Alaskan Stories Sewn and Carved

Last week Julie P. wrote about the picture books she discovered on her journey to Portugal. This week, I plan to share some art and stories from our trip to Southeastern Alaska.

We traveled by small boat – an Uncruise – chugging up the inlets of the Inland Passage between Juneau and Ketchikan, everyday kayaking and hiking into the fiords and forests. jkpaddleAKI grew up near Yosemite in California and I think the best way to describe this scenery is to imagine Yosemite – the towering granite cliffs, the waterfalls – filled with salt water. In addition to the animal life you’d find in Yosemite, like bears and mink and eagles, the Southeastern Alaska wilderness is home to whales, sea lions and harbor seals, etc. Yes, it was amazing.

But just as intriguing was the opportunity to learn about the native people of this area – the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. Our trip included a visit to the Chief Shakes longhouse in Wrangell.

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There, a man named Arthur talked about the history of the Tlingit people and the building of the longhouse, and, more personally, the history of the blanket robe he wore, a garment that had originally been his grandmother’s.

With the robe for illustration, Arthur talked about the two “moieties” in the Tlingit tribe: eagle and raven. Families follow a matrilineal line and marriages are traditionally only allowed between one of each moiety. Arthur’s grandmother was of the eagle clan, thus the eagle at the top front of his blanket.

During his grandmother’s youth, the western government disallowed all tribal regalia as well as the Tlingit language. Grandmother’s robe, made of black and red government-provided blankets and decorated with white buttons, was hidden between the studs of her house.

When Arthur was a young man, his grandmother showed him the robe, then returned it to its hiding place. “It kept us warm, even then,” Arthur said. Thirty years later, Arthur’s family sold the house and the new owner remodeled. A demo crew found the robe and set it aside. The new owner noticed it and stuffed it into a trash bag. When the owner left, workers rescued the robe and gave it to a tribal leader who recognized that it had belonged to Arthur’s grandmother. Five years ago when Arthur left his job as a fisherman to learn more about his Tlingit culture, he took a Tlingit name. The tribal leader gifted him back his grandmother’s robe, which he has altered to fit. Over the years he added an Orca on the front and Wolf and Bear images on the back – each depicting other parts of his family.

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Arthur’s robe is a visual reminder of his family lineage in Tlingit images. In a culture that had no written language, the robe holds the stories.

In Ketchikan at the end of our journey, we met Jason, a Tsimshian guide, in the Totem Heritage Center. He unwound the stories of five ancient totem poles. He told us how totem poles could have a funerary or commemorative use, or tell a family’s history. But this particular one was made to tell a cautionary tale.

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As Jason told us, the face featured is that of a strong and arrogant man who went out fishing. He didn’t want to wait for his partner so he went alone. “That’s when the Alaska weather showed up,” Jason said. Waves capsized the man’s canoe. “The mythological killer whale people saw him. They recognized him as a strong and important person and saved him, bringing him underneath the water to the mythological village of the killer whale people.” They revived him, so he stayed with them for many years to repay them.

Eventually he got homesick. He realized he was not strong enough as a regular man to make it from the bottom of the ocean to the surface. “So he wrapped himself in a sealskin and transformed himself into a seal – until he broke the surface of the ocean and returned to his people.”

Jason added that there are two morals from this story: “Never go out fishing alone, and always take care of those who take care of you.”

This totem pole, unlike most, is carved on all sides. The seal’s skin wraps around the man, with the head of the seal (a little damaged due to age) rising straight above the man, as the seal swims up to the surface of the water.

Stories and storytellers and the beautiful native art that holds the stories surely added to our Southeastern Alaska adventures. These tribes’ oral storytelling traditions relied on art made from materials at hand: fabric, buttons and sewing needles, and huge cedar logs. But the urge to tell a story with words and images is the same urge we picture book people feel. It’s a part of the human condition.

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4 responses to “Alaskan Stories Sewn and Carved

  1. Wow, Laura…how amazing to see and hear those stories. Thank you for sharing. Recently finished reading Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone. The Alaska setting, Kaneq, AK, and the lives of Alaska’s homesteaders is fascinating. Again, many thanks for connecting with your blog readers.

    • laurakvasnosky

      i read the great alone too. and despaired for the viet nam vet dad who was so damaged by his war experience. but it does give you a feel for the vast wilderness. plus large marge was a standout character. thanks for reading our blog!

  2. I LOVE Yosemite, and Alaska is a place I’ve wanted to go for a long time. Looks like gorgeous country. Thanks for sharing the interesting stories of the indigenous people who live there.

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