The story of a song

While new to Native custom, the concept of the Tlingit National Anthem is gaining greater acceptance

Posted: Sunday, January 16, 2000

At the ``Gathering the Tribes'' powwow in October in Juneau, the Tlingit National Anthem was sung and danced both days.

When the Aishihik First Nation, a Canadian Native group, gave a presentation in Haines that month the Gee Sun Dancers also danced and sang the anthem.

At its every performance, Tlingit eyes light up and voices seem to ring with enthusiasm.

Just what is the Tlingit National Anthem?

It's a song mourning for lost relatives, lost territory.

Its author, Joe Wright of Haines, was imprisoned for murder around the turn of the century. He is said to have written the song after his release from jail when he returned to his native village and was saddened to find most of his people gone.

Inspired by yearning, his song asks that its very words will spread out and people the land again.

The poignant song was later shared with elder and Native leader Austin Hammond, said Lee Heinmiller of Alaska Indian Arts and the Haines Gee Sun Dancers.

``Austin decided that because it uses both eagle and raven in reference, it could be the `Tlingit national anthem,''' Heinmiller said.

The Gee Sun song leader, Dixie Johnson, taught the group the song. She and her son, Harry Richard ``Rick'' Johnson, translated it, Heinmiller said.

Although the anthem is seeing ever greater acceptance and more frequent performance, the concept of an anthem is new to Tlingit custom.

In the traditional Tlingit culture, there was never anything like a national anthem, because the Tlingits have been organized around clans, said translator and author Dick Dauenhauer of Juneau. ``My personal take is it's imitating Western culture,'' he said.

``On the other hand,'' he added, ``it's become a rallying song, and people like it because it's unencumbered by restrictions like clan ownership'' or copyright.

By interviewing a number of sources, it seems clear that the song was written around the turn of the century by Joe Wright. But who is Wright?

A version of Wright's story is told in Henry Gariepy's history, ``A Century of Service in Alaska: The Story & Saga of the Salvation Army in the Last Frontier.''

According to Gariepy, about 1890 Wright was involved in a brawl in Douglas. A man came after him with a gun, and in a fight, Wright accidentally killed him. A jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to serve time in San Quentin, in California.

In prison, he encountered the Salvation Army at its weekly services for prisoners.

``The Salvation Army taught him to read the Bible, and after some years he asked if he could be made a soldier,'' Gariepy wrote. ``Because of his influence for good in the prison this was granted, and each Sunday he was allowed to wear the red guernsey (knitted woolen shirt) which had been given him. The prison officials came to see that Joe's life was truly transformed and after eight years he was given a parole.''

Wright acquired a Salvation Army flag and made a drum by stretching deer skin over a wooden frame. He started holding meetings in Douglas in 1898. In 1901, he launched the Salvation Army in Hoonah, where he started a Sunday School and held open-air meetings. He was subsequently taken to Wrangell for additional training, and then commissioned an envoy, or representative.

Wright is remembered by Tlingit elders as a brawny man with a strong voice that ``could be heard far across the harbor when he would sing on his boat,'' according to Gariepy.

Mary King of Haines told Gariepy about Wright's tent revivals, ``with a cross in the back, and as he preached in Tlingit there were many converts and tears of joy.''

Alice Vavalis of Juneau, a niece of Joe Wright, remembers him as ``a big, husky man.''

Joe Hotch of Haines said Wright was a legend like Paul Bunyan in the village of Klukwan, ``long before I was born. They said he was a strong man, very healthy, and when gym shoes first came to the village and he started running in them, those gym shoes came apart.''

Wright was not a man to trifle with, Hotch added. ``My Dad told me he got into a fight with four military persons at the fort here, and when the judge asked him, `Is that right?' Wright held up one fist - meaning one fist had taken care of four.''

Another version of the Joe Wright story can be found in ``Haa Kusteeyi: Our Culture, Tlingit Life Stories'' (1994), edited by Nora and Richard Dauenhauer:

``Austin Hammond's father (Tom Phillips) and a man named Joe Wright were passing Seduction Point by canoe when they found a drifting boat with the murdered bodies of a man, his wife and children. Joe Wright and Tom Phillips were accused of the crime, and sent to prison at McNeil Island, in the state of Washington.''

This seems to be the same crime that sent him to San Quentin. Whether McNeil came before San Quentin, or one is correct and the other not, is unknown. On the other hand, sources may have confused two distinct crimes and punishments.

The Dauenhauers note that, during this tumultuous era, few Tlingit spoke English. This made it difficult when dealing with false accusations of crimes they did not commit. According to this version of the story, Wright and Phillips were later found innocent of the charges, and released, in 1912. (Wright died about a year later as a result of injuries suffered in prison, and his son, Austin, was later adopted by his mother's second husband.)

Nora Dauenhauer knows another version of the jail sentence story - that Wright found the body of a dead woman on a trail.

``When he reported her death, he was charged with her death. At the time, a lot of our people couldn't speak Tlingit, and the English people couldn't speak Tlingit,'' Nora said. ``He was trying to do the right thing, but was charged with murder.''

Wright was also known for his Christian service, however.

In fact, his good works became a kind of legend among Salvation Army personnel, said retired Maj. Dolores Rivitt, special projects coordinator for the Army's Alaska Divisional Headquarters in Anchorage. She remembers hearing of Wright decades ago when she first came to Alaska.

Wright bequeathed the song that has become known as the Tlingit National Anthem to Austin Hammond. And Hammond chose to remove Luxaxdee or Sockeye clan restrictions and protocols from it, and allow general use by all Tlingit clans.

Hammond or Daanawaak, the Sockeye clan's former leader, as well as the dance leader of the Geesan Dancers, died in 1993.

``Austin Hammond gave the song to be used as a rallying song for Native land claims. It's a song of Nora's clan,'' Richard Dauenhauer said, referring to his wife - author, linguist and culture-bearer Nora Marks Dauenhauer.

``Jennie Marks (Nora's aunt by marriage) taught us the song, and we used it for land claims in the '60s and '70s,'' Nora Dauenhauer said. ``The Marks Trail Geesan Dancers sang it at dances, like the National Congress of American Indians in Anchorage. And we sang it aboard the ferry Columbia while Hickel was Governor.''

Nora Dauenhauer sees the song more as ancestral property - a piece of family history, such as regalia, a dance blanket or mask - than as communal property. But she also sees how the sentiments of the lyrics lend themselves to a larger application.

``The first verse has land. It's a love song for the land,'' Nora Dauenhauer said. ``The second verse has his father's sisters; it was a love song directed to his father's sisters.''

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved.  | Contact Us