Ketchikan Native Culture--A Tlingit's Tale

Tlingit culture, art, customs, lifestyle

Ketchikan experiences

Albert White grew up in Ketchikan, a community with a proud native heritage, but he once decided to leave the town and his native Alaskan Tlingit culture. Tlingits are indigenous natives of Alaska.

White was gone for 12 years, spending time in Huntsville, Alabama and Manassas, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. He spent most of his time trying to go home.

"The entire time I was gone my goal was to go back and bring jobs to my community,” White said. "I moved back here about six months ago and I’ve hit the ground running as hard as I can to reinstitute some of the cultural and jobs programs we lost and set up a nonprofit 501c3 Alaska Native Corporation to provide for the traditions and cultural services we’ve lost over the years.

"But it was also culture shock for me. One of the reasons you live here in Ketchikan is the laid-back life, the culture. In the south it was easier for me to adapt, but in the D.C. area all I could think of was getting out of there. I just couldn’t do it any more.”

Ketchikan, he said, is where he belongs.

"I think just look at the scenery, all of the scenery Alaska has to offer is unbelievable,” he said. "It’s not congested here, it feels like there’s a lot of space and I can go out and visit a lot of places and know I will have seclusion.”

"Living here in Southeast Alaska, I always call Ketchikan the Caribbean of Alaska during the summer — the trees, the beaches, the water, the weather. I don’t think it matters where you go in Alaska, it always has something to offer. The evergreens, the quiet, the birds chirping, the sound of a creek running beside you. You can surrender to the silence of nature.”

"I don’t know if I would have had such strong feelings about it if I hadn’t moved away. But living in a metropolitan area like D.C. gives you an appreciation for small communities and wide open areas, whether it’s here in Alaska or Idaho or Montana or wherever. This is just the lifestyle I prefer.”

That lifestyle involves a great deal of fishing.

"Catching fish? It’s more or less just being out there every day and knowing when the fish are out there, what they’re biting,” he said. "Everyone has their own way of going after fish, using special lures. But for the most part you go where the fish are. It’s really about understanding where the fish are and what they might be biting on. It’s definitely an art, but the more time you spend on it, the better you’ll be at the art.”

White caught three king salmon in early May, and he said the coho and pink salmon were running high in August. When fishing for sockeye salmon White engages in "beach seining,” in which one side of a 50-ft. gill net is tied to the beach and the other side is tied to a boat. When the fish start jumping, the net is closed and the fish are hauled in.

The limit for Tlingits catching fish is 20 per person per day. If one group doesn’t hit its limit, catch is shared proportionately.

"In the end I got about 14 fish yesterday and gave away four and kept ten,” he said of a recent fishing trip. "When I go out again, I’ll probably give away half of the catch, if not more than that. It’s the way I was raised.”

White said he gives part of his catch to uncles or Tlingit elders if they have no fish of their own.

"The majority of the people in the community are low-income and fishing and harvesting from the land helps to offset the cost of living,” he said. "I can make a decent catch and go out and provide more and be able to help the others who struggle. It’s important to take care of the elders.”

Meanwhile, White, a lifelong member of the Cape Fox Corporation, which owns and operates the Cape Fox Lodge in Ketchikan, continues to work hard to provide vital services and resources to the native community in Ketchikan.

"Having moved back about six months ago. I’ve hit the ground running, working as hard as I can to reinstitute the programs we lost and set up a 501c3 to stand up for the traditional services we have offered in the past.”

"We represent about 340 Tlingits and the idea was to land a contract and bring business back to our community,” he said. "Because of the political environment, it just made things a little more difficult and we weren’t able to land the contracts we thought we would. But we’re looking for business opportunities to produce products for local stores in the community to allow for people to work a few more months out of the year. We’re looking at the training side, setting up moccasin making, halibut hook making, blanket making, basically providing programs for individuals in the community.”

Community and family are critical not only to White, but to Tlingit culture. It is a culture that White cherishes and wants to preserve. What makes his community special, he said, is the values.

"Growing up this community was always very close, very artistic and to me family life was very much a part of the community,” he said.

"I think more than anything else it’s about being proud of who you are, what you stand for and what that represents. The value of our culture, and making sure we hold them in front of us to make sure we maintain their importance. If we don’t do that, a lot of the things I grew up with will be lost.”

"I’m being reminded every day of the importance of our culture, that the culture and all the things I was raised with are important and valuable.”

White, who speaks his native Tlingit language, has many fond memories of growing up in Ketchikan.

"It was great,” he said. "It’s a very family-oriented community and I was a free-range kid. I was everywhere in the community. Down at Ketchikan Creek. At the beach or out fishing. I was basically trying to fill every moment of my time with things that were fun and constructive.”

"I had a reel to yank fish out of the water, then go out and smoke them and process the fish. Sometimes I’d go out with my uncles and fish. It was great.”

There are several great native-themed Ketchikan tours. One is Alaska Canoe Experience where you paddle a traditional native canoe out to sea.