Tlingit tribal conference in Sitka leans into cultural contrast with Alaska Day holiday

Sharing Our Knowledge: A Conference of Tlingit Tribes and Clans took place in Sitka over the weekend. The biennial conference began in 1993 as a way to document customs and traditions and includes lectures, ceremonies, and hands-on art and technology demonstrations.

This year’s gathering, at the historic Sheldon Jackson College campus, was scheduled to coincide with Alaska Day celebrations.

On the the front lawn, participants hurled spears at an elk target using Alaska Native spearthrowing boards.

Inside, master weavers and aspiring artists’ fingers spidered across Chilkat and Raven’s Tail-style works.

“I’m weaving again!” said Liana Wallace who was among the weavers gathering sitting in a large, windowed foyer. Abundant natural light illuminated a welcoming smile and her work.

Liana Wallace works at the weavers gathering. (Photo by Scott Burton/KTOO)

“I’m from Juneau. I’m Aak’w Kwáan from the Big Dipper house,” said Wallace who admitted she hadn’t woven in some time.

“I’ve been inspired by my sisters who are all weaving in honor of our teacher,” she said referring to the late master weaver and multi-disciplinary artist Clarissa Rizal.

“And so I am working with Lily, her daughter, and I’m working with Irene, her sister. And yes, it makes it more powerful to begin again,” said Wallace.

Elsewhere on campus, scholars and experts presented with titles like “Tlingit-Russian Interpreters Before and After 1867,” “Misconceptions about Alaska Natives,” and “The Seward Pole: Indigenous Claims in Alaska’s Sesquicentennial.”

Jixeik, or Gerry Hope, is the conference’s Executive Director. He’s Sik’nax.ádi from Wrangell. He said that he and the organizing committee decided to schedule this year’s symposium now, just before Alaska Day. For Hope, it’s been a long time coming.

“As a child growing up here, born and raised, who doesn’t like a parade? … Parades encourage fun and happiness and that’s hard to resist. As I got older into my young adulthood is when I started hearing some of the frustrations, some of the anger, and some of the resentment,” said Hope.

“I have had for quite some time negative feelings about the holiday,” said Kaasáank’ Andrew C. Williams, who was among the conference presenters.

“It’s associated to the defeat of our people in this area. It’s associated to an idea that it’s OK to take control of somebody else’s stuff as long as you have the latest technology to stomp them down and control of the history of those people,” said Williams.

Executive Director Jixeik Gerry Hope has ideas for how healing for Williams’ negative feelings might begin.

“If I were to see a vision, it would be a number of things. One is acknowledgements from the dominant society that wrongs were committed against the first people. Another outcome that I’d like to see is a healthy dialogue in how we proceed from that. It doesn’t have to be demands. It doesn’t have to be any necessarily big news events that are conflict based. … As long as it is constructive and safe, and health-based,” said Hope.

That fits with the this year’s conference theme, “Our History, We Are Healing Ourselves.”

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