Elton feels like Tlingit in spirit

Posted: Friday, September 17, 2004

What is the only constant in Southeastern Alaska? It is the presence of the Tlingit.

Often early men and women called themselves "the people" because they thought they were unique and distinct and were not aware of all the other races of men and women living around the world.

So it is with the Tlingit. Their history began long, long ago - perhaps 5,000 years or 10,000 or longer.

All the other dwellers in Southeast Alaska came in more recent times: the Haida from the Queen Charlotte Islands in the last decades of the 18th century, and the Tsimshian from Canada arriving at Metlakatla in the 1890s. And the Russians, the Swedes and Norwegians, the gold hunters and the fishermen in the last 200 years or so.

I sometimes feel like a Tlingit in spirit. Often residents of Alaska are asked when and where they are going to retire. Are they going to return home? Are they going to move to Arizona or Arkansas?

But would you ask a man or woman from Angoon or Kake if he or she was going to retire to California? My answer would be the same as theirs.

This is our home. The sight of the mountains and water, the cool wet climate are bred into our bones, so that the deserts of Arizona or the hot sunshine of California or New Mexico would be an alien place. Of course, everyone enjoys traveling and experiencing the sights and sounds of foreign places, but only for a week or so.

The Tlingit have persevered and flourished through the centuries from the dawn of habitation in our land. They wish, as all "old timers" do, a measure of full respect and even entitlement.

My dad was a wonderful warm-hearted man born in Wrangell in 1905. He played on a famous high school basketball team that even traveled to the state of Washington to compete. The team also played throughout Southeast Alaska. Once, after a series at Metlakatla, they prepared to return home to Wrangell by boat. A group of older Metlakatla women gathered on the dock to see them off. They cried in unison. "Go back to Wrangell, you Wrangell fishermen."

I visited the Sealaska Heritage Institute at the Sealaska Building in Juneau and met with Eric Morrison and Donald Gregory, who work there. Eric is also the president of Camp 7 of the Alaska Native Brotherhood in the Mendenhall Valley. Donald is the treasurer. The annual Brotherhood and Sisterhood convention will be held at Sitka this year from Oct. 3 to 9, honoring "Our People's Leaders: Honoring Our Past, Securing Our Future." Eric and Donald estimated that the population of Tlingit has greatly expanded in the last century. There are more than 22,000 people now. It is one of the 10 largest groups of Native Americans in the United States.

Occasionally, over the last 50 years, I have been greeted on the street or in our store in Juneau with: "You know, we are related to you." So in spirit, but perhaps also by blood, I feel akin to the nobility of the first people of Southeast Alaska, the Tlingit.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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