Wrangell’s week-long Shakes Island Tribal House rededication celebration wrapped up on Sunday. Hundreds of visitors from across Alaska, Canada, and the lower 48 poured into the small island town to witness the historic event.
Wednesday saw chilly weather, rain, and overcast skies that lasted throughout the event.
A canoe group from Wrangell set out for Vank Island to meet six other canoes from around Southeast Alaska. Many had paddled through sometimes dangerous conditions to reach town for the event.
Thursday morning, the brightly painted canoes set off together for Wrangell.
Crowds of visitors and Wrangell’s native dance group sang and cheered the canoes through the breakwater.
Elders and clan leaders in Chilkat blankets and full regalia stood on the beach. They greeted each canoe group in turn and welcomed them ashore.
Coffee was flowing freely at the Salvation Army’ s potluck dinner for the wet and cold paddlers.
Dozens of volunteers spent countless hours preparing thousands of pounds of food for the weekend.
Wrangell is a small town with a limited number of hotels and bed and breakfasts. Families and businesses alike opened their homes and meeting rooms to house the hundreds of out-of-towners.
The ferry Taku docked downtown to serve as a hotel ship.
The rededication coincided with the Alaska Marine Highway’s 50th anniversary event.
The ferry Malaspina did a commemorative sailing around Southeast. It arrived in town Friday and opened its doors for tours of the ship.
Travelers on the Malaspina headed downtown to watch the afternoon parade.
The sound of drums and singing echoed through town as hundreds of dancers and paddlers made their way down the main street.
The celebration continued as dance groups performed throughout the evening.
A representative from the Burke museum in Washington brought the original Chief Shakes pipe back to Wrangell. Friday evening, clan leaders and elders gathered in the tribal house for a private pipe ceremony.
They returned to the house Saturday morning for the rededication.
Shakes Island is a small, rocky bit of land.
Onlookers packed shoulder to shoulder to catch a glimpse as clan leaders in brightly colored regalia and ornate traditional hats step one by one under the tall bear screen through the wooden doors of the house.
Two guards in red and black closed the heavy doors and the ceremony began.
The small room was filled with life.
The earthy aroma of cedar mixed with the smell of rain. The room was a rich tapestry of thick clothing in every color. Representatives from Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian clans from around Southeast and the Tahltans from Canada sat side by side dozens deep and three rows tall.
Speakers took the floor one by one and told stories of their people in the Tlingit language. Younger people took the arms of elders and helped them stand to speak.
The eagle and raven moieties are associated with the house. In four repeated segments, two eagles and two ravens put their handprints on each of the corner posts. Dancers who lined the walls performed a dance to bring the house together. Linda Churchill is one of the dancers:
“It’s to pull the joints of the building together and to make the building strong. It’s called the Sway Dance. The boys have their staffs and basically what they’re doing is stirring up the ashes from the past of the people before us and people who have passed on. After the four posts are marked, it’s supposed to lighten your heart so you don’t feel the sorrow of the loss of them,” says Churchill.
Some spoke of putting aside past differences among clans. Others extolled the importance of remembering, reclaiming, and revitalizing the culture.
The adzers and others who helped with the rebuilding danced through the house.
Finally, everyone was invited to join in an exit song. The sound of drums reverberated through the walls as dancers’ feet pounded the wooden floors.
Outside, Mike DeWitt stands by the house smiling.
He says seeing so many young people evolved in this event gives him a sense of pride. He says this event is an amazing opportunity for tradition to be passed on from elders to the next generation.
“Let’s move forward on a happy note—not always a sad note, but a happy note to where youngsters say, ‘Yep, that’s us. That’s a part of me. That’s where I’m from.’ And we’ll move forward from here. It’s a living culture. Let’s live it. Why? Because we’re going to practice it,” says DeWitt.
Linda Churchill says she’s seen young people feel disconnected from their culture. But seeing the beauty of the tradition can help build that connection.
“It gives you a sense of yourself. Instead of thinking there isn’t a whole bunch to do on this little island, well, wait a minute, there actually is,” says Churchill.
“And also just the idea of looking inside a clan house and seeing a real clan house that’s spiritually alive. I think it can change people’s lives. It gives them an example, front and center, of just what the Tlingit tradition can do,” says Ishmael Hope.
Hope, whose Tlingit name is Kaagwask, was a raven go-between during the ceremony. He says being in the house changes the way he thinks about time and memory.
“Suddenly you remember that your life goes back a thousand years. You’re reaching back to that. And it goes directly into the heart,” says Hope.
And this is an event that will be remembered in Wrangell and beyond for generations.