Lyle James points out petroglyphs on a rock in Berners Bay. James and other Tlingit leaders were showing others the generations-old carvings as part of the new Tl&

Lyle James points out petroglyphs on a rock in Berners Bay. James and other Tlingit leaders were showing others the generations-old carvings as part of the new Tl&

Alaska’s petrogylphs & lessons that span an ocean: Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians learn from each other on environmental topics

Clarification: This article has been updated to mention that the University of Alaska Southeast coordinated and organized the Tléix’ Yaakw (One Canoe) conference.

Just a few steps into the woods, everything changes.

On the rocky beach at Berners Bay, clumps of seaweed dried in the sun as people chatted and the engine from the catamaran was still audible. But stepping into the quiet, cool shade of the spruce trees was like stepping back in time.

Petroglyphs — carvings in the rocks that were made at least hundreds of years ago — are still visible. They’re a bit faded and lined with moss and lichen, but the shape of a face is distinguishable on one stone as the shape of a swirl is visible on another.

The people who were passing by the stones this Sunday were here as members of a new convention entitled Tléix’ Yaakw (One Canoe), which brings together Alaska Native leaders with Native Hawaiian leaders to explore their common ground and delving into solutions to preserving nature and indigenous languages. The University of Alaska Southeast organized and coordinated the conference.

Those from Hawaii’s Polynesian Voyaging Society, including Lehua Kamalu, saw the generations-old petroglyphs and, as she put it, broke out in “chicken skin,” or goosebumps.

“You can almost feel as if you were walking in the same way that those people who were here first had experienced it,” Kamalu said.

Kamalu said there are similar etchings in places in Hawaii, but towns and buildings have impeded on many sacred areas. She said seeing the way Alaska preserves and honors its historic sites sets an example for them in terms of keeping culture alive.

Nainoa Thompson, the president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, took it a step further. He spoke about the fact that climate change is affecting people from the Arctic to the Equator, and that the way Alaskans care for their natural resources can set an example not only for Hawaiians but for people around the world.

“We’re all reaching and stretching in a very fearful way about what the future’s going to be like as we grow our population and deplete our natural resources,” Thompson said. “Alaska’s the school, it’s the stronghold of doing things right.”

Sunday’s excursion to Berners Bay to see the petroglyphs was one aspect of the whole conference, which includes speeches, trips to sacred Alaska Native sites and brainstorming sessions. Thompson said he hopes this conference, which runs from this past Saturday to Wednesday, becomes a “moment we’ll remember” when the two groups took action — in preserving the environment, culture and language of their peoples — for the sake of future generations.

Midway through the time when the passengers of the Allen Marine catamaran were exploring the woods, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott arrived, driving a small motorboat. He spoke with a few guests, finding time to take in the area’s beauty and even skip stones into the water.

More than two decades ago, Mallott was a key figure in uniting Alaska Natives of Southeast together with the Polynesian Voyaging Society. In 1989, Thompson and the organization undertook an ambitious endeavor, looking to reconstruct a double-hulled canoe in traditional native fashion. They named the vessel Hawai’iloa, a voyager of legend who is credited with the discovery of Hawaii.

They were struggling to find logs in Hawaii that were large enough for the hulls, according to the Hawai’iloa website, due to forestry and cattle grazing. Fortunately, Thompson was able to connect with Mallott, who was then the CEO of the Sealaska Corporation, through mutual friends. Mallott helped coordinate the use of Sitka spruce logs for the hull of the vessel.

During Sunday’s excursion, Thompson called the collaboration between the two organizations “a beautiful story.” He reiterated the point that people elsewhere can learn from the way Alaskans have taken care of their natural resources.

The harmony between the people and the wildlife in the area was a theme of the excursion. As Tlingit elder David Katzeek was telling stories to the group on the way out to Berners Bay, killer whales were spotted near the boat. He stopped his storytelling and began to sing to the whales. One of them leapt out of the water soon after Katzeek stopped singing.

“They’re dancing for us,” Katzeek said. “I should probably sing again.”

Another such moment happened as people disembarked the catamaran onto the beach. Tlingit leader Fran Houston was among the first to come ashore, and said she immediately asked the ancestors of the area (as the beach used to be the site of a village) for permission to be there.

“I got my answer,” Houston told the group, pointing toward a tall spruce to the north of the beach. “There are two eagles at the top of that tree.”

They were watching over the group, Houston said. The eagles sat there for the next hour or so, flying away just before the group got back onto the catamaran. On the beach, Houston led a song to welcome the visitors to the area — a song entitled Cha Dat Sa, the meaning of which she declined to share. The Hawaiian visitors also sang a song, Thompson said, called Ahu Nua traditionally used to ask permission.

These instances, as well as the maintained petroglyphs and efforts to revitalize the Lingit language, have stuck with Thompson during his visits to Alaska since the 1990s, he said.

“I wish that we can make more and more people around the world see the stories of Alaska, because this is an important school,” Thompson said. “This is more important of a school for the earth than Alaska’s ever been.”

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.



700; Yaakw (One Canoe) conference. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

700; Yaakw (One Canoe) conference. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

More in News

(Juneau Empire File)
Aurora forecast for the week of Nov. 27

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire File
Even the Grinch got into the holiday spirit at last year’s Gallery Walk on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.
An abundance of traditional and new ways to capitalize on this year’s Gallery Walk

More than 50 events scheduled Friday afternoon and evening from downtown to Douglas.

This view is from Wrangell on Sept. 11, 2022. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus/ICT)
Conservation group supports formation of new Alaska Native corporations

The conservation group the Wilderness Society has changed its position and now… Continue reading

From her hospital bed on Friday, Nov. 24, Christina Florschutz demonstrates how she pulled pajama bottoms that she found in the landslide debris over her legs, arms and head to keep warm. Her house was destroyed in the landslide, and after spending the night in the wreckage, she was rescued the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 21. (Caroleine James / Wrangell Sentinel)
Elementary school aide who survived Wrangell landslide calls circumstances a miracle

Christina Florschutz trapped overnight by landslide that killed at least 4 people, with 2 missing.

Lylah Habeger (left) and Jaila Ramirez lead the Konfeta Corps during a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” at Juneau Dance Theatre. The ballet will be performed in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.At.Kalé auditorium Friday through Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Juneau Dance Theatre)
‘Nutcracker’ tradition, with a twirl of new choreography

This year’s performances feature a cast of 93, ages 5 to 78

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Rain at the National Weather Service Juneau station on Nov. 11 doesn’t exist as snow until hits the upper portion of nearby Thunder Mountain. So far this November has been both warmer and wetter than normal. (Photo by National Weather Service Juneau)
El Niño playing outsize role in Juneau’s warmer temperatures, according to National Weather Service

Early peek at numbers shows Juneau is 4.9 degrees warmer than average this November.

An emergency rescue vehicle parks in front of the Riverview Senior Living center at midday Monday after resident Nathan Bishop, 58, was discovered in the attic about 40 hours after he was reported missing. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Nathan Bishop found alive in attic of Riverview Senior Living complex after 40-hour search

Family members say they remain supportive of facility’s locally available assisted living services.

Most Read