A historical Tlingit Potlach

You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” Steve Jobs

I am always amazed on how life unfolds itself. As much as one can pretend to have a plan, at the end of the day, nothing is more sure than the uncertainty of Life. Each of us has had these great expectations crumbled to pieces in front of our eyes. Each of us has had these moments of success when they were the least expected. Many of us have had to reassess our grand schemes, countless of times, only to see our original plan materialize years later. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, in fact most of time it doesn’t. The moral for me is that life is unfair, and it needs to be. All of us need that sense of uncertainty so that there is room for believing. If everything was pre-determined  and if simply the output equalled the input, life would only be a series of additions and subtractions with a looming result at the end. Uncertainty is the realm of dreams and we need to dream. Steve Jobs was right when he compared life to a painting by numbers. It is only at the end that it makes sense. And until you reach that last dot, the only thing you have to, the only thing that you can do, is to follow your guts and to believe in them. Life might have given you the stage, but it is up to you to put up the show. Like Jawaharlal Nehru said: “Everything is like a game of cards.  The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will. “

Next Monday I will be flying to Whitehorse in Yukon, not far from Alaska. Why? Because of acting on a series of unrelated events. When I first contacted the organization of the International Polar Year 2012 conference in Montreal, to propose they cover my attendance fee in exchange of me writing and taking care of the social media, they really didn’t have a clue what I was really proposing and what they could get out of it. But I kept pressing the issue and finally convinced them of the “necessity” to “hire’ me. A decision they have not regretted a bit, they told me!

The conference was a total success and exactly what I expected to accomplish for the E.P.I.C. expedition. It is though the unexpected that surprised me. On the main stage on the afternoon of day two, the Tlingit Dakhka Khwaan Dancers were performing, dressed in their clan colors, Chilkat and regalia. Historically, Tlingit was one of most complex and powerful hunter-gatherer societies on the West Coast.

Their dance was fascinating but there was one thing they did, that left me wanting to know more. In between dances, each of them would take the microphone and tell a story about their clan. The others, waiting on the stage, would turn to show their back, facing away from the crowd. What was the meaning for this? At the end of their performance, everybody got rushed to their next meeting, myself included, with my question unanswered. Later in the afternoon, walking the exhibitors floor, I noticed the group talking to a reporter. That was my chance! I walked up to one of the members and waited for my cue, then jumped in and asked my question.

Stories for the Tlingit are extremely visual. A fact that is quite evident when looking at their culture. Everything from their clothes, the totems, the clan house and most importantly, their crest, is a strong graphical creation. When someone tells a story, it is important to have visual anchors that will help the narrator in guiding the listeners on how the story has to be interpreted. That is what the members where doing when one of them was at the microphone. On their back were bold and beautiful crests sewed into their Chilkat – powerful imagery supporting the narrative.

My simple question turned into a long discussion about the wilderness, the animals, nature, and our loss of connection to it. Next thing we were exchanging business cards and wished each other good luck. A couple of days later, I received an email from them telling me that they had found my work with the Wild Image Project amazing and that they saw in my stories, many parallels to their own cultural stories. They wanted to know if I would be interested in joining them for what will be a historical event, taking place on May 26th, in the village of Tagish. On that day, a potlach will take place to celebrate the re-emergence of the Tagish Kéet Hít (clan house) destroyed sometime after 1898 by the Anglican Church in an attempt to assimilate them. In fact, potlach were banned for close to 70 years by the government, but I will get to that later. In an effort to reclaim and revitalize their heritage and culture, the Dakla’weidi lineage will be rebuilding their clan house called Kéet Hít. To emphasize how unique this event is, 9 other leaders of tribes from Alaska and Yukon will be present for the ceremony. A clan house has not been risen for more than 100 years! It is with great honor that on the 21st, I will be leaving for a week, for Tagish in Yukon. There, I will photograph, film and write about the events taking place. I will write about their culture, the people, their philosophy and the challenges they face in this era of profound climate change. Stay tuned!

“Hít wooshdie yadukicht” (solidifying the House by dance)

Tlingit proverb

One thought on “A historical Tlingit Potlach

  1. Looking forward to seeing/hearing our story…enjoyed meeting you Daniel Fox…be sure to come back again…..All the best always

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