Tlingit mixes Elvis, Native culture

The Native answer to Elvis imitators everywhere is a husband-wife team

Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2005

When the Tlingit King is about to perform, he bops nervously from foot to foot, all glam and glitter from his colorful shower curtain cape to his shiny silver-and-white tennis shoes.

Then the crowd trickles in and it's showtime. The King hits play on the boombox behind him, and as Elvis Presley croons, Leonard R. Johnson dances up and down the small stage.

Within minutes, the nervousness is forgotten. His face is bathed in sweat, but his smile never falters. He turns up the corner of his lip in a trademark sneer, grabs the hand of a young woman and dances with her. He kneels and spreads his cape so that the eagle on back is displayed in all its glory.

The crowd filing by for the night's main event, Juneau's Wearable Arts Extravaganza, is appreciative of this visual appetizer, the hardest-working Tlingit in show business.

"It doesn't get any better than this. Tlingit Elvis! It's perfect," said fan Cristine Crooks.

The Alaska Native answer to Elvis is actually a husband-and-wife team. Pua Maunu, a Hawaiian artist, designed the mesh of pop culture and Native Northwestern art. Johnson, her Tlingit husband and the model for her art, can only be described as a reluctant Elvis impersonator.

"I really never did get up in front of people like that, especially white people," Johnson said. "I really kind of felt embarrassed until everybody started getting louder and whistling and they liked it - I know they liked it - so I just got into it."

After a smash debut at Juneau's premier fashion show a year ago, Johnson and Maunu now enjoy something of celebrity status. Maunu's costume was recently on display in the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, and Johnson gets autograph requests that he obliges by signing "Tlingit Elvis" with a flourish.

The costume design involves intricate painting, beadwork and feathers done in traditional Tlingit fashion, but unmistakably Elvis in its final presentation. Bold reds, aquamarine blues, blacks and yellows form the feathers, eye and claws of the cape's eagle, which is Johnson's tribal clan. Eagles also appear on his necklace and giant belt buckle.

Feathers hang from the cape and from Johnson's flared white pants, which match his spotless white shirt with dangling tassles and a neckline that plunges to his stomach.

"Who would have thought that Elvis and the Northwest coast go together so beautifully?" said Jane Lindsay, director of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.

The Tlingit King occupies a corner of turf in a world filled with Jewish Elvises, lesbian Elvises, Chinese Elvises and impersonators of all shapes, sizes and colors. It's that appeal across the spectrum that fans say make Elvis Presley as much a uniter as the most inspiring leaders.

"Between Martin Luther King and Elvis, I don't know which one is more responsible for integration," said Joel Orelove. "It's wonderful the power that Elvis has to bring people together."

Orelove, a retired business owner, is something of an Elvis Presley historian. He has a collection of Presley artifacts that was part of the museum exhibit along with Tlingit Elvis. But Orelove is more than a collector - he has researched Presley's roots five generations back, is past president of the local fan club and even rode a dog sled at the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race dressed as Presley.

He said Presley has helped bring together people from the deep South to the chilly shores of Southeast Alaska, where racial tension between Alaska Natives and non-Natives still exists. Here in Alaska, he said, Elvis Presley is the great equalizer.

"He changed the world. Here's this guy with no education, the poorest of the poor and he became the ruler of America," Orelove said.

Johnson as a child chopped wood and toted garbage to earn the 50 cents admission to see Elvis Presley movies in Angoon, an Alaska Native village of 480. When he didn't have enough money, he peeped through a crack until the owner spotted him and sent him on his way.

Before he met his wife, Johnson said, he drank too much, smoked too much marijuana, and was put in jail far too many times for disturbing the peace. Realizing he had to make a change, he said he first found God, then he found his wife and then he rediscovered Elvis.

Now 50, he's sober, keeps fit and hopes to become a truck driver - just like Elvis before he was discovered.

Johnson now lives in Juneau, convinced that it was the tiny, isolated village of Angoon that contributed to his past ways. He's reluctant to return even for a visit.

"A lot of people are jealous in Angoon, you know. Just jealous of people trying to do better and get out of the miserable life there. So that's what I did. I just had to do that to get rid of my jealousy, get rid of my hate," he said.

If God and his wife pushed him onto the right path, it was Elvis who pulled Johnson out of his shell.

"I had no idea he was such a hound," Maunu said. "He grew up in the village, and only knew other Natives. This has exposed him to interacting with other people."

Over the past year, Johnson said, he has gotten several requests. A man recently approached him and asked if he would perform at his party.

But Johnson quizzed him: What kind of party? Would there be drinking? Would there be smoking?

After all, now that he's found his right path, Johnson doesn't want to stray again down the same path of substance abuse that the real Elvis did.

"There are a lot of temptations. I say no all the time," he said.

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