Tlingit tattoo artist Nahaan remembers he was living in Hawaii in 2007 when his Tlingit grandmother called and asked him if he knew who he was.
“My grandson, tell me who it is that you are. Tell me what clan you belong to. Do you understand what I’m telling you, grandson? Do you understand what I’m telling you?” she said in Tlingit.
Nahaan said, yes, he understood. The previous 10 years he had traveled the country and parts of Western Europe seeing the world. Now, seemingly out of the blue, his grandmother was asking something that would forever change the course of his life.
“Tell me how to say your clan name.”
Nahaan wasn’t able. He knew his Tlingit name, Nahaan, which she had given him when he was just a teenager. It means, “Killer Whale Standing Up in the Water” and was the name of her older brother, but he wasn’t confident being able say the name of the Tlingit clan he’d been born into, the Dak??’aweidi (People of the Upper Sand Bar).
His grandmother’s questions put him on the spot. His inability to answer weighed on him after the call. He wondered what her questions really meant.
“What she was telling me was that I need to be stronger in who I am. And I need to be confident in who I am and proud of who I am and be able to tell somebody in our language how to pronounce my clan, my lineage, my people, who I am. And I wasn’t able to do that.”
Who can say why a few people respond strongly to the call of their ancestors? Many would have ignored the call or maybe not even heard it at all, but Nahaan heard it loud and clear. He wound up moving near his grandmother and sitting with her once or twice a week learning Tlingit. Before long he was visiting five times a week practicing language with her.
“It would be one word at a time. And I would remember the word the next day or two and use it in the proper context.”
As time went on, a special bond grew between them.
“That interaction that we shared, it brought us closer because of it. And that’s what our languages always do. We have to know each other, we have to listen to each other, we have to speak to each other. We have to communicate in a healthy way in order for us to learn and pass on the language. And so that in itself is a healing act.”
Understandably, his Tlingit name, Nahaan, became more important to him than his English name. It is solely what he goes by now.
“I made that decision in my life to only go by my Tlingit name and to invest my life with both feet, jump in the deep end and just do it, just learn everything I can.”
Tlingit culture doesn’t have first and last names. Instead, identity has many levels and every name exists within a matrix of physical, psychological and spiritual relationships. Even this is an oversimplification.
So when signing up for Facebook, Nahaan added a made-up middle and last name for his account. He signed up as Nahaan FastsFrom English, which referred to a fast he performed in 2014 in Ketchikan, Alaska, on Elizabeth Peratrovich Day in which he refrained from speaking English and instead spoke only Tlingit.
“It was the hardest fast I’d ever done, harder than going without food for 4 days, going without water for days as well…”
All throughout 2015, he continued the tradition by beginning each month with a similar fast.
But Facebook eventually shut down his account and demanded his English name. Nahaan refused. Instead, he wrote them a letter explaining Nahaan was a valid name from a still-existent valid culture. What he didn’t say was how the name had changed him and infused him with power. He didn’t need to. It was clear from his words.
“My English name is not who I am, nor does it honor my history as an indigenous person. My ?ingít identity is the guiding force in my life, it has taken me across the continent and now to New Zealand, and the Nass River, British Columbia; Teslin, Yukon; Juneau, Alaska; Washington, D.C.; and many villages and reservations locally and far.”
Facebook responded by reactivating his account and apologizing.
Nahaan’s cultural awakening has taken many forms. Most prominent is his interest in revitalizing the tradition of Tlingit tattoo, which he’s practiced for the past five years. Last year he also started the group Náakw Dancers, which presents indigenous dances in the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Alaska. He teaches Tlingit and also carves, paints and writes poetry.
All of this from a grandmother’s request: “Tell me how to say your clan name.”
Nahaan recalls the days he spent learning Tlingit from her and how delighted she was to teach it to him.
“She had this laugh about her that I never heard her make before. It’s this really beautiful laugh like a sense of release, like it felt so good to have one of her descendants able to know some of the language.”
The transmission of culture is a complex, multifaceted process. But sometimes it can boil down to something as simple as a grandmother reaching across generations to empower her grandson and the joy this creates for both.
“She was able to reach me. And I was able to accept that and recognize that it was very important.”
Most people don’t undergo a transformation as profound as Nahaan’s. But those who do serve as a beacon for the rest of us, showing us the way and cheering us on until the magic of cultural reawakening takes hold in us, too, healing our identities and making us whole again.