Visiting Chief Shakes House in Wrangell, Alaska – An Introduction to Totem Poles and Tlingit Culture

By Abi King | Best Places to Visit USA

Apr 26

Tlingit Culture in Alaska

It’s a narrow wooden bridge, so when a girl runs past, the reverberations affect us all. She’s a teenager, or maybe older, in classic blue jeans and US sneakers, with flowing blonde hair. A few minutes later I see her again, wrapped in a traditional Tlingit cloak and chanting with her ancestors.

We’ve crossed the bridge to the space outside Chief Shakes’ House, some 1000 miles north of Seattle. Totem poles teeter above our heads and the women close their eyes as they sing. In the fresh, wet grass, the girl’s sneakers peek out from beneath her robe.

That’s the paradox here in Wrangell: all-American freshness trying to revive a damaged past.

Tlingit Performance inside Chief Shakes' House“When they took our language,” says a woman with hair the colour of the clouds on the harbour, “they took more than that. They took our history and they took our stories.”

She’s talking about the successive colonial powers who arrived here and who, through religion, industry, deliberate oppression or imported disease, decimated the Tlingit culture that had survived 5000 years. For once, with my British passport I’m not made to feel like the bad guy. Well, not entirely.

Wrangell, Alaska

The Russians arrived first in 1811 and set up an energetic fur trade. Then came the British, in the form of the Hudson’s Bay Company, before the US bought the land from them in 1867. Uncle Sam set up a military post here that somehow attracted a flurry of gold rushes with dance halls, bars and other, ahem, adventures, to suit.

Dolly's House - a brothel in Ketchikan, AlaskaA painted wooden street in the large port of Ketchikan relives the “good old days,” where candy-pink signs still advertise brothels and the hidden paths towards them still have street signs that read “Married Man’s Lane.”

Here in Wrangell, though, it’s all white Presbyterian churches and totem poles. Boats unload salmon in the harbour and a lone truck swings through wide streets flanked with sidewalks. People use “Liquor Stores” instead of off-licenses, and mail boxes perch on stilts instead of being letterboxes on doors.

It’s like walking through a living slideshow of my childhood, when I watched American kids cycle through suburbia in E.T. and studied Red Indians at school. Back in my time of innocence, before the term “Red Indian” developed racist undertones.

As a child, I read about totem poles and I practised sewing beads onto tribal capes. To stand here now, with my fingertips on sweet, soft cedarwood, thousands of miles from England, is a quietly thrilling experience. Inside the replica Chief Shakes’ building, the light levels are low, the glow from the canoe intense.

I run my hand along the imperfections in the wood.

It’s easy to get swept away by the romance of history, whichever way you look at it, when facing a culture that almost disappeared. What they didn’t teach me at school, and what is uncomfortable to point out, is that the Tlingit people also fought territorial wars, forbade democracy and encouraged ritual slavery. Seventeenth century Tlingit life would have been cold, harsh and cruel – a lifestyle that most 21st century Americans would never choose to live.

Overall, it’s a difficult dance: reviving a culture, recognising oppression and judging how best to pay for the past.

I’m lucky. I know that I’ll get to speak to Tlingit Elders and others championing the cause about what they hope to achieve in the future and how we should weigh up the past.

Yet perhaps the next generation has already decided the future –  in the shape of white sneakers beneath a ceremonial gown.

Travel to the USA with @insidetravellab

Disclosure: I visited Chief Shakes’ House as a guest of InnerSea Discoveries and American Safari Cruises.

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Tlingit Culture in Alaska - via @insidetravellab

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