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Art, Culture, and Living in Two Worlds

Tlingit Art Culture and Identity article

That line between two worlds is becoming blurred in the sense that we Natives live in the global, modern, technological, achievement-oriented 21st century world. On the other hand, we are responsible for defining and determining our cultural identity, traditions, meanings, lifestyles. Part of it is maintaining core parts of our culture, while choosing which parts we continually redefine. For example, our language is something that needs to be kept alive by using it as accurately as it has always been used, whereas some traditions and ceremonies evolve, but others are kept as close to the old way of doing things as possible. While there are many authorities and scholars on Tlingit culture, we are the ones who attribute meaning. We are the ones who create our own context. We create our own identity.

When I was younger, I struggled with my cultural identity. My father was Tlingit and my mother White. Belonging to two ethnicities conflicted me and kept me feeling like an outsider wherever I was. I had to learn to integrate what felt like a schism. The process was long, and the path to where I am today was quite rocky. I am a product of both worlds. As a young artist and writer, this conflict came out pointedly. In SoulCatcher (1986, Ravens Bones Press, Sitka) a themes of built-in inaccuracy, sarcasm, blame and discontentedness runs through that early collection. That was basically my internal state.

As an artist, I wanted to learn how to become a traditional artist, but I was also trying to market my work. Another conflict! Here’s one of those early poems:

The Albino Tlingit Carving Factory

We do not take the time hunting
for the perfect grained red cedar
to split planks from with wedge and stone maul.
We do not talk to the trees.
We do not hew and adze
and season our boards. No.
They come from Spenard Building Supply
on Katlian Street
at $2.15 per board foot.

We do not go to the iron-rich cliffs
for red ochre paint mixed in stone
paintbowl with dog salmon eggs
spit through mouthful of spruce bark.
Nor do we try for the subdued blue-green
of copper sulfate with virgin’s urine,
or black from the deepest charcoal.

You want crude carvings?
You want them harsh and viscious?
they might be African for all you care.

Hell, we have to make a living too.


Today, I do a number of things that help me get back to the context I referred to earlier. To me that context is a state of being. I like to revisit home, literally and figuratively, our village history, our stories, our relations. I like to get close to nature, the woods, the beach, the ocean. I like to experience the spirit in all things. To be among the Animal People, The Sea People, The Sky People, even the Tree People. When I go to the woods I will talk to the medicine I come back with. I like to practice my art, even if it’s sketching ideas (a plethora of them!) for future projects. I talk about who we are in the present tense.

I really like this picture taken on a hike this weekend. I like the mist on the lens that fogs what I was trying to capture. The fog that hides what we are trying to capture!Tlingit Art Culture and Identity article

Posted in Tlingit Culture