Cultural Resurgence Among the Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska


Totem pole, Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka, Alaska, August 2014

Totem pole, Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka, Alaska, August 2014

I recently traveled in Southeast Alaska, where I was thrilled to see gorgeous country and amazing wildlife, and also learn a tiny bit about the native peoples who inhabited the area prior to the Europeans’ arrival. Alaska is a beautiful, largely unspoiled area, much of it covered by mountains, glaciers and rivers. Southeast Alaska is a harsh land in the winter, but has amazing natural resources. In the summer you will find indigenous berries, incredible wild salmon runs, and an abundance of other seafood. The natives had a saying, “When the tide is out, the table is set.”

Totem pole, Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka, Alaska, August 2014

Totem pole, Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka, Alaska, August 2014

Today, nearly a fifth of Alaska’s population identifies some Native heritage, the survivors of peoples in the area for the last 15,000-30,000 years. They have adapted to the growth and decline of glaciers, and the changing land, climate, and resources. Prior to European contact, they probably numbered 80,000-90,000, with dozens of distinct cultures. After contact so many died, primarily due to disease, that by the first US Census in Alaska (1880), the Native population was just under 33,000.

Many of the traditional ways have been lost, but increasingly many people are working to save the remaining fragments of their cultures. Totem poles have disintegrated—wood doesn’t survive forever in this temperate rain forest. Traditional arts and crafts methods and skills have almost been lost—only a few elders remember the old ways. And native languages are rapidly losing speakers. Yet there is hope because the younger generation realizes what is slipping away. Cultural arts centers are teaching traditional carving methods, beadwork, and weaving, and the young are learning dances from their elders.

Jim Heaton, Master Carver, Sheldon Museum & Cultural Center, Haines, Alaska, August, 2014

Jim Heaton, Master Carver, Sheldon Museum & Cultural Center, Haines, Alaska, August, 2014

I was privileged to hear Joe Williams, a distinguished member of the Tlingit tribe, share a little about his culture. The Tlingit (pronounced roughly like “cling kit” or “clink it”) are the indigenous peoples of what we now call Southeast Alaska. Their name for themselves is Lingít, meaning “People of the Tides.” Click here for a good short history and cultural context of the people.

Joe told us many stories about the flexibility, ethical standards, and bravery of his people. He is a great communicator, able to bridge cultures with humor. You can see a short clip of Joe talking about his culture here:

Joe was not taught the Tlingit language or traditional ways when he was young. At that time in the US and Canada there was blatant cultural imperialism and systemic discrimination against native peoples. Native children were taken from their villages and placed in boarding schools miles from family and home. The emphasis was on “civilizing” native populations by forcing them to give up their language and customs, adopt Christianity, speak English, and generally act like “good” Europeans.

Fortunately, this attitude (and the law) has changed, and multicultural diversity is more valued in the US these days. Many tribal members from the younger generation are learning, cherishing, and preserving their native heritage for those who come after them. There are organized programs for tribal members to learn their native language. I met adult language students who receive their Tlingit vocabulary-word-of-the-day on their smart phones! Who says you can’t blend the old and the new?

When asked if his culture would survive in the crazy modern world, Joe told us a story—a traditional way of teaching/learning. One day, after being away from home for several hours, he returned to find his wife working in the kitchen and his three-year-old granddaughter visiting. His granddaughter was playing under the dining room table and singing a Tlingit song. He was very excited and rushed out to the kitchen to tell his wife. She replied, “Yes, and she has been singing the same song all day—would you PLEASE teach her another one?!”

Cultural transmission in action?! Perhaps Tlingit culture will survive another 10,000 years, after all!

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