Eighteen million postage stamps featuring an Alaska Native raven design were released to the public on Friday. A ceremony in Juneau celebrated the first stamp ever designed by a Lingít artist and the importance of the design and its story to the people who live in Lingít Aaní today.
There’s not even a Lingít word for “postage stamp.”
“X’úx’ daakax’úx’u is an envelope,” said X̱’unei Lance Twitchell, the emcee for the ceremony. “Which is ‘the paper around a paper.’ So, I thought maybe a stamp could be x’úx’ daakax’úx’u kalis’éex’u x’úx’. So, ‘paper around a paper, sticky paper’.”
It’s called the Raven Story stamp, designed by Rico Lanáat’ Worl. Worl is the owner of the Trickster Company, which is known for selling everything from skateboard decks to leggings with formline designs. It was one of his items at the gift shop at the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. that caught the eye of an art director at the U.S. Postal Service.
“And he said, he was really drawn to the, to the kind of the feel of traditional kind of design work, but in a modern context. And so that’s where it all started,” Worl said on Juneau Afternoon Friday.
The postal service gets tens of thousands of art submissions for stamps every year. And only 30-40 of them will end up in mailboxes across the country. This is a huge feat for Worl as an artist. But for the Lingít people, it’s bigger than that.
“He has the goal to tell the story of Indigenous people today,” said Marlene Johnson, the Chair of the Board at Sealaska Heritage Institute, which sponsored the ceremony with the postal service. “The story that we are all still here. We have been here for at least ten thousand years and we’ll be here ten thousand more.
That brings a whole new meaning to the term “forever,” which is featured next to the letters USA right on the stamp.
Native Northwest Coast art is well-known for telling stories through large forms like totem poles and clan houses.
“But Rico had to tell all of our origin story on the smallest canvas imaginable,” Johnson said. “A canvas that was less than an inch on the longest side.”
The stamp has a formline drawing of a raven with a gold ball in its mouth surrounded by stars. It’s mostly black and white with flecks of gold that sparkle in the light. It’s a depiction of the dramatic conclusion of the story of how raven gave light to the world — by stealing it from a box. In the stamp he’s in a mess of stars with the sun in his mouth, on his escape through a smokehole in a longhouse.
While the illustration speaks for itself, author and playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse told the story of Raven and the box of daylight at the ceremony. And of course, the ravens themselves had to have their say, too, punctuating the entire program with their caws.
Note: It’s not a typo. Lingít, or Tlingit, is the name of one of the Indigenous groups of people of Southeast Alaska and the name of their language. In the language itself, it’s spelled Lingít. “Tlingit” is the accepted English spelling of the language and we do write and present news in English. But KTOO supports the normalization and familiarization of Lingít. Learn more.