Friday, July 9, 2010

Tlingit Country, Totem Poles, and Change

I first encountered the Tlingit Indians in Sitka, Alaska on a stopover using the Alaska State Ferry system over 20 years ago.  I was fascinated by their totem poles, meeting houses, sea going canoes, and elaborate carvings made of cedar. However, it was a surprise to learn there were Tlingit tribal members also living in interior Alaska and the Yukon.  I had assumed that the Haida and Tlingit lived primarily in Southeastern Alaska and British Columbia and the Athabascan dominated the interior but here were the Tlingit living on Teslin Lake, a huge body of water some 86 miles long with Lake trout, Grayling, and Dolly Varden.

I've always been fascinated by Totem Poles. The Teslin Tlingit Heritage Center answered one of my life long questions, "What do they symbolize?" I learned that they represent the tribes and elements of their society: the eagle (air), frog (water), wolf (land), beaver (water), and raven (air). The Heritage Center explains this as well as a good deal more about the culture of the Inland Tlingit with about 450 members living in Teslin. "Their own name for themselves is Lingit, meaning human beings." Whatever their past language grouping, I found that most of the First Nation People I met in Canada spoke excellent English. And I was fascinated by the fact the Tlingit are a matrimonial society that developed a hunter-gatherer culture primarily based on the salmon along the coast and hunting, fishing, and trapping in the interior.

Despite the devastation of these inland peoples caused by the building of the Alaska Highway in 1942, the story and success of George Johnston is noteworthy.  He was a revered Tlingit Elder (1884 -1982), skillful trapper, successful fur trader, an accomplished entrepreneur, and a dynamic photographer. But of all the stories I heard at the museum, I loved the tales most about his beloved 1928 Chevrolet.  It seems no matter the age, the hardships, or the society, there is always one person who stands out. In hindsight, I wish we had stayed longer in Teslin but the Call of the Yukon beckoned us forward.


At July 13, 2010 at 2:03 PM , Blogger Nola said...

Great job!


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