Tlingit Arts

Tlingit fashionistas

If any place can claim to be the Arts capital of America, it’s Sitka.  Our stay has coincided with the annual Summer Music Festival, which brings classical artists from around the world, and the Sitka Fine Arts camp, which give Alaska’s most promising middle and highschoolers a leg up in their formal training in the visual and preforming arts.   Galleries of local artists and spaces for visiting ones abound and dancers and musicians perform all the time.  Even Raven Radio, the listener-friendly local NPR affiliate whose call letters are KCAW, is absolutely tops.

Prominent in the mix are Tlingit artists.    They range from masters and professionals with the highest formal and traditional training to ordinary tribal members practicing the everyday arts their ancestors.
Master woodcarver Tommy Joseph

We had a good chat with master woodcarver Tommy Joseph, who showed us aroung his studio.  In addition to carving totems and masks on commission, he is exploring every aspect the material culture, combining technical reproduction with innovative improvization.  He showed us breast plates he’d fashioned of wood and animal gut twine and a number of traditional objects decorated with bits of leather, skin, fur, teeth and bone.  A national treasure, Joseph frequently travels to exchange techniques and ideas with other tribal peoples and mainstream artists worldwide.   He’s particularly inspired by the strides made by the Maori of New Zealand in bringing their culture and language back into the mainstream.

Spoons of bone and horn.

Artists like Tommy Joseph have a treasure trove of material culture to study, copy and rif upon in the remarkable Sheldon Jackson Museum.   Sheldon Jackson was a friend of President Benjamin Harrison, supported the Organic Act of 1884 which provided Alaska with systems of justice and education, and  served as First General Agent of Education in the territory.   As director of the Sitka Industrial School and Training Institute, Presbyterian mission Sheldon Jackson did much to separate young Natives from their families and culture.  However, he respected many aspects of Tlingit culture and built a solid museum – Sitka’s first concrete building – to house the collection of Native artifacts he has amassed.   The original cases and dozens of drawers out thousands of artifacts under the eyes of visitors and in the hand of schollars and artists.   Everyday the museum features a working craftsperson who can testify to the healthy state of Native arts in Sitka.

Oceanfront rainforest totem walk

Sitka also has a landmark collection of historic and modern totem poles in an oceanside rainforest that was the site of the 1804 Battle of Sitka. Part of the Sitka National Historical Park, an exquisite, meandering totem path through the woods starts at the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center where robes and drums still used by the tribes are left on loan.

But the best evidence that the Tlingit arts are alive and well are the daily events at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House on Katlian Street.   This street along Sitka’s working waterfront used to be lined with a succession of fine long houses each accommodating seven to ten families.   That is until the white man came along and decided that communal accommodations were unhealthy and had them torn down. Today tribal members, young and old, performing professionals and ordinary folk gather daily to share their culture with outsiders.
Sheet'ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi

To refer to the Naa Kahidi troupe as “dancers” does them no justice.   Indeed the event combines a dazzling fashion show of garments handed down from elders or made yesterday by the wearers, a splendid array of sets and props, sonorous rhythms on traditional instruments, and a community parade with grandmothers showing off tiny tots in full regalia.  Most important, however, are the songs, poetry and stories, all carefully researched and attributed, usually to elders but frequently to neighboring Haida, Tsimshian or other Tlingit bands.

Perhaps everyone was particularly inspired this year having just returned from Celebration, the biannual gathering of the Southeast tribes for which the Hoonah Tlingit were preparing when we were there.  The SeaAlaska Heritage Institute is working to document, preserve and develop arts of the Tlingit, Haida and the Tsimshian.  They offer copious on line resources and artist bios and organize  Celebration in Juneau.


Author: Carol McCreary

10 Inside Passages to Alaska. 10,000 miles. 10,000 hours on the S/V Aurora. This is the story of how Jack and I took up sailing late in life and are now finally getting the hang of it.

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