Dispatch, Alaska: Entering the world of the Tlingits


While private cruise ports are a staple in the Caribbean, they’re rare in Alaska. The exception is Icy Strait Point, which for the past 10 years has lured visitors with a zipline, seafood restaurants, and a base camp for wildlife and other excursions. Cruise editor Tom Stieghorst recently visited the port, which was developed on the site of a defunct salmon cannery by the Native American-owned Huna Totem Corp. His first dispatch follows.

Ready or not, the future came to the Tlingit band of Native Americans in the 19th century, when white fur traders and missionaries introduced themselves into the Pacific Northwest.

Tlingit raven

The Tlingit adapted to a powerful and strange new way of life. But they’ve preserved the essentials of their old culture, too.

Their stories, songs, dances and regalia are on display in a one-hour show that cruise passengers can watch at Icy Strait Point. It turns the tables on modern audiences, challenging them to enter into the spirit of a time when cedar log canoes were the smart way to ply Alaskan waters.

Audience members hear the strange-sounding cadences of Tlingit music and language. We learn of their intimate identification with animals, the raven and eagle in particular, but also bears, sharks, whales and other impressive predators of coastal Alaska.

The theater is built to mimic the timbered long houses where Tlingit people once lived communally in clans. A tribal elder recounts Tlingit folklore, like the story of how the trickster raven stole the sun, moon and stars and gave them for away for all the people to enjoy.

Tribe members act out the story, dressed in colorful regalia. Only members of a particular clan can wear the symbols of the clan or tell its stories, and performances can’t be recorded, so the only way to see the show is to go to Icy Strait Point to witness it in person.

The Tlingit’s adaption to Euro-American culture was preceded by an earlier adaptation in the 1750s, when rapidly advancing ice forced them out of what is now Glacier Bay and onto the nearby peninsula they now call home.

“[The show] provides a succinct story of the people of Glacier Bay and how we got here,” said Amelia Wilson, whose father is the tribal elder who serves as the show’s master of ceremonies.

Even as I admired the handsome Tlingit regalia, and the beauty of their creation myths, I was struck by the yawning distance between the beliefs of a traditional culture and those of contemporary life.

It can’t be easy to have a foot in both camps. I wondered what that must be like.

And I wondered what I would have done had it been me adapting to their culture instead of the other way around.

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly. 

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI