Haa Aaní

When we think of indigenous cultures, often time the image we conjure up is static. I used to identify indigenous cultures with a romanticized sense of place and rootedness. However, the more I learn about different indigenous cultures in the world, the more their complexities unfold. I ordered a bunch of books off Amazon to start to gain an understanding of Tlingit culture. The first on my list was a compilation of Tlingit oral narratives-- Haa Shuká, Our Ancestors

 
 

As I opened the book cover, I quickly realised it would be difficult to get a full sense of these stories.  The flow of the story is interrupted by the difference in grammar between Tlingit and English and the richness in tone and rhythm is lost without a storyteller. This distance and inability to fully understand, is an element I need to think about as I develop my work on my experience in Sitka. 

My experience at the Arete Project last summer has made me increasingly fond of women centered spaces and thus drew me to the matrilineal structure in Tlingit society. The social structure is is first split into the two moieties, Raven and Eagle. From there they are further divided into clans and then house groups. While I haven't delved too deeply in the Tlingit world yet, I can only imagine what it must be like to live in a society where women are the markers of status and power.

Another exciting tidbit from the book was how journeys are an overarching theme in the stories. Migration and travelling were commonplace in Tlingit culture, giving a very different perspective of how those who live in Sitka understand land and space. My favourite story in the book so far is Kaax'achgóok which describes the famous voyage of an ancestor from the Kiks.ádi clan. He was swept out to sea by a storm but managed skilfully navigated his crew back home, and thereafter has to deal with how life had changed during his absence.

Anna Brown Ehlers (right) and her daughter wearing Chilkat blankets woven by Ehlers.

Anna Brown Ehlers (right) and her daughter wearing Chilkat blankets woven by Ehlers.

Eagle of the Dawn.

Eagle of the Dawn.

These thoughts about movement and history made me curious about how history remains outside of oral tradition. Chilkat weaving is a traditional Tlingit craft that creates these blanket like those above. They are danced with in ceremonies and some are considered at.óowu—sacred objects that are imbued with ancestors’ spirits. Goat wool and cedar bark are woven together with nimble fingers and the preparation of the warp alone can take about four months for a full-sized blanket! This sacred nature of objects is something I feel capitalism has rendered obsolete, but I hope to regain that sense of preciousness somehow.

As I think of these memories passing form one body to another, I can't help but picture a river of time coursing through Haa Aaní, Our Land.

Nicole ChengComment