pathways Program or the Presidential Management Fellowship program. Beyond that, it’s important to reach out and mentor young adults. We need to hear the voice of the future guiding us.
How can the Forest Service make use of the Alaska Native traditional knowledge concerning natural resources and the environment?
Alaska Tribes have a lot to offer and when we talk about traditional knowledge, we often times are referring to local knowledge, to indigenous knowledge.
A fine example of incorporating traditional knowledge occurred on the Chugach National Forest in a community called Cordova, Alaska. The Federal Subsistence Program, which is partially managed by the Forest Service, has fisheries monitoring contracts with the Native Village of
Eyak – the federally recognized Indian Tribe in Cordova. Obviously, it is important that managers have good fish counts so that the regional advisory councils and the Federal Subsistence Board can set reasonable harvest limits. You don’t want to over harvest.
Well, the Tribe had set up a large fish wheel at the mouth of the river where the deep water runs. This wheel allowed the fisheries technicians to mark the fish and release them to travel upriver. Not all of the fish swim into the fish wheel, some swim around it. Fish counts are determined by comparing the number of unmarked fish to marked fish. And remember, fish is a staple part of the Alaska Native diet.
An elder named Johnny Goodlataw, who was watching from the sidelines, knew that the fish wheel they were using upstream was too big. He asked if he could help design a fish wheel that would work. He devised something much smaller and gave good guidance on where to locate the wheel. As a result, the fish counts were more successful. Because of the traditional knowledge of this elder, the project was able to move forward, and the confidence factor associated with the fish counts improved exponentially.
What hobbies or interests do you enjoy outside of work?
I enjoy berry picking and cooking food that I’ve harvested including the making of jellies, homemade catsups, and salads with vegetables from a raised bed. I enjoy playing with my grandchildren and recently we made caramel apples together. I love to cross-country ski, and I’m an avid walker. I carry a step counter to help reach my goal of 10,000 steps a day. My husband, who’s from England, and I are planning a 200-mile, coast-to-coast walk in England and though we tend to take hiking vacations, we’ve never done anything like this before. We’re not technical climbers but are enthusiasts for being outdoors. We enjoy the thrill of finding a rhythm when we’re out walking in the woods.