Sunday was Native American Day in our Douglas Island (United Methodist) Community Church and what a rich surprise of blessings it brought!
In Alaska, native American refers to one of the many Alaskan Indians or Eskimos and here in Southeast Alaska it usually refers to Tlinget, Haidu or Tsimshian tribes. In the Juneau-Douglas area we have a predominant number of Tlingit kwaans or tribes.
The Tlingit culture is matrilineal...descending through the mother not the father, multifaceted and complex. In Tlingit (pronounced /ˈklɪŋkɪt/) culture, a heavy emphasis is placed upon family and kinship, and on a rich tradition of oratory. Art and spirituality are incorporated in nearly all areas of Tlingit culture, with even everyday objects such as spoons and storage boxes decorated and imbued with spiritual power and historical beliefs of the Tlingits.
While most modern Tlingit elders are fervent believers in Christianity, and have transferred or equated many Tlingit concepts with Christian ones, there is still a deep connection in spirituality, world view and culture to the earth and the physical world around them.
The Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska have two moieties (otherwise known as descent groups) in their society, each of which is divided into a number of clans. Each clan has own history, songs, and totems, and each forms a social network. The two moieties of the Tlingit society are the Raven (Yéil) and Eagle/Wolf (Ch'aak'/Gooch).
Important Raven crests are Raven, Owl, Whale, Sealion, Salmon, Frog, Sun, Moon, and Ocean; while those of the other were Wolf, Eagle, Petrel, Bear, Orca, Shark, Halibut, and Thunderbird. These images could properly appear on backdrops, posts, canoes, feast dishes, ladles, pipes, clothing, blankets, armor, helmets, drums, staffs, rattles, and graves. of extended families which functions as a political unit in Tlingit society. Here, we can see them displayed on the beautiful robes or dance regalia.
Tlingit dance regalia is magnificent. Wearing masks or headdresses representing creatures of the natural and mythical worlds, they are beautifully carved and painted. Often, chilkat blankets are used as ceremonial dance robes. The Tlingit name for the Chilkat blanket is Naxein, meaning "fringe about the body.")
Other dance blankets were beaded, appliquéd, or adorned with buttons arranged in pleasing designs. Each dancer wears the animal (s) motif of his or her own kwaan and each carries dancing implements that co-ordinate with their lineage. These might include sacred eagle feathers, drums, rattles or elaborate fur skins.
At church, we were gifted with an amazing performance by the YEES KOO.OO Dancers .....a group made of a dancers from many tribes (or kwaans) of Tlingits from various towns in southeast Alaska.
Wearing their beautiful regalia...tribal robes and headdresses, each represented their particular lineage. A person carries their lineage through the houses or moieties. So, one dancer might wear an eagle robe, another an eagle-wolf robe and so on. We saw eagle, wolf, salmon and combinations of those today.
The dancing has to be seen in person to be believed. The energy and the spiritual power that comes through the dances is immensely powerful and the sound of chanting and drumming filled the room and our hearts to the point of tears. It was primal, yet deeply spiritual and very moving.
With Heart and Hands
© Michele (Savikko) Bilyeu