In Alaska, there is always a story being told, always a teaching being offered. Some stories and teachings are offered by people whose heritage dates to creation. Some are offered by the environment that has challenged, inspired and sustained them for millennia.
In Ketchikan, Alaska, Tlingit artist Nathan Jackson takes the time to chat with visitors in the Dewitt Carving Center, where on this day he works alternately on a totem pole and a gold bracelet. His humility and patience match his renown as an artist.
In Glacier Bay, the voices of ancestors can be heard in the cracking ice, which 300 years ago had advanced so fast the Tlingit were forced to relocate to Hoonah. No Native myth, modern geologists have found glacial evidence proving the rapid advance of ice occurred.
Along the Chilkat River near Haines, the mountains tell stories of survival in a challenging environment. Glacial melt carries silt to the Chilkat, creating a nutrient-rich environment for salmon and other river inhabitants. In fact, the name “Chilkat” means “salmon storehouse.” Snow avalanches have been known to sweep mountain goats to the river valley floor, providing meat for bears coming out of hibernation when the snow melts.
“As an artist, I seek inspiration from my surroundings,” Jackson told the Alaska Travel Industry Association. “In a place where Native art and culture flourishes, the people are authentic and the land is full of elements that are raw and beautiful, Ketchikan will not let me leave. It is my muse.”
This three-part series focuses on three communities in southeast Alaska, the Land of Many Welcomes.
Ketchikan, Alaska (Kitschk-hin): ‘Thundering Wings of an Eagle’
Alaska is a land of many welcomes, and this is clear not only in its many greetings; but in the accessibility to the culture.
In Ketchikan, Alaska’s fourth most populous city, Tlingit culture – the art, history and language – is omnipresent. But a good place to get introduced to Tlingit culture is Saxman Village, established in 1894.
Saxman Village is the headquarters of the Tlingit-owned Cape Fox Corporation, which owns aerospace, construction management, real estate and science and technology companies.
Saxman’s collection of totem poles is one of the largest in the world. The collection includes poles dating to the 1800s that were moved from Pennock, Tongass and Village islands when the Tlingit moved to Saxman Village for the economic opportunities its geography presented.
The street leading to the Beaver Clan House is lined with totem poles, each telling a story. Some poles represent clans. Two are topped by eagles in flight. Some tell important survival stories: On one, a giant clam has latched onto a child’s hand; the young boy had ignored warnings about putting his hand into holes between rocks, was trapped by a giant clam and drowned.
The Beaver Clan House is reportedly the largest longhouse open to the public in Alaska. In the not-so-distant past, long cedar houses were shared by several families from the same clan. Longhouses, also known as big houses, were also built for potlatches and winter ceremonies.
Longhouses were works of art as well, and the Beaver Clan House is a fine example. The front is painted with the clan crest; Beaver is depicted on the carved interior house posts as well. For instructional purposes, the interior contains a decorated wall, called a screen, representing what a traditional house entrance looked like. The entrance was small enough that only one person could enter at once, a good security measure.
In this modern big house, the Beaver screen is a backdrop for the 12-member Cape Fox Dancers, who offered a Welcome Song and shared the Paddle and Bird Dance. They place a traditional button blanket on guests honored with an invitation to join them.
The visit to the Beaver Clan House is preceded by a visit to the visitor’s center, where young Tlingit guides introduce visitors to the language and a short film. On the stage are carved and painted artifacts, among them a painted house panel and Beaver holding a piece of wood. The walls are lined with painted panels, some dating to the 1940s.
Visitors then go on a brief nature walk, on which the guide points out native plants and their uses. You will likely be accompanied from above by Eagle – his name here is Chaa’k.
After seeing the Beaver Clan House, visitors go to the Dewitt Carving Center and meet world-renowned Tlingit artist Nathan Jackson.
Jackson, 70, whose Tlingit name is Yelch Yedi, is of the Sockeye clan in Klukwan, near Haines. His work is so prominent that chances are good you’ve seen it: The City of Seattle commissioned his artwork for bronze manhole covers in downtown Seattle. He and his son carved two 11-foot houseposts on permanent exhibit at the Burke Museum in Seattle. Their totem pole, “Kaats,” is on permanent exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian.
Near the harbor, you’ll see Jackson’s large eagle sculpture, appropriately titled “Thundering Wings.” Yet, he’s content to chat with visitors and answer questions: How does he start a pole? (With a 1-inch to 1-foot scale drawing). How long does it take to carve a pole? (He averages 1 foot a week). How were paints made traditionally? (Copper oxide for greenish blue, iron oxide for red, charcoal for black).
The Dewitt Carving Center was established in 1989 to provide a place for local carvers to work. Jackson uses the center to direct restoration, teach young carvers and meet the public.
While in Ketchikan, Alaska, visit Totem Bight State Park, created in 1938 by the U.S. Forest Service as a place to relocate and restore totem poles left behind in former villages. Skilled Native carvers and young apprentices were hired using Civilian Conservation Corps funds, and the site ultimately became a repository for 15 poles and a community house.
In downtown Ketchikan, Alaska, visit Tlingit carver Norman G. Jackson at his studio, Ketchikan’s Carver at the Creek, on historic Creek Street. He has been a professional wood carver and metal engraver for about 20 years. He apprenticed with Dempsey Bob, Tlingit, and Phil Janze, Gitksan; and studied at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan.
Jackson works in a cozy studio located in a Gold Rush-era house overlooking the boardwalk and creek. “My style is Tlingit style. It’s bold and round,” he said. “I try to keep it to the traditional level of Tlingit art. It is spiritual, and it has to fit together with the history and the dance. The dance has its connection with the art. If the public understood the art, then everybody would understand our people. That’s why I learned that you have to share the art.”
All of Ketchikan, Alaska is Tlingit country and part of Tlingit culture. Guided tours, walking tours and guided activities on bike, boat, kayak or trail will give visitors a taste of a natural treasure that continues to awe and inspire and make this the land of many welcomes.