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Looking back, moving forward: Cy Peck Jr. reflects on his life in pictures

Posted: July 6, 2011 - 4:01pm
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Cy Peck Jr, stands with artist Michael Jackson and Jim Fowler, host of Mutual of Omaha's WIld Kingdom, in fron of the tallest totem pole in the world in Kake, while filming "The Tongass" in 2008.    Photo by Jeremy Williams
Photo by Jeremy Williams
Cy Peck Jr, stands with artist Michael Jackson and Jim Fowler, host of Mutual of Omaha's WIld Kingdom, in fron of the tallest totem pole in the world in Kake, while filming "The Tongass" in 2008.

A visual journey through Cy Peck Jr.’s personal photo collection reveals several things about this longtime local. For one, he’s been living a very full life. For another, he’s met some really interesting people along the way.

Alongside pictures of his father, his brothers, his friends and other relatives, there are photos of him dining with a smiling Rita Coolidge, celebrating guitarist Les Paul’s birthday and hanging out with Hollywood’s Steven Seagal and Robert Watts. There’s one of him with the horse whisperer, Monty Roberts, and another of him with naturalist Jim Fowler from “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and Kake artist Michael Jackson. There’s also photos of Peck with Pope John Paul II, and with Cree and Shoshone medicine people, and others of him participating in Tlingit ceremonies.

The path he’s taken, outlined in his photos, has aligned itself along two overlapping courses. In the first, he studied spiritual healing, learning the ways of Cree and Shoshone medicine people from Montana and integrating that knowledge with what he learned from local sources, most notably his grandfathers, Peter Kanosh and George Hobson, and from George Jim of Angoon.

In the second path, Peck has pursued a career in communications, beginning as a DJ with KTOO, and eventually working on big budget projects such as Walt Disney’s “Sacred Planet” and National Geographic’s “Extreme.”

In many of his projects, these two courses converge. For example, in the IMAX movie “Extreme,” directed by Jon Long, Peck is shown blessing the extreme snowboarders before they hit the mountains near Mendenhall Glacier; at the same time, he was involved in the more technical processes of making the movie itself, such as the scripting, narration, music, and location scouting.

He fulfilled similar dual roles while working on “Sacred Planet,” also an IMAX film directed by Long in which Peck is a featured narrator.

“All those lessons I learned at KTOO came in handy when I was working on ‘Extreme,’ ‘Sacred Planet’ and other projects,” Peck said.

Peck’s journey hasn’t always been easy or clear — he was an alcoholic for many years — but he looks back with no regrets.

“I don’t regret any day of my life, every day was beautiful. The good times and the bad times, that’s was what got me there.”

 

From KTOO DJ to spiritual healer

Peck worked as a commercial fisherman for more than 30 years, a period that also coincided with his struggles with alcoholism. In the late 1970s, he made up his mind to change his life.

“I was an alcoholic and I came back to sober up here (in Juneau),” he said. “People saw me and offered me jobs doing this and that. Then Dave Brook from KTOO called me up.”

Brook was looking for a strong Tlingit presence for one of his projects, and brought in Peck. It was the beginning of a long and very fertile creative relationship.

In 1978 he established his own radio show, “The Greatest Jazz Show on Earth,” which he continued to host for more than 20 years.

Peck was also involved in KTOO’s “History Without Headlines” program with Bea Shepard and with Southeast Native Radio. One of his programs, “Drinking Dramas,” earned him a national award with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

He also conducted many interviews while with the station, a collection that has been copied to permanent files at the Rasmuson Library.

His on-air voice also led to an opportunity of a different kind, one that would dramatically change his life.

One day a member of the Tekakwitha Conference, the country’s largest Native American organization with members extending from Canada down to South America, heard Peck on the radio while he was in town on vacation. He liked what he heard and invited Peck down to Montana for an interview. Soon Peck was working as Tekakwitha’s director of communications.

“This is where I met the medicine people, when I was in Montana,” Peck said. “I spent four years with them and I did my vision quest there.”

Among the most influential people he met was Cree medicine man Joe Garetippi. Curious about Garetippi’s work, Peck started volunteering to drive him where he needed to go. Through Garetippi and a man named Steve Old Coyote and the women healers he met, Peck began to be introduced to the healing ceremonies he would later lead on his own, in modified form, back in Alaska.

“They would tell me the stories of how they did the healings and things like that. Indian medicine from the sage and the sweetgrass.”

Eventually Peck completed his own vision quest, a four-day experience that helped him access personal barriers at a primal level.

“As the medicine people were leaving, this healer said to me, ‘Oh by the way, this is the rattlesnake capital of the world.’” Peck recalled with a laugh.

On his return, the women healers greeted him with smiles, celebrating his accomplishment with the traditional gift of a ribbon shirt.

“That’s when my life turned around,” he said. “I got rid of all the junk I was carrying around. I stopped feeling sorry for myself for one thing, because that can really kill you.”

Back in Juneau he returned to his KTOO programs and continued to learn more about spiritual healing, eventually leading his own ceremonies.

“One of my teachers was George Jim (of Angoon) who was the last apprentice to a medicine man. When he saw me in one of the groups during a ceremony he said, ‘That’s the way they did it!’ and since then he’s been my mentor, teaching me the way they bless the trees, how they do the healing, how they bless the boats.”

Both his grandfathers, Peter Kanosh and George Hobson, were also very influential, especially in teaching him the ways of the forest.

“A lot of the things I do I can point to who my teacher was,” Peck said. “If I bless the trees I can say ‘George Jim from Angoon was the one who taught me this, and how I cultivate the forest I credit to Peter Kanosh, leader of the Killer Whales (in Angoon) and George Hobson.”

“People in Juneau (also) really backed me up along the way and I really thank them,” he said. “I couldn’t have done anything alone.”

 

Peck goes to Hollywood

A few years after his return to town, Peck performed a ceremony on the steps of the Capitol to help ease tensions between two groups arguing over how to manage wolf populations in Alaska. The incident was captured on film, and that tape led to another exciting chapter in Peck’s life; his relationship with the film industry.

“Somebody just happened to have a camera there and after the ceremony was over they sent the film to Warner Brothers and (Steven) Seagal happened to see it and he called up and said, ‘Bring him up!’”

Peck was asked to bless Seagal’s work on the film “On Deadly Ground,” that was being filmed in Valdez. Though willing, Peck faced the new experience with some trepidation.

“I was a little hesitant when I started and Jeff Brown said to me, ‘Just be yourself.’ Great encouragement. So after that I just let everything go and was myself.”

Seagal and Peck hit it off immediately and soon forged a strong friendship, one that continues to this day. That relationship also led Peck to others in the industry, such as Robert Watts, producer of Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, and Monty Roberts, “the horse whisperer.”

Peck also began making friends in the music industry, such as legendary guitarist Les Paul and Jeff Beck, among others. He met Paul just by sitting in the front row at one of his shows. A friend who was with Peck remembers Paul being impressed with Peck’s attention to the music, and invited him up on stage. The friendship, like that with Seagal, lasted.

KTOO Station Manager Jeff Brown recalls a New Year’s Eve radio show where Peck called up Paul and chatted with him on air for two hours like it was no big deal.

“It was just an awesome moment.” Brown said.

 

Tlingit heritage

Peck was born in Angoon. His mother, Sophie Fred Peck, worked for Wally Hickel’s administration, and was Deisheetaan, Beaver clan, from Angoon. His father, Cy Peck Sr., was grand secretary emeritus of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, and was Kaagwaantaan, Wolf clan, from Klukwan.

Peck Jr. was one of five children, all of whom were encouraged by their mother to take advantage of opportunities that came their way.

“She never let us sit down,” Peck said with a laugh.

His brother Ray Peck is a well-known local artist and teacher. Another brother, Gil Lucero, now based in Sitka, was a world-champion rodeo rider and a stunt man who sometimes stood in for James Dean. The fourth brother, Bob, now deceased, was a professor at the University of Denver and worked with the Sitka Indian Association. Their sister, Johanna Webster, was in the U.S. Navy.

“My family was very active and very talented. I had to keep up with them.”

Like his family, Peck is interested in keeping Tlingit culture strong and in encouraging Tlingit youth to take active roles in their community, through careers in communications or other avenues.

He also thinks the culture would benefit from bringing back the ixt, or spirit man.

“I feel that renewing the culture today, not just Tlingit, they need to bring back the medicine man.”

Missionaries all but erased the ixt from Tlingit life, but Peck said the knowledge of his ways remained.

“Where the missionaries came in, they got rid of medicine men. But they didn’t, because it went to the elders. They still knew a lot of that. Like George Jim.”

Another important factor in keeping the culture strong, he said, is respecting the role of women.

“All the ceremonies I do for men is to respect women. Everything is going to be better if you do that. When the medicine is practiced and women do the healing, then the world’s going to be better.”

 

Radical therapy

Peck doesn’t call himself a medicine man, or an ixt. His approach to healing ceremonies is to view each experience as an entirely personal one that must be modified to fit the circumstance.

“The first thing I do is talk about their journey. From that I’m putting together a healing ceremony but yet it’s impromptu also. No ceremony is ever done the same because it’s for different individuals.”

He said his role as a healer can most accurately be compared to a radical therapist, and is difficult for some people who are used to the gentle tone set by self-help books.

“In my case I hit the button on people — the jealousy, the hurts, the pains, everything. It’s different than what they’re used to.”

Peck often performs ceremonies at Bartlett Regional Hospital, which he says is well-placed for healing, as it’s surrounded by trees. Peck chose his house in the Mendenhall Valley for the same reason; it backs up on the Tongass National Forest.

In addition to doing personal healing ceremonies, Peck conducts blessings for many groups and projects. Some of the those have included Green Berets, undercover agents and policemen in New York City, a SWAT team, and the crew of the Discovery Channel as they headed up to film “The Deadliest Catch.” He has also blessed weddings and the Alaska Folk Festival, and has led the blessing of the fleet in Juneau.

Peck said when conducting personal ceremonies, he sees himself as a scout, helping people to find their own way.

“I feel that every person that uses Native American spiritual ways is happier. To me they are. Because they are making their own happiness. You have to go after it yourself. And to me that’s what I’m doing. I’m going after it the way I feel happiness.”

For Peck that means listening to lots of jazz music and avoiding preconceived ideas of what “happiness” even means.

“A lot of unhappiness comes from assuming and preconceiving. We expect a lot of things with the American dream.”

 

Keeping busy

Peck is currently working on another film project, “The Tongass: Wisdom of the Ancient Forest,” now in the editing stages. Like “Extreme” and “Sacred Planet,” Peck worked on the music, narration, scripting and in selecting filming locations.

When selecting music for a film, he advocates for Native artists whenever possible, and “The Tongass” will include drummers from Kake.

Another project he is involved with is helping native Hawaiians to plan a canoe trip back to where they first came from, a project called the “Great Canoe Paddle,” now in the very beginning stages.

He also hopes to eventually be invited to visit modern Mayans, who have predicted the end of the world in 2012, an event he sees as a potential for great change.

“I’m hopeful I’ll have a chance to go down and witness what the Mayans are going to do,” he said,

One thing he’s not doing, at 77, is sitting around.

“I want to experience many, many things in life. I’ll go right to the end too,” he said.

“It ain’t over till its over.”

 

 

• Contact arts editor Amy Fletcher amy.fletcher@juneauempire.com.

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