KLUKWAN — The community heritage center has been a long time coming for Klukwan, and they weren’t going to let 86-degree heat stop them from celebrating. The Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage and Bald Eagle Preserve Visitor Center opened on May 14, nearly a century after the idea of putting a cultural museum in the small Tlingit village 22 miles north of Haines was first discussed.
It was a painful, difficult journey at times, one including stolen treasures, a ten-year legal battle that divided the community, and a gargantuan fundraising effort that’s not yet over.
But for three hours under the summer sun, people who came from Klukwan, Haines, Juneau and even farther to attend focused on what they’ve accomplished.
The ceremony saw performances by the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Dancers of Klukwan, the Geisan Dancers of Haines and the Daakwada Dancers of Haines Junction, Canada, as well as humor and words of wisdom from the leaders of Klukwan’s clans.
“I don’t know whether it’s still morning or afternoon or the next day, but it’s pretty hot in this blanket,” said Frog House’s Sally Burattin, dressed in traditional regalia like many in the crowd.
The Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage dancers led a procession to the center’s entrance, sang the “Knocking at the Door” song and community leaders cut a ribbon on the next chapter of the village’s life.
A long time coming
It’s difficult to say when the idea for a cultural museum in Klukwan first came about. Some date it to the 1920s when Louis Shotridge, a Klukwan man who worked for the University of Pennsylvannia’s Museum, made one of the first offers to acquire the Whale House artworks. (For more on what the Whale House art is and why it is so valued, see page 21.)
The first date on record is a June 20, 1949 house resolution in the U.S. Congress to “authorize construction and operation of museum at Klukwan, Alaska” put forward by Alaska’s Territorial Delegate Bob Barlett.
In the mid-70s, conversations in the village started up again but “didn’t really start to materialize,” said Hotch. The village did, however, pass a law in 1976 making it illegal to remove artifacts or artworks from Klukwan.
The secret removal and attempt to sell the Whale House wall screen and posts in 1984, and their return in 1994, added incentive to the project. “More talk came up then of building a heritage center to safely keep our things here because the people who were trying to sell them claimed that they were doing so to protect them because there was no good place in Klukwan to protect them,” said Hotch.
But it wasn’t until a 2001 planning meeting that the ball really started rolling. It took another decade before building began in 2011, when the Alaska State Legislature granted the village $3.5 million for the project.
“The (village) council at the time decided to go ahead and get as far as we could with that $3.5 million and at least try to get the shell up of the building,” said Hotch. “Because here’s what was happening: The building is close to an $8 million building and we were trying to save money for it but every year that you wait adds five percent (to the cost). That adds another half a million or more and so it gets further and further out of reach. So we decided we would do what we could with what we had.”
The remaining $4 million or so came from a variety of sources: Sealaska, the Rasmuson Foundation, M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust, the SURDNA Foundation, the First Peoples Fund, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Indian Affairs as well as many local supporters in Klukwan and Haines who donated at auctions and benefit dinners.
Hotch tells the story of trying to fill a funding gap in 2015 as the state entered its budget crisis. “Every place we went there were no more funds,” she says, until they learned from Kasaan that their Tribal Transportation Fund money could be used on the project.
“So you’re wondering why we have such a big long name for our building — Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage Center and Bald Eagle Preserve Visitor Center — so we could get that source of funding and use it.”
More than a museum
The main tourist draw for the new center may be its 200-year-old Whale House artifacts with their checkered history and comparisons to Elgin Marbles and the Sistine Chapel, but the site offers much more for Klukwan and visitors.
Down the path a little ways is a traditional knowledge camp, where subsistence skills continue to be taught (Salmon Camp runs from July 22-Aug. 26 this year). A hospitality center offers gifts and food. Within the building itself will be space for carvers and weaves to work and room for cultural classes of all kinds in addition to the museum.
But much remains to be done. An elevated boardwalk out into the Chilkat River will feature spotting scopes so visitors can take advantage of its location at the edge of the Bald Eagle Reserve; it awaits further fundraising. And the museum itself features several empty clan houses awaiting treasures, such as Frog House artworks that the village is still negotiating. The clans retain ownership of any artworks placed in the museum.
On display now though is what Hotch calls “the grounding piece for our center”: the Cultural Heritage Map, which features new artworks commissioned from Southeast artists. Representing the Chilkat and Chilkoot’s northern boundary is a carving based on Three Guardsman Peak by Jim Heaton. A weaving from Hotch (herself a celebrated artist) represents the southern boundary. In between are three large paintings by Rob Goldberg based on historic photos of Chilkat or Chilkoot villages that no longer exist. Jennie Wheeler has made a hand-sewn outfit based on the Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi or “long ago man” who was found preserved in a glacier just to the north in Canada. That outfit is accompanied by spruce hat by Lorraine Kasko. Overlooking it all is a glass-and-wood sculpture made by California artist David Svenson, representing the Ever Present Spirit within the glacier.
The emcees of the event were Kimberly Strong, president of JKHC and vice president of the tribal council, and Lani Hotch, executive director of the Center and project manager, who sought to give thanks to the many people and organizations that had helped make the center possible — guests who thanked their hosts in return.
“I am so proud of my sisters. I am so proud of the efforts they’ve done in all of this work,” said Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl.
“Let me tell you something. Lani and Kimberly, you don’t want them chasing you around,” former state senator Albert Kookesh said of the fundraising process. “I haven’t been afraid of many women in my life but these two kind of scare me.”
If Hotch and Strong were leaders in the final push, raising the center took all of Klukwan and more.
“We did not start this journey on our own. We started with our ancestors and our relatives that came before us,” said Strong.
Hotch recalled the strategic planning meeting held in Klukwan in 2001 at which ideas for the center and many other improvements to the community first took shape.
“We asked ourselves, what do we want Klukwan to look like in five years, in 10 years, in 20 years, and people said things like ‘We want to have the heritage center up and running,’ ‘We want to have a traditional knowledge camp where subsistence skills and our arts and culture can be perpetuated,’ ‘We want a safe place to store our treasures,’ ‘We want the Tlingit language to be spoken here every day.’”
They were goals the village of 136 people largely saw accomplished on that sunny Saturday.
“Klukwan is a different place than it was 20 years ago and we couldn’t have done it without all of you,” Hotch said.
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