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Storytelling in Indigenous Cultures

10-05-2020

By Crew, Wilderness Discoverer

Everything and everyone has a story and what better way to learn than directly from centuries of storytellers like the native Tlingit tribes of Alaska. The Tlingit were one of only six tribes of Northwest Coastal Indians who erected Totem Poles. Tlingit Totem Poles symbolized guardian spirits who watched over the family, clan, and people. The Tlingit people were organized into settlements and communities, rather than tribes. For many years our UnCruise family has visited these local communities to learn from a long line of storytellers keeping their traditions alive. 

All the animals we see here in Southeast Alaska, from the tiny critters in the intertidal zone to the big charismatic megafauna, have a story. And as we think back on past trips exploring the beautiful Alaskan summer, it feels right to reflect on some of the stories that have been passed on to us by the various people we’ve met during our travels through the remote reaches of the archipelago.

Both of the following stories were told to us by people who are well versed in preserving their stories through oral history – Alaskan Natives.

How to Catch an Octopus

With the smell of cedar filling our noses and lungs, we stood among the towering totems of the Tlingit Tribal House in Glacier Bay National Park. A hand-carved Sitka Spruce canoe paddle in one hand, and our riveted attention in the other, Master Carver Owen stood in the middle of the house with a small group clustered tightly around him.

Owen said, when he was young, his father taught him how to catch an octopus. First, he found the den. A narrow opening between two large rocks underwater. In front of the opening was a mound of sand, adorned with scattered clamshells and other natural debris. Without hesitation, his father stuck his bare hand into the opening, reaching in up to his elbow.

Gazing out at the horizon, his father said, “…One.”

Several minutes passed.

“Two,” his father counted, his face focused, yet relaxed. Owen’s wristwatch ticked on…

“Three.”

“Why are you counting so slowly?” Owen asked his father. But his father didn’t reply. He just kept staring out over the water. Five more minutes passed.

“Four.”

And with that, Owen’s father pulled his arm out of the opening, revealing an octopus, with four tentacles wrapped around his forearm.

The Orca’s Gift

Their shoes squeaking on the laminated hardwood of the basketball court, three generations of Tlingit dancers swayed in time to the rhythmic beating of the elder’s drum. Watching from the bleachers of the community center in the small town of Kake, Alaska, we stamped our feet to celebrate the end of each song.

Sitting next to us was an elder from Kake. He wore his hair in braids and was adorned in beautiful, handmade regalia – a woven cedar headband wrapped around his head like a crown. He spoke to us softly, and was barely audible over the singers and the beating drums, but what he told us sent a clear message. For centuries, his people and the marine mammals affected most by pollution and commercial hunting, coexisted, and even helped each other.

Years ago, he said, the Orca whales in the area would help his people fish. Spreading out across a waterway, they would line up shoulder-to-shoulder (or pectoral fin-to-pectoral fin) and herd schools of salmon into their fishing nets.

One day, the elder told us, while sitting in a small dugout canoe casting lines for King salmon, the largest of the five species of Pacific salmon, a large male Orca surfaced quite close to their boat. In his mouth, the Orca carried the largest King any of the elders had ever seen. Swimming even closer to the canoe, the orca raised the salmon up, so the men could heave its weight into their boat. This offering seemed to signify an understanding and mutual respect between man and the sea.

By sharing these stories, we hope to preserve them in our own way – taking them with us on our travels and something to look forward to when travel resumes in Spring next year. We have a lot to look forward to and visiting with our Tlingit brothers and sisters is always at the top of the list. Our guests can share meaningful connections with locals and have the opportunity to interact over something they're passionate about. This is a crossroads where meaningful connections are found. 

 

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