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.


Hartley Bay: the ultimate walkable, car-free community

Entering Hartley Bay

In the small harbor behind an impressive seawall we tied up to a float with family fishing boats, small aluminum outboards.  Amazing catch: glistening salmon, Dungeness crab with bodies ten inches across.  I asked a couple of men who were cleaning six halibut each 3 to 4 feet long if they were planning to freeze them and feed the village all winter long.  “No,” they said, pointing to the heavens, a bright 9 pm sun still far from the horizon, “We’re going to sun dry it.”   Indeed, the forecast calls for another unprecedented string of rainless days.

No one had told us so we were unprepared for this interesting community with a singular way of life.  The population is 100% Native.  Unlike other communities along the coast there is no evidence of a cannery nor of an economic past based on mining or logging.  Instead Hartley Bay appears to thrive on line fishing and a way of life that infuses tradition into the future.

The village of less than 200 people is extremely isolated.   Sixty miles to the north, at the end of the Grenville Channel, lies the port town of Prince Rupert.   Sixty miles to the south, down Princess Royal and Tolmie Channel, lies the slightly larger Native village of Klemtu. Sixty miles to the west, at the end of Douglas Channel lies the small town Kitimat.  Hartley Bay is accessible only by air and water.  However, no floatplane landed while we were there and and the passenger only ferry calls only three times a week in the summer.  There is no store apart from a home-based enterprise that sells candy bars and potato chips.  No hotels, no eateries and no bars.  (In fact, the place is dry, which may have something to do with its success.)

Hartley Bay, home of the Gitga’at people who are part of the larger Tsimshian Group, is an extremely dynamic place with sound physical and social infrastructure and great “urban planning”. The community obviously enjoys strongly shared values, cultural cohesion, and political clout.    You only have to walk around and look.

How about a tour?    Call this Front Street: I imagine many of the Pacific Northwest Front Streets once looked like this.


Then continue past a residential area and along a deeply forested hill to the ferry dock.   See the tiny float in the distance?

To ferry dock

Heading back you notice that Front Street has become Water Street.  Sharing the boardwalk are little girls on bicycles and white haired matriarchs in golf carts.  But no cars!

Front becomes Water St.


This wonderful building is on what would be “First Street”.  Inside you hear the sound of basketballs bouncing.   Up and down the coast basket ball is very popular and girls and boys play together, probably to have enough people for a team.

The Gym


The lobby of the gym is quite surprising: a huge fireplace, basketball trophies and pictures of elders.   When the tribe built a new Big House, which houses a small museum, they turned the old one into a community center with a gym.  Some of the kids have small motorbikes, which they can take along on the passenger ferry when they leave home for highschool or college.

Lobby of community center


The community center (with the green roof) is conveniently located between the school (this is the view from its broad verandah) and the Big House  (the brown wood structure near the water.



All the public buildings are linked with boardwalks and all have ramps and zero-step entries.  This is particularly impressive since this is Canada, where they don’t have the Americans with Disabilities Act.



Behind the school is a beautiful valley and the residential area. First Street if you will.  The boardwalk is broad enough to allow a golf cart to pass a four wheeler. Every house has zero step walkways leading right to the front door.  Typical of the coastal northwest, the houses are built on pylons.  Here that puts them above the snow melt rushing down the valley.  Raised, lamp lighted boardwalks also better separate bears and pedestrians, so that neither surprises the other.

Residental area

Fire hydrants abound; this one is in front of the new health clinic.



And planning for new houses is complete.



Each new lot has a wooden foundation.

Building lot

When I finally had a crack at good Internet and the chance to check my facts, I discovered that the Gitga’at people have a wonderful website, that includes this description of how they do things.

Gitga’at society has a dual governance system that is sophisticated and complex – a blend of traditional laws, customs and structures and modern laws, policies and structures woven together.

Affairs related to cultural practices and Gitga’at rights and title and territorial lands and waters fall within the domain of the traditional governance. The Gitga’at are committed to governance of their Territory through the traditional system of “Ayawwx” which is the ‘Law of the People’ and the ‘Way We Govern Ourselves’. Decisions affecting Gitga’at lands and resources are made by Hereditary Chiefs and elders following traditional community consultation processes.

Affairs related to the community of Hartley Bay, Band administration and delivery of social programs and services are governed by a Village Council, which is elected by Nation members. Village administration and maintenance is handled by community administrative and technical staff.

Hartley Bay exudes a strong sense of place and well being yet it’s all but ignored in the cruising guides.  Take heed and go.