First People in Alaska – Tlingit

Tradition and Honour

Her dark chocolate hair perched in a topknot, with wisps of baby hair framing her deep almond eyes, two-year-old Boo’s moccasins gently shuffle in the gravel as she studies me keenly, standing sentinel at the door to her family’s house near Ketchikan, Alaska. A traditional Tlingit cedar bark hat hangs over her back, a trailing tail of white fur standing out against the vibrant pink of her vest, which is beaded with colourful traditional designs.

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Boo’s face is solemn, even fierce, as she guards the entrance silently, not taking her eyes off mine. I stifle a chuckle as her chubby baby arms reach across the door frame to block my approach. From inside her father calls out and welcomes me inside. Suddenly, the guarded old soul looking out from Boo’s eyes is replaced by a smiling child who grabs my hand and pulls me inside to meet her family.

Before we tour Saxman Village, Boo gathers some provisions – a small bag of peanuts she offers to share. Her father narrates, but Boo leads the way. In the matriarchal Tlingit culture, which reveres grandmothers and passes family names down through mothers, Boo is next in line to be chief. I watch her family dance in their spectacular Chilkat robes – and Boo climbs on stage with them, peanuts in hand, mimicking her elders choreography enthusiastically while she nibbles.

Dancing is just one element of Tlingit culture that Boo and her family share at Saxman Village. Alaska’s rich native history is steeped in weaving, carving, hunting and storytelling traditions. By exploring the village, visitors can learn how native customs have transformed over the years – and how these traditions have been integrated into Ketchikan’s population, which is more than 15 per cent native.

Most notably, Ketchikan is home to the largest collection of totem poles in the United States. Boo leads me on a stroll through the cedar forest and we step out into the glade of totems. I walk through in awe, wondering how long it would take to hear all the stories found in these beautiful designs.

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I find one of the most famous of these totems by the public library, depicting the story of Raven, who stands tall and proud, clutching the sun. The legend tells that the world was created in darkness. But when Raven, a powerful, devious creature, learned a chief’s daughter held the sun, moon and stars in a cedar box for safekeeping, he decided to steal them.  He played a trick on the chief and his daughter, hoping to possess these treasures, but in doing so, inadvertently brought light to the world.

As I lose myself in the story, I’m reminded it’s Boo and the Tlingit children who will keep their nation’s torch burning. As our little chief leads us through the tour, she shows a powerful will, loving nature and determined spirit. A spirit determined not only to sing, dance, laugh and learn, but to share her culture – and her peanuts – with anyone who will joyously partake.