Article by Elena Piterskaia

March 21-25, 2007, Sitka Alaska

Funded in part by the National Science Foundation, and sponsored by the Southeast Alaska Native Educators Association and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska

Traditional Knowledge: the Conference of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian Clans (March 21-25, 2007, Sitka, Alaska)

From March 21 to 25 2007 the town of Sitka, Alaska hosted a conference of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian clans. The conference had been organized with financial support from the National Science Foundation. The three main organizers of the conference were Steve Henrikson, Sergei Kan, and Andrew Hope. The organizers dedicated the conference to the memory of their teacher and friend, a well known Tlingit leader, historian and tradition-bearer, Mark Jacobs Jr. (1923-2005).

The first time this type of conference took place was in 1993; since then conferences of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian clans have been occurring on an irregular basis in various towns of southeastern Alaska. They a have been one of the very few interdisciplinary venues where established and beginning scholars of the culture and history of the Tlingit and the other native peoples of the Northwest Coast have been able to share their work with native experts on these subjects. The conference’s organizers said that the 2007 conference became the largest one, as far as the number of participants and the number of communities they represented as well as the breadth of topic addressed during its various sessions and round-table discussions.

Most of the conference participants were representatives of the indigenous peoples of southeastern Alaska—historians, artists, poets and writers from Sitka, Yakutat, Wrangell, Juneau, Anchorage, and Metlakatla. In addition there were scholars from the University of Anchorage and the University of Alaska (Juneau) as well as other American and Canadian universities, curators of museum collections, and representatives of the National Park Service. Among the participants were such well-known scholars as Richard and Nora Dauenhauer, Steve Langdon, Andrew Hope, Margaret Anderson and Aldona Jonaitis.

The main topics of the conference can be grouped into the following large categories: the art of the peoples of the Northwest Coast, regalia, repatriation, clan property, museums and cultural centers, ethnohistory and biography, leadership, the role of warfare in Tlingit life, traditional and modern-day subsistence, education, and the revival of the native languages.
During the opening ceremonies, its master of ceremonies, George Bennett, a respected elder and cultural activist from Sitka, appealed to the participants to continue speaking their own languages.

The first plenary session was devoted the traditional leadership of the peoples of southeastern Alaska. All of the participants, who were heads of houses and clans, shared their experience of being leaders and described the difficult process of becoming a leader. The most interesting and emotionally rich was the presentation by Edwel John, who had only recently become the head of the Dakl’aweidi clan. A unique feature of this conference was the fact that all of the presentations by the native participants were highly personalized. In other words, most of them presented historical information from a personal perspective. The second part of this plenary session was devoted to the aristocratic/chiefly regalia and significance in the modern-day social and ceremonial life of the Tlingit people.

In the session on the traditional ecological knowledge, most of the presentations were devoted the present-day subsistence and land-use as well as the issue of transmitting ecological knowledge to the younger generation. This theme was also touched upon in a session on education, where a lot of attention was paid to the need to teach the younger generation traditional arts and crafts, the use of the native language, and participation in traditional ceremonial and rituals.

A great deal of interest was generated by the presentations given in the session dedicated to the Russian period of Tlingit history. The session was chaired by a prominent specialist on Tlingit history and culture, Richard Dauenhauer. In a presentation given together with Nora M. Dauenhauer, he spoke about the history on the book “The Battle of Sitka,” which should be published soon. The book will include various previously unpublished materials -- Tlingit oral traditions, some documents from Russian archives, and photographs of Tlingit artifacts from American, Russian, and other museums. Based on this synthesis of various sources, the authors attempt to shed new light on the relationship between the Tlingit and the Russians during the era of A. Baranov (1791-1818). Elaine and Judy Ramos, both from Yakutat, drew on oral traditions to revisit the issue of the Russian-Tlingit in Yakutat between 1795 and 1825. My own presentation emphasized the complexity of the intercultural interaction on the Northwest Coast during the era of Russian America. I examined the contact of the Tlingit with the other indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast and the interior of Alaska in terms of the trade ties, which had existed prior to the arrival of the Europeans and then were modified under the influence of the Russian colonization of Alaska.

The session dealing with the repatriation of the valuable culture heritage of the Tlingit also generated a great deal of interest. This topic is today the most important one for the Tlingit themselves and is discussed in detail in the context of all of the events dedicated to the history and the modern-day state of the Tlingit culture*. The participants in this session shared their experience with successful repatriation of individual objects, such as, for example, headdresses that had been in the past the property of the Dakl’aweidi clan (the presentation by Eric Hollinger and Harold Jacobs “Smithsonian Repatriation of the Killer Whale hat of the Dakl’aweidi). A great deal time was spent discussing the issue of establishing the relationship of partnership between museums where such objects are kept and the Tlingit clans to whom these objects belong. This issue was also the subject of I. Dundas’ presentation. For example, several headdresses are kept at the Sitka National Historical Park but their true owners are the Tlingit of the Kiks.adi clan. However at the present time these hats are stored at this local museum for safekeeping and are periodically removed from it in order to be used in ceremonies.

The session devoted to ethnohistory brought together professional historians from American and Canadian universities and indigenous tradition bearers and historians. The session dealt with a broad spectrum of issues: early written sources on Tlingit history, traditional law and the modern legal system, old photographs as a source of data for the reconstruction of the social life, the history of the study of the peoples of southeastern Alaska, native history as depicted in the oral traditions, and archaeological research. One of the most interesting presentations was the one by Christine Griffin, an employee of the Sitka National Historical Park. She analyzed the consequences of the New Archangel smallpox epidemic of 1835 and came to the conclusion that this epidemics became a kind of turning point in the history of the Tlingit people not only because of the serious demographic changes it brought about but also because of the transformations in the religious consciousness of the Tlingit as well as in their attitude towards the Europeans (“A Terrible Turning Point: Sitka and the 1835 Smallpox Epidemic”).

The session entitled “Life on Land and Water” brought together a series of presentations, which dealt with the traditional and contemporary subsistence activities of the peoples of the Northwest Coast. This session was closely linked to the one on fishing and the management of marine resources. In this session, the most interesting presentation, in my opinion, was the one by Steve Langdon on the major role played by salmon in all of the domains of Tlingit culture. Another presentation in this session was by T. Thornton who discussed “historical ecology” as a field of research. Thornton’s research as well as the research by several other scholars, such as M. Jackson, focuses on the oral traditions containing references to salmon from the time of the creation of the world to the present day. George Ramos spoke about a project of studying the habitat of salmon and the traditional Tlingit subsistence based on salmon fishing in Yakutat. Ramos’ presentation was also based mainly on oral traditions. R. Littlefield discussed a project of collecting and recording various stories dealing with salmon from all of southeastern Alaska. Based on this project the author managed to demonstrate the role of the oral traditions as a reliable method for the study of the traditional forms of subsistence (“Mapping Salmon Stories, Events and Names, an Exercise in Historical Ecology”).

A lot of attention at this conference was also paid to the work of museums and cultural centers and the role they can play in the development of tourism and historic preservation.

Most of the participants in the session on the art of the Northwest Coast were painters, carvers and jewelers. A lot of interest was generated by a presentation by Clarissa Hudson, a well-known Tlingit artist who is a master of the traditional method of weaving of baskets and Chilkat blankets. In her presentation Hudson analyzed the role of the Chilkat blankets in the traditional and modern social life of the Tlingit. Vivian Martindale discussed in detail the system of defending the intellectual property rights of the Tlingit artists.

Several sessions focused on the education of children on the basis of the traditional Tlingit values. The key role in education of the traditional elders and chiefs as the most knowledgeable and respected experts on this subject was stressed. One of the organizers of this conference, A. Hope spoke about a variety of educational initiatives and media projects, which are being realized thanks to the participation of the University of Alaska, Southeast, Alaska tribal Council, and several other organizations.

As part of the conference, several round table discussions and seminars on a variety of topics also took place. Thus, for example, a round table discussion devoted to the problem of preserving the sacred areas featured the keynote presentation by Bob Sam who focused on the threats to the sacred lands, which have tremendous ceremonial and spiritual significance for the Tlingit. In his presentation, B. Sam also emphasized a significant increase in the role of women in the ceremonial life of the native community and reminded his audience that in the traditional Tlingit culture only the men had the right to visit sacred places and transmit the knowledge about them to the younger generation. The discussion that took place in this session also raised the issue of improving the legislation dealing with sacred places and the need to develop new statutes for the protection of religious sights. B. Sam also chaired a round table discussion of the issue of preserving and restoring the Orthodox cemetery in Sitka, which had been negative affected by the work of one of the local construction companies. Incidentally, Bob Sam is the recipient of the Millennium Award from the Orthodox Church in America for his role in protecting and curating the local Orthodox cemetery.

A separate seminar brought together individuals who research canoes. In it the technique of making canoes, varieties of canoes as well as their huge cultural and economic role in Tlingit and Haida life were discussed. In addition the question of the sacred link between the canoe and its riders as well as the traditional ceremonies accompanying the arrival of a canoe in a new location were discussed as well.

As a result of having featured specialists on so many different subjects, this conference turned out to be an amazing and effective combination of academic scholarship, traditional knowledge, and contemporary art. It is worth pointing out that many of the American and Canadian anthropologists who conduct most of their field research in Tlingit communities have been adopted into Tlingit families and given Tlingit names.

One of the definite strengths of this conference was the fact that all of the talks were given not in the form of standard academic presentations but in such a way that they invited a free exchange of ideas and lively discussion, and that facilitated a more productive exchange of knowledge between the researchers and the people whose own culture was being discussed.

In addition to the scholarly presentations, the conference also featured a large program of cultural activities, which included visiting several Sitka museums (The Bishop’s House, the Sheldon Jackson Museum, the Sitka National Historical Park with its totem poles) and an entire evening of traditional dances and poetry reading at the tribal Community House. During that evening program, excerpts from the work of such well- known Tlingit authors and story-tellers as Nora Dauenhauer, Vivian Martindale, Vivian Mork, and others were read.

The next conference of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian clans is planned for 2009.

Elena Piterskaia

Etnograficheskoe Obozrenie Online [Ethnographic Review Online]
May 2007 (
Translated from Russian by Sergei Kan

* For more details see Griffin, K. Connecting the Past, Present and Future at Sitka National Historical Park. CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship. National Park Service. Vol. 4 (1): 66-72. 2007.

Funded in part by the National Science Foundation
Sponsors include the Southeast Alaska Native Educators Association and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0636203. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Last modified: Wednesday, February 8, 2012, 12:58 PM