Tlingit in Southcentral connects with heritage through art

Much of what this Ninilchik carver learned about his Tlingit culture he learned as an adult

Posted: Monday, October 27, 2003

NINILCHIK - In a small workshop at the back of the Ninilchik Village Cache, the smell of cedar hangs thickly in the air. The ground is strewn with wood chips. Only the sound of rhythmic scraping breaks the silence.

The walls of the poorly lit room are covered with intricately carved objects, depicting easily recognized creatures of the natural world in varying degrees of realism.

The color scheme is primarily black, blue-green and red. The patterns are distinctively Native but are of a style and motif not locally known.

In the center of it all sits a man with a cigarette dangling from his lip, the swirling white smoke wafting upward. He is deeply focused on the task at hand.

The task is a traditional Tlingit wood carving, and the man is Jack Austin.

Austin is a full-blooded Tlingit, originally from Juneau. Historically, Tlingits weren't found anywhere close to Ninilchik, now a community of nearly 800 people on the Kenai Peninsula.

Instead, they lived along the coast, on the beaches and the islands of Southeast Alaska.

They were expert carvers of stone and wood, and they were equally skilled at weaving, basket making and working copper. However, the crafts for which the people are so well known are disappearing. Austin recognizes this and is doing his part to keep his Native culture alive.

"I'm sad to see it dying," Austin said. "I try to keep up with tradition. In the Southeast, they're trying very hard to keep it alive by teaching carving, dancing and language in the schools. I dedicate myself to the artwork here because I'm trying to keep my culture alive."

He added, "I may only know how to say a few words in Tlingit, but I speak it through my carvings."

Austin moved to the Kenai Peninsula in 1994 to be closer to family members, who had also settled in here.

"I was meant to be here. I like it here. There's a few Tlingit around, but they're spread out. There's one elderly lady in Kenai and a few others around."

He said it can be challenging keeping his culture alive, because it's a culture with which he is not entirely familiar. Much of what he knows about Tlingit culture he learned as an adult.

"The aunts and elders, they knew the Tlingit language, but were forbidden to speak it," he said, referring to the forced acculturation imposed by white people on many Native populations. "The missionaries had an effect. They banned carving. They thought it was bad. The Tlingit fought over it, though, and brought it back. As a kid I didn't know much, but as I grew up and learned who I was, I wanted to be a part of it."

Austin said his uncle began to teach him.

"In the Tlingit tradition, uncles are supposed to teach. They teach about hunting, fishing, the land, all sorts of things. It's like being a dad to your nephew. My uncle told me a story or two. He told me what went on in the history."

Austin said he also read a lot of books on Tlingit traditions. He sought an apprenticeship with his cousin, an accomplished carver named Reggie Peterson.

"My cousin was working doing carvings at the visitors center in Sitka," Austin said. "I said to him, 'I want to learn the ways.' He put his project down and got serious. He said, 'If I teach you, you must be serious. It will take a year-and-a-half to teach you, and you cannot give up on the artwork because it's a dying artwork.' "

His cousin also said, "No complaining. If I tell you, you just do it."

Austin agreed to the terms and Peterson open a large drawer with lots of designs sketched out on parchment. His cousin explained what colors to use and then let him get to work.

Austin said he spent the next several months painting, which is an important part of the completed projects. He also painted house posts and other items, but he yearned for more.

"He had a whole deck of knives I was just aching to use, but he wouldn't let me," Austin said. "He was teaching me. He wanted to me to learn the forms. All the different ovoids, U-forms, split forms and S-forms."

"I started to get my own designs," he said, explaining that the cuts for the eyes of a carving are typically rounded, but he does his at 45-degree angles.

"My cousin told me that was my signature."

Austin has been carving for close to 12 years, everything from paddles and spoons to masks and rattles.

The pieces he carves almost pick their own designs.

"I look at the pieces to see what I see in them. I will just look at it and then maybe see a raven on it, and then say, 'no-no-no.' Then I see an eagle on it and I know that is what it has to be."

He said once he knows what design he wants to carve, forming it out can be the hardest part. Some pieces require the use of an adze, an ax-like tool, while others just require a balance between brute strength and a delicate hand to perfectly shape a design with a carving knife.

Carving can't be done at a designated time, Austin said. It must be pursued only when the carver knows the time is right.

"You have to feel when to carve," he said. "When I'm into it, I can finish a carving in a few days. Other times it takes much longer just to shape it out."

Sometimes he may even start a piece and then not finish it for weeks or even months.

"When I know it's ready, I'll carve and finish it," he said.

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