A Wrangell totem lies in the Wrangell Cooperative Association’s cultural center.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

A biennial conference focused on the Tribes and Clans of Southeast Alaska comes to Wrangell this week. Organizers say they’re bringing a new, youth-focused element to the conference this year, and using video tech to extend its reach.

Nicknamed “the clan conference,” Sharing Our Knowledge aims to highlight Indigenous research, history, language, arts and culture from Southeast Alaska and British Columbia. The decades-old conference is being held in Wrangell for the first time, scheduled to run from September 7 through 11.

“It brings together people that are culture-bearers, language-bearers, elders, people that are just wanting to learn about their culture, as well as scholars and academics,” explains Brooke Leslie, a local representative on the conference’s organizing committee, and a tour operator in town. “ It brings them all into the same setting to be able to share with one another. I think that’s really unique.”

Conference organizers say Sharing Our Knowledge is collaborative, mutually respectful and a level playing field for academics and culture-bearers, as opposed to the ‘under-the-microscope’ approach to Indigenous studies of the recent past. 

“It presents a great opportunity for the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people to find out [about] the research and writing that’s being done about them,” says program coordinator and Indian Country Today reporter Joaqlin Estus. “That’s been a frequent complaint of Native American groups is that they never see or hear the results of the research and writing that’s done about them. So it does that and then it gives academicians a chance to understand that they’re studying not just the past — we have a lot to offer today. And contemporary Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures are worth studying too.”

Sharing Our Knowledge was first held in 1993 in Haines and Klukwan, and has been held nearly every odd-numbered year since, in communities throughout Southeast. 

Organizer Peter Metcalfe has been with the conference since the beginning, helping with video and photo documentation. He says one unique feature is the variety: “We have a lot of presentations that happen outside of the room, so to speak,” he says. That includes weaving and spear-throwing demonstrations, cultural performances, and Tlingit yoga, in addition to a film festival, Native arts market, and presentations on Native history, language, and contemporary research.

Linguist and organizing committee member Alice Taff says one major focus of this year’s conference will be the painful legacy of Native American boarding schools. 

“As we’ve gone through the planning for the conference, we have turned more and more to the boarding school situation,” Taff explains. 

Wrangell hosted a Bureau of Indian Education boarding school for 43 years – The Wrangell Institute

State-collected and individual records recall intense physical, sexual and emotional abuse of Wrangell Institute students. Students were beaten for speaking their first languages, survivors told KSTK in 2016.

“All day Saturday will be focused on talking about it, thinking about it, and having presentations about boarding schools,” Taff continues. “We have films that we’re going to be watching and then in the afternoon, there will be a healing ceremony at Shoemaker Bay,” the harbor just outside the former Wrangell Institute site. 

It’s the conference’s first time in Wrangell, and conference organizers are using the opportunity to bring another first to Sharing Our Knowledge: a youth element.  

“We’ve reached out to the Wrangell Public School District, and they’re going to be bringing students down to attend certain presentations,” says local organizing committee representative Leslie. “We also have a keynote youth speaker coming down – Chris Bryant – to talk about mindset, health and wellness.”

In addition, a team from Outercoast College in Sitka will be attending, helping to facilitate free workshops for elementary, middle and high school students during the conference. 

Leslie says COVID has permeated this year’s Sharing Our Knowledge conference in a number of ways. One is the conference theme: A Time for Peace (Lingít (Tlingit): G̱uwakaan Gaawú (Peace [deer] time)) (X̱aad Kíl (Haida): Asgáay Núut uu Galaadáang (In this time of peace)) (Smʼalgyax (Tsimshian): Ha’lig̱a̱wa̱gani (A time of [making] peace)).

“When we started planning for the conference, COVID was not on the table,” Leslie explains. “It wasn’t a global pandemic at that time, because this was fall of 2019. But as COVID began to emerge, it seemed even more appropriate as a theme.”

The pandemic-related delay to the conference – it was supposed to be held last year – has led it to coincide with an important Wrangell anniversary: Almost exactly 100 years ago, Chief Shakes VII (Charlie Jones) and Tillie Paul Tamaree were arrested in Wrangell after Paul helped Chief Shakes attempt to vote. 

“That led to – about a year later – a decision in which it was recognized that the Native people of Alaska were citizens by right of birth,” explains organizing committee member Metcalfe. “That was kind of revolutionary. And then two years later, the United States Congress decided that was true of all Native Americans. So that was an important event that happened right in Wrangell 100 years ago, and we’ll be talking about that [at the conference].”

The COVID pandemic has also expanded global teleconferencing tech. Metcalfe says that means presenters will be able to address conference attendees from all over the world: “We’re getting Zoom presentations from Montreal, Canada; from Kursk, Russia; Oxford, England; and from the East Coast of the United States,” he says, adding that live streamed presentations will also be available to the public on the conference website.

Funding for Sharing Our Knowledge comes from conference registrations, as well as several federal and private grants. Wrangell’s tribal government, the Wrangell Cooperative Association, recently received funding through Juneau-based community development organization Spruce Root to help with the conference. 

Since 2007, Sharing Our Knowledge has also been supported in part by the National Science Foundation. Around the same time, the Smithsonian Institution got involved, and they’re bringing 3-D scanning equipment back to this year’s conference, organizer Metcalfe says.  

“It’s an extraordinary technology that they showed off in 2019 in Juneau when they brought back a replica of the Sculpin Hat,” Metcalfe says. “The Sculpin Hat was 200 years old and so fragile it couldn’t be handled. They recreated it to the tiniest detail and a replica was carved using a milling machine in which they entered the three-dimensional data and recreated the hat. It’s now in the hands of the Kiks.ádi clan.” 

That super-detailed 3-D scanning will be available throughout much of the conference: “So anybody in your audience who has an heirloom, specifically indigenous heirloom, like, a tribal hat, or shaman rattle or anything of that nature, and you want to preserve for all time, come down to the conference, to make arrangements with the Smithsonian,” Metcalfe says. “If they’re interested, they will scan it for you and create a permanent record.”

Committee members like local representative Leslie emphasize that the conference is meant to educate anyone interested in getting involved. 

“It’s not just for an Alaska Native person, this is for anybody who has interest in the Tlingit, Haida or Tsimshian people, [anybody] that has interest in learning about the Indigenous people that first called Southeast Alaska home,” Leslie says.

Anyone wishing to register for the 2022 Sharing Our Knowledge Conference can register online at sharingourknowledge.org or in-person at the Nolan Center beginning on September 8. 

Registration costs $75 for the full conference, and $25 for elders and students. There will also be an option for single-day registration ($25, or $10 for elders and students). 

Organizers are also looking for volunteers to help move chairs and tables for the healing ceremony at the former Wrangell Institute site. Contact Brooke Leslie to volunteer: 907-305-0990.

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.