The adventures of a knitting grandmother

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She spins, she knits, she blogs about it all.

Monday, October 27, 2008

T is for...

Totems and Tlingits.

When we were planning out our trip, we decided that we would concentrate on historical and cultural tours. There were no regrets about this, once we had completed the trip. We learned a lot and saw first hand the difficulties that the gold rush settlers had to endure, and the challenges that the current residents deal with on a daily basis. There is great beauty in the remoteness, but life must be adapted to the environment.

We spent time over several days visiting historical parks and museums. We learned about totem poles, a lot more than I had known up to now. We learned what their purpose was and how to understand them, as well as the uses for which they are carved: to proclaim who lives in a certain area; to memorialize the deceased; to commemorate important events, etc. We visited a village workshop where totems are still being carved today, as a craft still living in this modern day. We learned about the woods used and the tools, as well as the dyes and paints used to decorate them.

The first three pictures were taken at Sitka Historic Park. We walked through the forest of spruce and hemlock in a gentle rain. The air was filled with the smell of the wet pine. The park is out on a small finger of land that two hundred years ago was the area occupied by the Tlingit people. The native people did not get along well with the Russian settlers at Sitka. Eventually the Russians and Tlingits fought and the Russian ships shelled the native fort that used to stand in this peaceful, green meadow. The Tlingits decided that they could no longer resist the Russians, and they escaped in the middle of the night, not to return for several decades.

Our first contact with the Tlingits -- who are still very much present in Southeast Alaska today -- was at Icy Straight/Hoonah. We took a tour that took us into the small, isolated town of Hoonah which is occupied today by a predominantly Tlingit population. Our tour guide, a young Tlingit woman, explained many aspects of the Tlingit clans and their society. I was impressed by her descriptions of clan relationships; how any member of a clan will look out for any other member of the clan, even those who may be perfect strangers. In fact, it would seem that there are no perfect strangers in Tlingit society; every one is made welcome. There is a concept of voluntary sharing among the families that would probably put the rest of us to shame. It was also obvious that the Tlingits are a proud, happy people, despite or perhaps because of the fact that they have very little of the consumer mentality found in the lower 48.

I found it quite fascinating that the people here live a basic subsistence lifestyle. In other words, they mostly live off what the land and sea have to offer. Fishing and hunting provide a great deal of the food, as well as shellfish and seaweeds. Herbs and plants are used for medicines, and very little is allowed to go to waste.

The remaining pictures posted were taken at Saxman Native Village just outside of Ketchikan. The presentations at this village were excellent. Saxman Village was settled when the Tlingits moved here from another remote area at which they could no longer exist. What could be brought from the old village was taken to Saxman, including some of the totem poles. It was obvious that their family histories were very important to the residents. There is a great sense that the people do belong to the land and the land to them.

The "long house" or "clan house" was where all the members of the clan would live. Nowadays the clan houses are used for gatherings and dances. They are still painted with the symbols that identify the resident clan. The houses would face the water as this one does here, so that visiting clans could see who lived in this particular place.

We were privileged to see two dances/programs that were educational and very moving. There was a third program we attended in Sitka, but other than being charmed by the children taking part, we were not as impressed by that one. At each location there were elders of the Tlingits that danced and explained the culture; their dignity and integrity of life was impressive.

The Tlingits wear ceremonial blanket robes for the dances that are made of felted wool and decorated with symbols that represent their clan identity. At the dance in Hoonah, it was explained that the designs truly represent the person who is wearing the robe, and that it was proper to respect and honor that identity. It was requested that photographs not be taken of the symbols on the blankets, unless one is specifically permited to take the picture by the wearer. In Hoonah the audience was invited to come up and join one of the dances. I did so, as well as perhaps another ten people, and we were given felted blankets to wear that did not have any clan symbols on them.

In Sitka we were also invited to join in a dance, but were not given any robes. Then in Saxman, when I went up with three other people to join the participation dance, I was surprised to see that the Tlingit dancers were taking off their own ceremonial robes and allowing us to dance with them. A young Tlingit lady took off her beautiful robe and placed it over my shoulders, and then taught me how to do the simple dance. Then the drums and singing began. I danced in the ceremonial robe, feeling its' weight on my back and shoulders. I think I was feeling more weight than just the wool itself, the weight of hundreds of years of an ancient people. I know that for a few minutes there I was absorbed into a culture that I will always remember.

After the dance the young woman helped me out of the robe, and I thanked her for the honor of being allowed to dance in it.

We walked about the totem park and met a Tlingit man who explained much about the totems. He was one of the tribe who still carved totems, and it was easy to see that this is an art that is still being kept alive.

A person can travel many miles over land and sea, and consider that this is a good trip taken. A person can also travel many miles in time and culture and experience, and say that this is an even greater trip taken. A person can travel many miles over land and sea, and still be the same person at the end of it. A person can also travel many miles in time and culture and experience, and not be quite the same person at the end of it. I think back frequently to all that I saw and experienced on this trip, and I imagine that I will continue to do so for quite a while to come.

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Blogger Roxie said...

You describe so wonderfully the experience of dancing in someone else's robe! What a metaphor for compassion, understanding and acceptance. Thank you for sharing that. I always feel a certain ambivalence when observing other cultures, because I am aware that these are real, feeling human beings, doing things that matter to them, not interesting anthropological case studies. It sounds as if you were welcomed in and included, which is so warm and human. What a wonderful journey!

6:53 AM  
Blogger cyndy said...

"I think I was feeling more weight than just the wool itself, the weight of hundreds of years of an ancient people."

Wonderful that you had this experience!! and so good of the Tlingit lady to invite you to wear her robe ...
just think of the hands that made that robe! Very cool!

3:48 AM  

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