ALCOHOL WAS A FACTOR: Weekly Newspapering in Rural Alaska

THE EAGLES and THE TLINGITS

One night, I was dispatched to the local bald eagle center to photograph a craft that dates far back into the history of this place; long before white settlers made their appearance here.

Wayne Price, a Tlingit native from the Eagle tribe, was demonstrating how he carved a seaworthy wooden canoe from a single log, just as his ancestors had hundreds of years ago.

He had carved many of the totems that dominated the landscape around Haines. But this was a special night: Price was unveiling his second dugout canoe — one of two Price had carved in the traditional method. The last before that was more than 100 years ago.

In Tlingit culture, the canoes were so seaworthy they were paddled beyond inter-island visits but were used to wage war and engage in trade missions over hundreds of open-water miles between Southeast Alaska and Kodiak Island.

The boats were created without blueprints, squares, levels or compasses. Their complex shapes of the bow and stern were chopped out with an adze so the canoe would cut the water cleanly. To hunt, trade and attack enemies, the Tlingit needed a vessel that would glide swiftly and silently.

In the center’s auditorium, decorated with various stuff animals from the region, include moose and bear and foxes, all of them looking on wordlessly, Price described how he went to a copse of woods outside Wrangell where the old-timers had felled their trees.

Dressed in traditional garb, his voice low and patient, Price how the log was first blessed before he took the adze to fashion the outside shape. The log was hollowed out and then steamed to provide its final shape — a process that involved filling the boat with saltwater and then placing in hot lava rocks to make steam. The steaming expanded the canoe’s width, flattened the boom and increased the height at the bow and stern.

With a team of paddlers, Price has taken the boat 90 miles to Juneau and back on the Lynn Canal.

Before ferries and cruise ships, these were the boats that plied the waters around Haines, which the Chilkat group of Tlingit called Dtehshuh or, end of the trail.

In 1880, the first European settler arrived here, setting off the bickering and differences of opinion that continue to this day. First came the traders; then missionaries who founded a mission here.

The U.S. had in 1867 purchased the land mass that is now Alaska from Russia, but in the years that followed, overlapping land claims by the British and American settlers led to violence. Following the Klondike Gold Rush of 1888–1889, the area’s population grew to more than 30,000 and reports surfaced that Canadians were continually harassed by U.S. settlers as a deterrent to making continued land claims.

Eventually, the 1903 Hay-Herbert Treaty was passed by a tribunal of both British and American members and the present-day boundaries were established in favor of the U.S.

After the turn of the century, canneries sprung up around Haines, but the completion of a railway originating in the nearby port of Skagway signaled a long slide of economic decline in Haines.

In 1904, Fort William H. Seward was established and served in various capacities until 1946. It was designated a national Historic Landmark in 1972.

That same year, the last of the four canneries established in Haines closed its doors due to declining fish stocks. While commercial trolling and gillnetting continue here, logging and timber-sawing have declined, leaving Haines to rely largely on tourism as an economic driver.

On the night that Wayne Price introduced his boat to a group of 50 residents, a dance troupe run by a Chilkat Indian mother and son danced and blessed the 24-foot craft, which had been hauled in for the display. Price danced with them, bending his knees and throwing his hands into the air in a way I can only describe as purely mystical. He said he had taken to boat-carving as a middle-aged man and that there was only one other member of the tribe with knowledge of boat-carving craft.

But before he could solicit his guidance, Price said, the older man had “gone into the forest.”

At first, I wondered if they had sent a search party.

Then he used the phrase again.

Finally, I stopped and put down my pen, stunned by the simplicity of the phrase.

How utterly beautiful, I thought.

It was the Tlingit expression for death.

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