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Tlingit Culture in Wrangell, Alaska

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One of the most interesting moments from my family trip to Alaska was a Tlingit culture presentation at the Chief Shakes Tribal House in Wrangell. We were welcomed by a group of volunteer dancers anxious to share their native songs and dances with us.   

For me, the presentation was a reminder of what has happened to native cultures in Alaska (and many other places), how much they've lost and how much they're trying to regain. It was obvious that here in Wrangell they're putting a lot of community effort into regaining their traditional culture. The Chief Shakes Tribal House was largely built by hand, with timbers cut into boards with adzes, which is a kind of an ax. Three workers constructed most of it, nobody in the area was skilled with an adze so they did a training for members of the local community and hired the best out of that adze training – who happened to all be women. It took three women three years to hand cut all of the boards after they had secured permission from the elders to do a man's work. Area artists were hired to do the totems and the detail work but I just think of the community dedication that it must have taken to get it all done.

Notice the adze marks in this carving, an indication of the skill of the hand-carved piece

The dancing involved a lot of feet stomping, drum beating, and rhythmic singing and chanting. One song, involving a Killer Whale, included the men blowing into the air and it was an excellent imitation of an Orca breathing. The tribal regalia was beautiful and it was obvious that this was a group who knew a lot about who they are, and are trying to learn more from any source or story they can gather.

There were two children in the group (maybe young teens) who danced with the men. When our host was explaining the story of the canoe in the Tribal House and its history they were listening intently, remembering the story so that it could be retold. One of the women reminded us that traditions are passed down hand to hand, generation to generation, and it was inspiring to see these young men learning eagerly from their elders. It was a privilege to be in attendance.

Want to learn more about the Tlingit of Southeast Alaska? Travel with us on the Alaska Inside Passage: Eastern Coves or the Glaciers and Whales of Alaska. Want to hear what my 9-year-old daughter, Cassie, thought of this presentation? Read about it here.

Keeping it Wild,

Rachael Garrett

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