A Native Village In Alaska Where The Past Is Key To The Future

Jun 20, 2017
Originally published on June 21, 2017 8:42 am

What does it mean to lose your land, your language, and your heritage?

For Alaska Natives, these are existential threats.

On a trip to Southeast Alaska, I traveled to one village that is finding new ways to survive: Klukwan, ancestral home of the Tlingit tribe.

Nestled along the banks of the Chilkat River, Klukwan is quiet and tiny, home to about 90 people.

The Haines Highway runs through town, but on the day we visited, you could walk right down the middle of the two-lane road without worry of passing cars.

On a tour of the village, we pass by small homes and trailers: some abandoned, some with rusted old trucks out front, sinking into the soil.

"It's a struggle," says tribal president Kimberley Strong. "You see the buildings, some of 'em are falling down and dilapidated. But we're working at it. We're working very hard at trying to keep the village alive."

By doing that, they're also trying to preserve the heritage of the Tlingit people, who have lived in Southeast Alaska for thousands of years.

In fact, the town's name - Klukwan - means "eternal village" or "ancient land" in the Tlingit language.

Unlike other Tlingit communities in Southeast Alaska, Klukwan is governed exclusively by its traditional tribal council.

To stay alive for future generations, Strong believes Klukwan needs to develop. "There's younger people who want to live here," Strong says, "but there's no suitable housing at this point for them to move into."

Klukwan does have a school: just 17 kids total, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

There's a health clinic, open two days a week; a community garden; and a small grocery store.

Looking to the future, the tribe has great hopes for the new Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage Center, a soaring, light-filled space that opened in Klukwan last spring. It's an $8 million investment in the tribe's future, funded through grants, as well as state and federal money.

On display are examples of famed Chilkat weaving: intricately-patterned blankets and robes.

But the most prominent treasures are the tribe's colorful totems and carved screens, hundreds of years old, which depict the ravens, eagles and killer whales that help define the identity of the Tlingit (pronunciation guide here) people.

The heritage center's executive director, Lani Hotch, estimates it will draw thousands of tourists to Klukwan this summer and provide 30 much-needed jobs.

Hotch, a master Tlingit weaver herself, and the sister of tribal president Kimberley Strong, was the driving force behind creating the heritage center.

To illustrate how the Tlingit lands have shrunk, she leads me to the first exhibit: a map of the tribe's ancestral land. "Our ancestors would say that the mountaintops were like our fence posts," Hotch says. "That's what marked our territory."

That territory used to cover a sprawling expanse nearly the size of Connecticut. Now, the tribe has jurisdiction over a tiny fraction of that: about three square miles.

For the Tlingit people, the land is key to their identity, as is language.

Lani Hotch and others are trying to reclaim and teach the Tlingit language, which has been lost to many. That's because children of her parents' generation were often sent away to white, missionary schools and were forced to speak English. Children would get their hands slapped, their mouths washed out with soap, or worse, if they spoke in their native tongue.

"People think that's ancient history," Hotch says. "It's not that long ago. That's the reason why my generation doesn't speak Tlingit fluently, because all our parents spoke to us in English. Because they didn't want us to go through what they went through."

For many Tlingit elders, that generational trauma is still deeply felt.

Hotch recalls asking an elder to sing a traditional song so she could learn it properly. But as soon as the elder started singing, Hotch says, "her throat seized up on her, and she was coughing and sputtering."

Hotch later learned that this elder was punished more than any of the other kids in grade school because her parents didn't speak any English. The only language she knew was Tlingit.

"She still carried that with her 60 years later when she tried to sing," Hotch says. "She had a physical reaction."

Now, the village of Klukwan is facing a potential threat of a different order.

About 10 miles upstream from the village, a Canadian mining company is in the middle stages of exploring and drilling for a copper-zinc-silver-gold mine.

According to the company, Constantine Metal Resources, Ltd., the site is a high-grade deposit discovery with "tremendous expansion potential."

If that mine goes through, the tribe is deeply worried about environmental threats to the Chilkat River and the fish they depend on for their food supply.

The river feeds them, just as it fed their ancestors. The people of Klukwan fish for salmon right outside their back door.

As we walk along the river, the two sisters, Lani Hotch and Kimberley Strong, point out the fish-cleaning tables along its banks, and the smokehouses people have built behind their homes to cure their fish.

"If our river gets polluted with mine tailings," Hotch says, "that will be the end of us."

The tribe is trying to get the highest level of protected status for the Chilkat under the federal Clean Water Act.

As we walk along the river, Hotch looks up at the majestic, snow-covered mountains that surround us.

"I always feel like we're nestled in the hand of God here," she says. "When I go to someplace that's flat, I feel like ... there's nothing holding us in place. We just feel protected here and nurtured, you know? Like we really belong here."

"We're rooted here," adds Strong. "It's not a choice."

Strong thinks about their ancestors, and about the many other Tlingit villages that have disappeared over the centuries. "I do not want to be one of the last generations that lived in a traditional Tlingit village," she says. "I don't want my name to go down in history as being one of the last tribal leaders of the 21st century."

She continues, "I would like people to respect the fact that we do have a culture here, a strong Tlingit culture, that could disappear. And we need to fight to keep it."

We are stewards of the land, the sisters tell me, and we are obligated to care for it.

The "Our Land" series is produced by Elissa Nadworny.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

What does it mean to lose your land, your language and your heritage? For Alaska natives, these are existential threats. As part of her series Our Land, NPR's Melissa Block visited a village in southeast Alaska where one tribe is finding new ways to survive.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The village of Klukwan is home to about 90 people of the Tlingit tribe.

KIMBERLEY STRONG: My name is Kimberley Strong, (speaking Tlingit). And I am the tribal president of the Chilkat Indian village of Klukwan.

BLOCK: The town is a mix of small homes and trailers, some with rusted old trucks out front sinking into the soil.

STRONG: It's a struggle. You see the buildings are - some of them are falling down and dilapidated. But we're working at it. We're working very hard at trying to keep the village alive.

BLOCK: And trying to preserve the heritage of the Tlingit people, who've lived in southeast Alaska for thousands of years. In fact, the town's name, Klukwan, means eternal village or ancient land in the Tlingit language. To stay alive for future generations, Kimberley Strong says Klukwan needs to develop.

STRONG: There's younger people who want to live here, but there's no suitable housing at this point for them to move into.

BLOCK: Klukwan does have a school - just 17 kids total from kindergarten through 12th grade. There's a health clinic open two days a week, a community garden.

STRONG: We started our little grocery store.

BLOCK: And the tribe has great hopes for the new cultural heritage center that opened in Klukwan last spring. It's an $8 million investment in the community's future funded through grants and state and federal money. And it should provide 30 much-needed jobs this summer. The center displays colorful totems and carved screens hundreds of years old.

LANI HOTCH: Over here is the strong man totem. This one over here is the girl who raised the woodworm.

BLOCK: Lani Hotch is the driving force behind the heritage center. She's a master weaver and the sister of tribal president Kimberley Strong. And to illustrate how the Tlingit lands have shrunk, she takes me to the first exhibit. It's a map of the tribe's ancestral land.

HOTCH: Our ancestors would say that the mountain tops were like our fence posts. That's what marked our territory.

BLOCK: That territory was a sprawling expanse nearly the size of Connecticut. Now the tribe has jurisdiction over a tiny fraction of that, about 3 square miles. For the Tlingit people, the land is key to their identity, as Lani Hotch explains using the Tlingit language.

HOTCH: (Speaking Tlingit). I come from the wolf house. (Speaking Tlingit). I'm a child of the raven. All those things, when we're introducing ourselves, it tells how we're connected. And place is an important part of that.

BLOCK: Place and language. Lani Hotch and others are trying to reclaim and teach the Tlingit language, which has been lost to many. That's because her parents' generation was often sent away to white missionary schools as children. They'd get their hands slapped or their mouths washed out with soap if they spoke in their native tongue.

HOTCH: You know, people think that that's ancient history. It's not that long ago. That's the reason why my generation doesn't speak Tlingit fluently, is because all our parents spoke to us in English because they didn't want us to go through what they went through.

STRONG: We'll turn and go down towards the river here.

BLOCK: The two sisters, Kimberley Strong and Lani Hotch, take us down by the Chilkat River. It's the lifeline of this community. The people of Klukwan depend on it for their food supply. They fish for salmon right outside their back door. We peek inside the fragrant smoke house where Kimberley Strong cures her fish.

STRONG: Once we put it on the racks we wait for it to get a nice glossy look, and then we'll start the smoke on it.

BLOCK: The Chilkat River feeds them just as it fed their ancestors, so the tribe is deeply worried about threats to the river and the fish if a copper and zinc mine goes through not far upstream. A Canadian company has been exploring and drilling at the site. In response, the tribe is trying to get the highest level of protected status for the Chilkat under the federal Clean Water Act.

HOTCH: If our river gets polluted with mine tailings, that will be the end of us.

BLOCK: As we walk along the river, Lani Hotch looks up at the majestic, snow-covered mountains that surround us.

HOTCH: I always feel like we're nestled in the hand of God here. And when I go to someplace that's flat, I feel like this could happen. I could be standing there and psh (ph).

BLOCK: Just blown away.

HOTCH: Like there's nothing holding us in place. And we just feel protected here and nurtured, you know, like we really belong here.

STRONG: We're rooted here. It's not a choice.

BLOCK: Lani's sister Kimberley thinks about their ancestors, thinks about all the other Tlingit villages that have disappeared.

STRONG: I do not want to be one of the last generations that lived in a traditional Tlingit village. I guess I would like people to respect the fact that we do have a culture here, a strong Tlingit culture that could disappear. And we need to fight to keep it.

BLOCK: We are stewards of the land, the sisters tell me, and we are obligated to care for it. Melissa Block, NPR News, in Klukwan, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK MCGUIRE'S "IN SEARCH OF THE MIRACULOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.