The Spirit of Juneau

Some places come and go. Some cities spring up only to disappear decades later for one reason or another (think of Bodie, California). History is filled with forgotten colonies and failed urban visions. I am curious though. What factors or variables are necessary to sustain a city and its inhabitants for hundreds of years? For thousands of years? How is a geographical location in the middle of seemingly nowhere able to maintain interest despite its remoteness and existential challenges? It takes more than an abundance of fish to justify settling down. It takes more than strong will and powerful wishes to turn a series of buildings into a lasting and thriving city where souls live and rest. Are there mini gravitational forces that we are unable to see, inexplicable vortexes that attract life and make people stay in the same way such as sweet nectar pulls in thousands of hungry bees?

For several millennia, this location was known to the Tlingit as Dzantik’i Héeni (where the flatfish gather). It sits at the foot Yadaa’at Kale (the beautiful face of the mountain) and is south of Aak’w (little lake). Nearby are Kootznoowoo island (fortress of bear) and Taku river (the flood of the geese).

During the 1791-95 expedition, Captain George Vancouver, along with his crew on the Discovery, were the first recorded Europeans to visit it. A hundred years later in 1880, two prospectors Richard Harris and Joe Juneau, guided by Tlingit Chief Kowee, struck gold at the mouth of Gold Creek. The city was then renamed Juneau.

For thousands of years, people have come from far away and gathered at Dzantik’i Héeni (Juneau). Whether they were drawn by the abundant natural resources, the major fishing and hunting grounds, the promise of gold, perhaps they followed love, were lured by work or simply came to visit, none of those reasons are enough to make one stay and settle. There is something in the land, the waters, and the mountains that draw people in and inspires them to call Juneau home.

I first discovered this Alaskan city in 2013 when visiting with a group of friends. Juneau was our rendezvous point where we boarded the Alaska State Ferry. We kayaked from Sitka to Hoonah, along the Pacific Coast of Chichagof Island and from Hoonah to Tenekee Springs (TV interview and radio interview).  I returned the following year, only this time I kayaked solo from Juneau to Pack Creek and then to the Taku Glacier (radio interview). One of the trip’s highlights was a night paddle on bioluminescent waters, surrounded by orcas and humpback whales. To say it was magical is an understatement.

Ever since that first visit, Juneau has played an integral part in my career and in my personal life. Three of my most popular photos were captured there (see above). Some of my most memorable memories took place on its surrounding waters and deep within its forests. Not only has Juneau become one of my favorite gateways into the wilderness; it is a place where I found a great friend, Ken. Originally from Boston, he moved to Alaska in the 70‘s. Explorer, philanthropist, conservationist and musician, Ken owned Alaska Discovery and founded of Pack Creek Bear Tours.

At the beginning of this year, Juneau resident Captain Tom Kelly from Blue Planet Eco Charter reached out to me with an invitation to join him on a summer sailing cruise. I was now married and the prospect of being able to share with my wife a part of the world that had been so special to me was really exciting. It was the perfect opportunity! While my solo wilderness expeditions are remote and span weeks at a time, this trip had to be slightly different. It needed to be adventurous, but not extreme while encapsulating all the classic highlights that Juneau is known for including the places, the food, the people and activities.

Travel Juneau and I worked together to plan the perfect itinerary: a floatplane to Pack Creek where brown bears can be viewed in their natural habitat, a hike in the Tongas National Forest, a paddle to the Mendenhall Glacier and exploration of the ice cave, whale watching in Auke Bay, a feast of fresh-caught Alaskan King Crab and a weekend excursion to a luxury fishing lodge in Angoon. Our 12-day trip would conclude aboard Captain Tom’s 40’ S/V Seamoore as we sailed around Douglas Island overnighting in Young Bay.

The other goal was to bring my photo project Random Connectedness to Juneau. Through this project I seek to illustrate the random connectivity of the human species. I do this by taking portraits of random people holding a letter of the alphabet. I then combine these portraits into words, phrases or sentences. The letters are red for a reason. According to Chinese mythology, the Gods tie an invisible red cord around the ankles of those that are destined to meet one another in a certain situation or help each other in a certain way. It is called the legend of the Red String of Fate. The red letters represent the string.

In addition to photographing the natural beauty of Juneau, I would turn the camera on its people. How best to celebrate this distinctive city that has given me so much other than to honor its citizens who live and breathe it, the ones who radiate the “Spirit of Juneau”.

It was incredible to hear their stories. The vast majority are from the lower 48 states who had come to visit and had never left. Some were born here, had left to pursue advanced eduction or a job, only to find their way back. Juneau was home to each of them. A unexpected discovery was to see so many talented and young entrepreneurs throughout the city. Young adults one would expect to see in major hubs like New York or San Francisco. They were all adamant about their beloved city – it was the best! Let me introduce you to some of them.

Maura Selenak of Almaga Distillery (Above, E in the THE). Originally from Minnesota, she moved to Juneau after falling in love with the dramatic scenery and sense of community. A kindergarten teacher, Maura and her husband founded the craft spirit distillery using a 250-gallon still from Vendome.

Eric Oravsky of Adventure Flow (Above, S in the SPIRIT). Grew up in Montana and was exploring the wilderness with his parents before he could walk. He continued to explore and found photojournalism to raise awareness for the wild places he loves. Keeping active and inspiring others led to him co-founding Adventure Flow.

David McCasland of Deckhand Dave’s (Above, F in the OF). An incredible story of persistence. A young local chef and fisherman, who recently opened a taco truck that serves “to-die-for” panko-crusted salmon sticks and fish tacos. His tartar sauce is a secret recipe and the talk-of-the-town.

Christy Namee Eriksen of Kindred Post (Above, 1st U in JUNEAU). Born in Korea, she grew up in Alaska. Christy is an artist, community activist, educator, and writer whose work is grounded in social justice and community engagement. She is the recipient of the 2013 Mayor’s Award for Artist of the Year, two Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Awards, and the Loft Immersion Fellowship.

Ryan Lindsay of Devil’s Club Brewery (Above, E in the JUNEAU) He began his career working for Bridgeport Brewing Co. in Portland and later found himself commercially brewing for Drifter Brewing Co. in Cape Town, South Africa. During his time with Drifter, his brew was awarded the best light beer in the country of South Africa.

Jessica Hahnlen of Frost and Fur (Above, 2nd U in JUNEAU). Born in Juneau, she lived in Sacramento then moved back with her husband. Her company design and hand-print (she screen-prints her art onto apparel) in Juneau and gives back 3% to local non-profits

Lia Heifetz of Barnacle (Below, O from Love). A lifelong Alaskan, she lives in Juneau with her partner Matt. Together they started Barnacle, turning kelp into tasty snacks, like salsa and pickles. Their mission is to create delicious and healthy foods using Alaskan ingredients to expand the local food economy, build community resiliency and perpetuate stewardship of natural resources.

A whale of a thank you to the FAVORITE BAY LODGE team for an unforgettable weekend!

Thank you Above & Beyond Alaska (ABAK) for a great time at the Mendenhall Glacier.

A HUGE huge thank you to Kara at TRAVEL JUNEAU for her support, Maryann at PEARSON’S POND INN for her incredible hospitality. Special thanks to Adventure Flow, Juneau Whale Tours, Alaska Seaplane, Tracy’s King Crab Shack and Deckhand Dave’s.

The spirit of Kootznoowoo, the “Fortress of the Bear”

by Nathaniel Stephens

Last month we explored Baranof and Chichagof Islands and the outer coast of southeast Alaska. Next we will complete our “ABC’s “ with a traverse of Admiralty Island.

The route starts in Juneau with a crossing of the Gastineau Channel to nearby Douglas Island. We will then face the challenging crossing of Stephens Passage and its notorious rough water. Timing will be key to use the strong tidal currents to our advantage through Oliver Inlet and into Seymour Canal.  We’ll take advantage of a railcar system to portage our boats and gear between the two inlets. Heading south through Seymour Canal our goal will be Pack Creek, a famous area for viewing brown bears.  Indeed the island has some of the highest concentrations of brown bear in the world.

The Tlingit name for Admiralty is Kootznoowoo, or “Fortress of the Bear”. In September at Pack Creek we should have ample viewing of bears feeding on spawning salmon. From there we will head for the Cross Admiralty Canoe Route. A spectacular series of bays, lakes and portage trails; the Route was built in the 1930’s by the CCC and offers the intrepid backcountry adventurer a wonderful overview of Alaskan wilderness. The currents are incredibly strong throughout, running up to 10 knots, and the portages are often long and arduous. Whitewater features known as salt chucks occur in many places at certain tidal flows. We will be rewarded for our perseverance with excellent wildlife sightings and fantastic fishing along the way, as we bisect Admiralty Island National Monument.

Once we reach the eastern side of Admiralty we will make our way toward the Tlingit village of Angoon, the island’s only permanent settlement. We will meet with clan elders and learn about the town’s fascinating history, including an 1882 bombardment by the US Navy after a whaling dispute.

Finally, we will load our kayaks on the Alaska Marine Highway for the ferry ride back to Juneau.

Admiralty Portage-01

Along the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness

On July 18th, my expedition partner Nathaniel Stephens and myself will undertake an 11-day kayak expedition following the pacific coast of the Chichagof Island. Our journey will start in Juneau where we will take the ferry to Sitka. From there we will voyage our way north to Hoonah. This 140 miles journey through Alaska’s pristine waters will have us follow the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness. We will pass south of the Kruzof Island, around the Yakobi Island, through the South Iniah Passage, South of the Lemesurier Island and finally around the famous Point Adolphus.

Image

The West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness is part of the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States with most of its area part of the “perhumid rainforest zone, Earth’s largest remaining temperate rainforest. Made up primarily of western red cedar, sitka spruce, and western hemlock, the land spreads over thousands of islands and is home to animals that are barely found anywhere else in North America, including a group of brown bears more closely related to polar bears than to other living brown bears.

Besides being of great environmental value, the area is extremely rich in cultural history – more than 10,000 years ago, the  Tlingit people settled here.

Our expedition will be tracked with the Delorme InReach which can be viewed here. We will try to post updates on Twitter, but most likely all the content – photos, videos and stories, will be published upon our return at the beginning of August.

Make sure to connect via Facebook or Twitter to receive the latest dispatches.

This trip wouldn’t be possible without the important support from

Tlingit

The Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancers are gathered outside in the hall of the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, dressed in their regalia. Their drums, made with a moose hide and painted with motifs whose century-old designs, quiver with hypnotizing resonance every time the padded stick hits them. Their moose leather moccasins, embroidered with thousands of multicolored beads – all sewed by hand, one by one, are adorned with fluffy hare fur that whoosh with each move. From their cedar hats, several small snow ermine pelts hang loose and create a bright white streak when moved rapidly. Around their knees and at the bottom of their robes or button blankets, long fringes dance like the leaves on a Peking Willow, shoved around by a fierce wind, giving a whirlwind optic illusion. Singing in their native tongue, they announce to the waiting crowd that the ceremony is about to begin and beat their drums like the stomping hooves of a herd of caribou. In a long crescendo, the rumble grows louder and louder, like an approaching storm. The percussions turn into the roar of thunder pounding its way through. Their singing cracks through the atmosphere like lightning. The walls might be vibrating and the ground might be shaking, but the crowd of First Nation people waiting inside the great hall knows this is no regular storm; it is a storm of change, the return of a long lost tradition. This is their cultural phoenix reclaiming its legacy, its place, as the pillar of their ancestral identity. The crowd is ecstatic. It is time to celebrate!

A Fortunate Encounter 
I met Marilyn Jensen, the leader of the dance group last May in Montreal, during the International Polar Year Conference. They had just performed, leaving me mesmerized and with so many questions that I had to meet them and find out more. Although we talked at length about their performance and today’s struggles and challenges for the indigenous communities of Canada, called First Nations, it was our mutual love of folkloric art and my fascination for Native mythology that bonded us.

Marilyn Jensen (right) & members of the Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancers

Marilyn Jensen (right) & members of the Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancers

From the Inland Tlingit and Tagish Nations, Marilyn was born in Whitehorse, Yukon, in Northern Canada. Her village, Carcross, whose name stands for Caribou Crossing, is known for its 4,500-year-old aboriginal artifacts that were found some years ago. Her clan, the Dakl’ aweidi, an ancestral name that means “People of the Black Sands”, belongs to the Wolf/Eagle moiety (one of two groups within a culture). The Dakla’weidi crest is the Killerwhale. With a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Alaska and a Masters in Indigenous Governance from the University of Victoria in Canada, Marilyn worked for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and the Council for Yukon First Nations. Today, beside teaching Indigenous Governance at the Yukon College, she dances, manages and is the group leader for the Dakhka Khwaan Dancers.

Her mother, Doris McClain is the matriarch of her lineage and former Chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. It is no surprise that Marilyn is a key player in her community’s cultural revival. Her mother started a dance group back in the 1970‘s, where her own children danced. For several decades, she was extremely active and vocal on the necessity for her people to preserve, honor and recapture their ancestral heritage. Now it is Marilyn who is carrying on her mother’s work, fulfilling a dream that has been in the works for many years. To say that courage, strength, and dedication runs within the family is an understatement. These women are empowered with an energy that defies any norms, as if through them, their ancestors were channeling their powers and making them heralds for the return of the lost Inland Tlingit identity.

A couple of weeks after our encounter, she contacted me telling me that there was to be a very special and historical event coming up in Whitehorse. Trust me she said, “You definitely don’t want to miss it!” The event in question was the re-raising of the Dakl’ aweidi Keét Hít (Killerwhale House), which had been burned by the Anglicans over one hundred years ago. It was to be a milestone in the revitalization of the Inland Tlingit/Tagish community, something almost unheard of. The occasion was so unique that several Tlingit chiefs from the Alaska coast were traveling to attend it, reigniting a long-lost tribal custom. In the old days, traveling long distances to visit other clans was not only common but necessary for maintaining good relationships and trade deals. But when the territorial border between Canada and the United States of America along the pacific northwest coast of America was created, the Tlingit territory was literally cut in two, making any communication or movement between the Inland and Coastal Tlingit a challenge.

To be invited at a historical cultural ceremony was not to be taken lightly, so it was important for me to find out more about Marilyn’s past, her clan, about the Tlingit and why this event was so special.

Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancer

To Be Conquered 
Famous anthropologist Wade Davis once said: “Cultural survival is not about preservation, sequestering indigenous peoples in enclaves like some sort of zoological specimens. Change itself does note destroy a culture. All societies are constantly evolving. Indeed a culture survives when it has enough confidence in its past and enough say in its future to maintain its spirit and essence through all the changes it will inevitably undergo.” 

It is hard to imagine what assimilation means when you stand on the side of the perpetrator, when your people are the ones who conquered and took over new worlds. What is it like to loose your cultural identity? To be forbidden to practice and honor rituals that were passed down through many generations. What does it do to your spirit when you find yourself stripped of all liberties and possessions and outlawed to live the way you lived only yesterday?

How would we, dear modern citizens of this world, react if what we took for granted, what we called “Our World” and “Our Rights”, were taken away from us? Surely we would fight. Surely we would defend ourselves. Confronting this new and challenging situation we might even find added value and turn it all around, giving it a positive twist. God knows that this nation of builders and fighters has what it takes to do so. Our optimism, and Hollywood, love to believe that our ability to overcome the impossible ultimately always triumphs – aren’t we a society of winners? In reality, history has many more losers than winners and in the end, against a force that is simply too great to resist, would we accept assimilation for the sake of survival? Or would we go down in blazing glory and take our pride to the grave?

Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, Whitehorse, Canada

In America, for thousands of years, indigenous societies lived in a relatively constant environment. Life was of course not easy – survival is a strenuous task and nature is unforgiving, but overall, their world was a stable reality in which one only needed to find a safe way to eat and a safe place to sleep. When the Europeans arrived, and officially terminating what anthropologists refer to as the Pre-Columbian Era, everything changed.

Colonization is a positive term that explains the process of a group of individuals taking possession of a new place. Although our semantic and politically correct system indicates otherwise, the truth is that when that place is already occupied by a different group, colonization turns into conquest. Our righteousness with history is so deeply rooted that on Wikipedia, the word “Conquest” is mainly associated with military subjugation, with no mention of the assimilation of the indigenous North Americans. In fact, when talking about “Conquering America” we allude to the Spanish invasion and the disappearance of the Aztec-, Inca- and Mayan empires. But when we talk about the Apache, the Navajo, the Tlingit, the Iroquois, the Cherokee, the Cree, the Inuit, the Sioux, the Blackfeet, or the Comanche, we then choose to refer to the colonization of North America. Our literature might fool us into thinking that what happened was for the good of everyone, but the truth remains, for the Native Americans, the Europeans conquered their territories and forced them to assimilate by taking away their culture, livelihood, and self determination. Over the course of the several hundred of years, the indigenous peoples saw their numbers decimated by wars and diseases and their land possessions dwindle to a fraction of what they were, while their culture became outlawed and gradually disappeared.

Blanket

300-year old Chilkat blanket

In Canada, this process culminated with the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869. These bills made it mandatory for indigenous people to fall in line with the system. The bills came to be known as the “Enfranchisement of the Indians”. To be enfranchised, any “Indian” over twenty-one years of age, had to speak, read and write either English or French, be well educated, of good moral character and free of debt if they were to receive “a piece of land not exceeding fifty acres out of the lands reserved or set apart for the use of his tribe, as allotted by the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, and a sum of money equal to the principal of his share of the annuities and other yearly revenues receivable by or for the use of such tribe”. Incredible since under such rules, half of the Europeans would have not even qualify for anything!

All enfranchised “Canadians” were required to choose a new surname that needed to be approved by appointed commissioners, by which they would become legally known. The wife and descendants of the enfranchised man would also be enfranchised, and would no longer be considered members of the former tribe. Finally, in 1876, the Federal Government of Canada passed the Indian Act, stripping the indigenous people of any rights over how to handle their lives and giving Canada exclusive authority to legislate in relation to “Indians and Land Reserved for Indians”. 

The assault on the First Nations’ cultural heritage didn’t stop there. In a letter to the Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald on the 27th of October 1879, Indian Reserve Commissioner Gilbert Malcolm Sproat reported that the potlatch, an indigenous cultural ceremony, was:

“… the parent of numerous vices, which eat out the heart of the people. It produces indigence, thriftlessness, and habits of roaming about which prevent home association and is inconsistent with all progress. The potlatch directly causes a large amount of prostitution common among the Coastal Tribes and is directly opposed to the inculcation of industriousness or moral habits.” 

“River Corridor”, Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse

In 1885, six years after Sproat’s condemning letter, and after much pressure from Missionaries, always with the intent to “civilize” the “Natives”, an amendment was added to the Indian Act prohibiting cultural events, such as “potlatches”. Pushing even further, in 1895, the Act was again amended so that all dances, ceremonies and festivals that involved the giving away of money or goods, were to be outlawed.

Much has changed since – the Potlatch ban was repealed in 1951, but the Indian Act remains to this day the basic foundation for the relationship between the First Nations and the Federal Government.

Despite the tragic and disastrous effect the arrival of the European had on the indigenous communities’ cultural identity some centuries ago, it seems that remnants of their heritage survived. Against all odds, a strong movement, both in the United States of America and in Canada, has been active in reviving their culture, bringing back long forgotten ceremonies and the practice of traditional art – for a much awaited revitalization of their ancestral identity.

Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancer

The Tlingit, a Powerful People 
The Tlingit, a name that translates into “People of the Tides”, were once powerful hunter-gatherers with a structured and complex society. Established on the pacific northwest coast of America, their origin is directly linked to the “First Americans” whom migrated from Asia over the Bering Strait, some 15,000 years ago. Unfortunately, being a society that transmitted knowledge through oral traditions, much of their millennial existence has been lost through the assimilation process and what we know today of their history, culture, customs, and lifestyle comes from accounts written after the arrival of the Russians and Europeans, circa 1740. However to the Tlingit themselves, all of their history is remembered through their oral traditions, at.oow (clan owned possessions) and within the collective memories of their elders and Ancestors.

Benefiting from a rich and bountiful world, where salmon and seals abounded, these coastal people were important traders. Although wealth was valued in some ways, it was the ability to share and good ethics that made social status. Of matriarchal lineage and aristocratic, kinship was fundamental not only for internal governance but also for keeping good relations with other tribes and forging trade alliances. One of the most comprehensive studies of the Tlingit people was done by Lieutenant George Emmons of the United States Navy, who was stationed in Alaska in the 1880s and 1890s. After he passed away, the American Museum of Natural History commissioned American anthropologist and former professor emeritus of anthropology at Bryn Mawr College, Frederica de Laguna to take over Emmons’ work and complete his unfinished encyclopedia. The results were finally published in 1991 in a 530-page book titled “The Tlingit Indians”. Today, it is considered by many to be a very important resource available on the Tlingit people.

at.oow (clan owned possessions)

The HÍt (clan lineage house) was the most important unit within the social structure. Part cultural center, part political arena and part spiritual retreat, the clan house was also where all the clan’s possessions were stored, under the care of a hít s’aatí (caretaker). It was where trade issues were discussed, where kinship matters were dealt with, where marriages were held and where births and deaths were celebrated and mourned. The houses were laboriously decorated with carvings and ornaments, representing their clan association, moiety and history. Today, just a few authentic HÍt can be found on the coast of Alaska, in Saxman, near Ketchikan, Haines, Klukwan, and Angoon. One of the most important, the Chief Shakes Tribal House, located on Wrangell Island, was destroyed in 1869 by the US Navy. An exact replica of the 19th century building was built in 1940 and today, the house is undergoing extensive conservation work financed by the Rasmuson Foundation. The clan house in Sitka, built in 1997 is a modern rendition but has successfully kept its historical integrity.

The Koo.éex (Potlatch) was and remains at the core of the Tlingit culture and economic system. The word Potlatch is believed to originate from the Chinook jargon, a mix of indigenous languages with European words. While Koo.éex, which translates to “giving”, is defined in the modern dictionary “as an opulent ceremonial feast at which possessions are given away or destroyed to display wealth or enhance prestige”, in reality, it is far more than that. While the HÍt is the physical location where all affairs are conducted, Koo.éex represents the structure and process, the spirit with which these matters are orchestrated. In some ways, it could be said that simply it is a form of ceremonial syntax, to be applied to any ceremony or meeting held in the clan house. More than a mere “feast” the Koo.éex embodies the Tlingit’s values and code of ethics. And it is precisely for this reason that it was seen as a direct threat to the mission to assimilate and convert the indigenous tribes.

Split Raven chief from Alaska dancing at the Potlatch

While dancing, singing, speech making, conducting protocols and gifting are the manners in which Koo.éex is executed, its structure is based around the principles of sharing and reciprocity. Originally, it was also often used as a tool to gain social status. Culturally, the social status of a clan or individual was based not on possessions, but on the capacity to give away and share. This principle was important for the redistribution and reciprocity of wealth, a strategy crucial for keeping good trading relationships with other clans. This aspect was contrary to, and totally clashed with the European Christian capitalist system. It was impossible for the colonists to comprehend how people could work so hard and then give everything away, almost bankrupting themselves in the process. This misunderstanding only reinforced their loathing of the indigenous culture. Today, although the grandeur of the Koo.éex has decreased, it is still an important ceremony and practiced amongst the First Nations of the Northwest Coast communities.

Rising From The Ashes 
Tagish is a short drive east of Carcross, on Road 8, passed Chootla and Crag Lake. Sitting on the banks of the Six Mile River, the small community, whose name means “fish trap” in Athapaskan, was an important First Nation trading settlement, serving as a middle point between the coastal and inland peoples. Today, besides being a fishing heaven for Lake Trout, Arctic Grayling and Northern Pike, it is mostly known as, along with Carcross, one of the villages of Skookum Jim, Patsy Henderson and Dawson Charlie, all credited to having discovered the gold that led to the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1800’s.

Chilkat Blanket “Frog Coming Out of the Den” belonging to the Kiks.adi clan of Sitka

Right after the Tagish River bridge, to the right, near the campground, is where, about one hundred years ago, the Dakl’ aweidi HÍt was turned to ashes. There are no ruins or remnants of any structure that could give clues as to its exact location, only rumors and memories. Besides the knowledge passed down from the great great parents, a very few accounts point to the existence of the building – “As mentioned, the nineteenth century Daql’awedi house at Tagish was called either kit hit or gotc Hit.” (McClellan, My Old People Say, 453.)

The Tagish clan house was burned down in a final and desperate attempt by the Anglicans to crush the Tlingit’s fighting spirit. On the premise that if you destroyed the “Indian’s Temple”, the “Natives” would be forced to let go, convert, and embrace a new god. But the spirit of these Kwáan (people/nation) that has lived for thousands of years managed to survived this last century. The walls of their clan house might have been reduced to dust, washed away by the rain and returned to the ground, but their identity, their Haa latseení (people’s strength – body, mind & spirit) never truly disappeared. Just like a dormant seed, waiting for the right time, nurtured by the soil and surrounding elements, gathering its forces before it re-flourished. Just like a dormant volcano, seemingly quiet and subdued, buried forever in a prison of rock, but when ready, will explode and no forces on earth will be able to stop it.

Members of the Deisheetaan Clan, Raven Moiety.

On a large patch of tall grass, surrounded by pines, through which the river can be seen flowing, two groups are facing each other. On one side, the Dakl’ aweidi clan, from the Wolf/Eagle moiety, and on the other, chiefs and representatives from the Raven moiety. The gentle breeze and warm northern summer sun are good omen an elder confines to me, “The Ancestors are here” she concludes. Everybody is dressed in full regalia. Some of the outfits have literally been taken out of museums especially for the occasion. One of them worn by a Raven Chief, is a 300-year old Chilkat blanket that is normally on display at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. Another precious artifact, brought by a Killerwhale Chief in Juneau, is a Tlingit dagger. From around 1650 to 1700, the dagger was forged out of a meteorite by a man of the Dakl’ aweidi named Kucheesh (Dark Wolf). The display of priceless at.oow (a clan’s most prized collectively owned possession), more than a million US dollars in value, is a reminder to all of us present just how unique and important this event is.

Tlingit dagger from the 16th century

The ceremony is a series of exchanges and acknowledgements between the two moieties. The beauty and richness of the moment is not really about what is being said, but rather about what transpires. Everything revolves around the notions of respect, cooperation, honor, the care for the clan and the value put into the wisdom given by the Elders. The way they talk and address each other embodies these beliefs. As one of the Chiefs explained to me, whether by telling stories, or addressing the clan, talking is an act of reciprocity. There is an art to it. There is a rhythm, there are pauses and silences. There is a time to talk and a time to listen. There are times to ask and times to wait for an answer. You need to let your audience acknowledge what you are saying and let them participate. He confesses to me that this art is one of the most difficult ones to teach today and he is conscious on how hard it is for the younger generations who live in an exponentially fast world that is focused on the individual. He finds it hard to convince the young ones to emphasize the value of the clan and of the family while the society around them glamorizes self-indulgence, fame, and short-term gains. Right now however, to see these Elders, these Chiefs, conducting the ceremony and addressing each other with such respect is a treat. If only our own legislators and politicians did the same, I am sure that our world would certainly be in a better place…

Raven Chiefs

Chiefs at the Dakl’ aweidi HÍt (clan house) raising ceremony: 3 from the Raven moiety, (from the left) and a Wolf moiety, (far right) – Sitka Kaagwaantaan Naa Shaa dei hani – in Alaska

As the sun disappears past the tip of the trees, two Dakl’ aweidi matriarchs take a shovel and break the ground, turning the sacred soil around several times. A chief comes and kneels, rumbling his finger through the dirt. He thanks the Ancestors, the ones who have lived, prospered and died on this land for several thousands of years. Then taking a handful of the earth, he stands up and goes around giving some to everyone. This is a moment of utmost importance, by binding the past with the future, with what was and what will be, and by uniting the dead with the living, a legacy is created.

As each holds in his or her hands a piece of that legacy, a dance begins. Gently bending their knees and bringing their robes and blankets to their faces, the dancers hide their bodies and force the audience to focus on the visual display produced by their regalia. On their heads are “naa s’aaxhwu”, clan hats made of woods and featuring intricate carvings of their clan and history. Dakl’ aweidi “naa s’aaxhwu” all bear the iconic killer whale dorsal fin and by slowly rocking their heads from side to side, with an upward then downward motion, they transform themselves into a pod of killer whales swimming the sounds of the northern pacific coast.

Elders from the Dakl’ aweidi clan distributing the sacred soil

While the “killer whales” swim in a circle, on the very same ground where the clan house will be built, the rest of the group, one by one, sprinkles back the earth they had hold in their hands onto the Dakl’ aweidi dancers, this way connecting their ancestral coastal origins with their inland future.

As the ceremony comes to an end, final congratulations are made, handshakes are exchanged, and embraces are shared. Even though the sun has disappeared behind the mountains – the northern summer sky rarely gets dark before midnight, it has been a very long day and we are all starving. As if on cue, Marilyn announces that we are all to reconvene at her place for a real Tlingit feast!

Tobacco sprinkled on Killerwhale “naa s’aaxhwu”, (clan hats) to brings good luck.

A Time To Celebrate 
Sitting on the banks of the Yukon River, in Whitehorse, the recently built Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, is one of four First Nations cultural centers in Yukon. Designed to honor the river and its people, the building is made up of a series of rooms linked together by a very long hallway, called the “River Corridor”. The front of the building is curved to illustrate the river’s sinuous flow while the off-white rock emulates the natural clay bluffs that are prominent throughout the river valley. Inside are several event rooms, conference rooms, cultural exhibits, an elder room and a spiritual sacred room. It is in the main room that today’s potlatch, a celebration for yesterday’s raising of the clan house, is being held.

Only 60 years ago, the ban on Potlatch was lifted. The Second World War had ended in 1945, yet the First Nations were still forbidden to celebrate their cultural heritage. In 1951, while the Americans and Canadians were busy watching Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn on the big screen, the First Nations celebrated the ratification of the Indian Act, making “attempts to pursue land claims and the use of religious ceremonies (such as potlatches) no longer prohibited by law”. For Marilyn’s mother, having grown up in an era of “prohibition”, these past couple of days have been like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. After years of repression, years of subdued existence and much effort spent keeping a dying culture alive, her people are finally coming together once again, just like in the old days.

Members of the Dakhkà Khwaàn Dancers dancing at the Potlach

From two in the afternoon until midnight, and repeating the same manners witnessed yesterday, speeches are made, stories are sung, dances are performed, gifts are given, and clan names are appointed. Much like their people have done for thousands of years, these Inland Tlingit and Tagish are celebrating their cultural heritage and through it, acquiring the confidence needed to maintain its spirit and historical essence and assure its future.

Walking up to Marilyn, who is catching her breath after such a powerful entrance, I ask her if she ever thought it would come to this, as I point to the crowd, the dancers, the building, the chiefs from Alaska, her daughter who is dancing and her mother who is sitting still, overwhelmed by emotion. Trying to take everything in, she turns to me and I can see a tear lingering on the corner of her eyes. On her face, pride is radiating. This is not personal pride but rather the pride of a people that has finally found its promised land after such a long and treacherous journey.

“Thank you” she says to me. “I am really happy that you were here to see my family and learn more about our culture. It was an honor for us to have you with us.” Her modesty takes me by surprise and I insist that the honor is mine. I ask her if she thinks her grandmother would have been proud of this moment, and of her granddaughter. “She is, don’t worry. Very much so. She is here, along with our Ancestors. And they are really happy and proud of us!”

Goonaxcheesh!

Four generations of Tlingit First Nation

Radio Interview on CHON FM

While on assignment in Whitehorse, Yukon, for the Tlingit Cultural Revitalization, I had the opportunity to sit down with radio host Christine Genier and chat about my work, the EPIC expedition and our relationship with nature.

Click here to listen to the interview

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

IPY 2012 – Day Two

It was day two at the International Polar Year, and just like yesterday, it was filled with amazing discussions, great meetings and priceless new connections.

Now sitting with Moki Kokoris of the Arctic Institute, we were ready for another intense working day.

Peter Harrison, Chair of the IPY 2012, came on stage and started the day by presenting an amazing video about Polar Educators. On the giant screen, Geoff Green, from Students on Ice, along with many others from several educational and scientific institutions, including PEW, talked about the importance of reaching out to children, who’s lifestyle now is more and more secluded from nature, and presented hands-on teaching methods to excite the students about science and the poles.

Then, it was time for David Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Interior in the Obama administration. The emphasis was quickly established, pointing that the Arctic was extremely important and that the USA were committed to being an important player. Hayes continued by reaffirming a theme that has been highly important and repeated at this conference: we must take into account the needs of the local indigenous communities and consider their knowledge – thousands of years of onsite information carried over generations – priceless. His next point was to stress how a cooperation must be reached between all the Arctic States, governments and involved communities, to develop Ecosystem Based Management templates. Finally, Hayes reiterated that science was great and that no one in this room needed to be convinced, but the challenge was to bridge science to the policy makers.

Today’s keynote speaker was Aqqualuk Lynge, President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, former member of the Parliament of Greenland and one of the founders of the Greenlandic political party Inuit Ataqatigiit. Lynge reminded the audience that it was ok to be interested in the resources the Arctic had to offer, but that the North was primarily the place where they live and had lived for generations. Under an incredible slideshow of photos, Aqqaluke, a passionate Inuk, talked about how important it is to listen to his people. Although the Inuit Circumpolar Council and other indigenous organizations have been officially recognized and are present at the negotiation table, their voices are too often simply ignored. “You pretend to serve us but really, do you? You don’t know what WE know. You don’t believe in what WE believe” Lynge said, pointing to the obvious, of the need for the South to come and “fix” the North!

When Harrison came back to address the audience, it was to talk about the environmental aspect of the conference. “The ice cap is white, the ocean is blue, and the conference is green” he said. Through recycling, small publication format, carbon footprint sensitive actions and the paperless smartphone application, from GuideBook, that includes the program, maps, information on all sessions and so much more, the organization of the conference has done everything it could to lower its environmental impact.

Before heading to the Action Forum “Creating the conditions for safe shipping in polar waters”, I met with the Arctic Council Chair, Mr. Gustaf Lind and talked about how the Arctic scene had change over the last 5 years and what it will mean when the Chair moves to Canada. Although this conversation could have gone on for hours, he summarized it in one sentence: “One thing is for sure, much has happened already and much more will happen in a near future and the key to our adaptation will be “Cooperation”.

WWF’s Arctic Director Dr. Alex Shestakov was part of the morning panel at the Forum, along with Tschudi CEO Mr. Jon Edvard Sundess, Professor of Geography & arctic Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Dr. Lawson W. Brigham, marine lawyer for Border Ladner Gervais Mr. Peter Pamel, Research Associate at the Arctic Institute of North America Dr. Emma Stewart and finally President & Co-Founder of Cruise North Expeditions Mr. Dugald G. Wells. I caught up with Shestakov after to talk about the challenges we face. Once again, the word cooperation was the key to address these challenges.

At lunch time, we were treated with a magnificent show – ArtCirq and the Dakhka Khwaan Dancers. The Dakhka is a traditional inland Tlingit dance group of Northern Canada that: “work to bring opportunity of cultural revitalization and social transformation within their communities by reclaiming their languages, traditional values through the traditional art form of song, drumming, dance, storytelling.” Marilyn Jensen, dance leader, enlightened me after with more stories and information about the dances they performed, costumed they wore and the history of their culture. It was simply fascinating! I will definitely be writing about that in the coming weeks!

ArtCirq was a hilarious performance! Started after a tragic event in 1998, Inuusiq (“Life” in Inuktitut) was created  to prevent suicide in small communities and help children in life. Their first mission was to produce, with the help of ISUMA productions, a television series about the youth’s life in the Canadian Arctic. The next project was the circus idea, intended to be an entertaining and fun alternative for the children. Today, Artcirq has evolved into a full community-based entertainment and multimedia company for northern and southern artists to bridge and meet in a meaningful and creative way.

The afternoon panel “Adaptation to Change” featured guests panelists Dr. Gustaf Lind – Chair of the Arctic Council, Mr. Jack Hebert – CEO of Cold Climate Housing Research Center, Mr. Duane Smith – President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada and finally Mr. Jon Edvard Sundress – CEO of Tschudi Shipping Company. Moderated by NY Times journalist and Senior Fellow at Pace University Mr. Andrew Revkin, each guest presented how their organizations had found success in adapting to unforeseen or foreseen challenges. “Adaptation for the Inuit is nothing new. We have lived for thousands of years, in harmony with one of the harshest  environments in the world” said Mr. Smith.

Next stop was a workshop given by the Royal Norwegian Canadian Embassy. The two countries have a long history of working together (Canadian’s top scientific icebreaker bears the name of Norwegian legendary explorer Amundsen), and this event was a strong message from Norway to extend its commitment and support to further develop and strengthen this partnership. My main reason to attend was to chat with Jan-Gunnar Winther, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Events like the International Polar Year Conference, are so crucial for developing the necessary relationships to bridge the communities, the scientists, the corporations, the educators & the politicians.

If you are present at the conference, make sure not to miss the photo exhibit on the cultural Inuit history. The presence of the Inuit is strongly emphasized at the IPY 2012, and for a reason. It is their home, their land, and their right. 

More photos from today here and live Tweets here