My Turn: Weigh your words carefully

Posted: Monday, March 04, 2002

An incident occurred very recently that reflects the persistence, strength, beauty and complexity of Tlingit culture. It was a happy time heightened by our young children singing the songs of our ancestors. However, in the enthusiasm and joy of the moment, a cultural protocol was violated.

To understand what transpired and to transform this event into a learning experience, one must understand some basic concepts of Tlingit social organization and its cultural constructs.

I usually begin my discourse on the survival of Tlingit culture by pointing to one of our core cultural elements. The Tlingit place a pre-imminent value on the group. We conceive of ourselves as members of a clan.

This group orientation influences all other aspects of Tlingit culture and underlies our traditional laws. For example, the clan is responsible for the action of its individual members. If an individual offends someone, the entire clan is held accountable for the offensive act. Clans hold title to at.ow or clan treasures, which include tangible and intangible property such as crests, names, songs and stories. A child holds ownership rights to clan property because of his or her membership in a clan. The ownership of these treasures is fiercely guarded by the clan.

While clan singing and dancing continues within our ancient ceremonies, cultural change brought the formation of dance groups in the mid-1900s. Dance groups are comprised of individuals from multiple clans, and they sing songs that are owned by clans of their participant members. Songs are important to the Tlingit in that they record historical events and represent ties to our ancestors. Cultural protocols require dance groups to acknowledge clan ownership of songs they sing.

In this incident, my clan sister, Anna Katzeek, and I spoke to a song that was not ours. In so doing, we gravely offended the Chookaneid clan who claim ownership of the song about which we spoke. It was a transgression stimulated by the joy of seeing and hearing our young children dance and sing and the precious memories their happy voices evoked. In this fleeting moment, we failed to weigh our words. In order to wipe away the hurt of our relatives, who are Eagles such as we, and to restore harmony, a group of my clan met with representatives of the Chookaneid to express our deepest sorrow.

We acknowledge our actions and sorrow, but we also hope that others can benefit from our mistake. We wish to convey the importance of weighing your words lest they offend your loved ones. We also want to bring this to the public in the hopes that those who see our dance performances might learn that our songs and dance are governed by a host of cultural values and that songs are owned by clans.

We are heartened that we do not stand alone. Other members of our clan stood beside us although they could have easily distanced themselves from us.

Such are the strengths of Tlingit culture.

Anna Katzeek and Rosita Worl are members of the Shungukeid Clan.

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