People work together to raise the Xa’Kooch story pole, which commemorates the Battle of the Inian Islands. (Shaelene Grace Moler / For the Capital City Weekly)

Resilient Peoples & Place: The Xa’Kooch story pole — one step toward a journey of healing

“This pole is for the Chookaneidi, but here among us, many clans are represented…”

“This pole is for the Chookaneidi, but here among us, many clans are represented” says Laura Marcus as her husband Zach Brown smiles proudly upon her: they are the co-executive directors of the Tidelines Institute.“You are all most honored and most welcomed. We are grateful… so grateful to have your presence here today.” All around them sit Lingít people of various clans from the communities of Hoonah, Gustavus, Juneau and beyond — all here with the common goal to raise the Chookaneidi story pole before them to signify the deep Lingít roots of these lands.

I think back on my first trip here to take the environmental rhetoric course Tidelines offers: how I sat in this very same yard on a misty afternoon much like this one, giving a speech about the importance of sharing Indigenous perspectives on ecological issues. I remember how everyone sat intently listening to my perspective. I remember feeling heard and respected and was proud to be here.

“This pole here today is for you, for your grandchildren, for your nephews and nieces, for your aunts and uncles, for your grandparents, for all of the ancestors that have come before you, and all who are yet to come” Marcus said, reaching her hand out to the crowd.

Zach Brown and his wife Laura Marcus address a crowd gathered for the raising of the Xa’Kooch story pole.“This pole here today is for you, for your grandchildren, for your nephews and nieces, for your aunts and uncles, for your grandparents, for all of the ancestors that have come before you, and all who are yet to come” Marcus told the crowd. (Shaelene Grace Moler / For the Capital City Weekly)

Zach Brown and his wife Laura Marcus address a crowd gathered for the raising of the Xa’Kooch story pole.“This pole here today is for you, for your grandchildren, for your nephews and nieces, for your aunts and uncles, for your grandparents, for all of the ancestors that have come before you, and all who are yet to come” Marcus told the crowd. (Shaelene Grace Moler / For the Capital City Weekly)

The pole was designed by Jeff Skaflestad, a Tidelines board member, and carved by Scott Jensen, his mentor. Skaflestad worked with Lingít leaders and elders in Hoonah to design the pole and he wished to carve it as well, but due to COVID-19 and other limitations, he was unable to. The pole is located at the Inian Islands Tidelines campus. The Institute’s location, residing in Huna Kawuu with thousands-of-years of Lingít clan use and a cultural sacred site, is currently a small, remote campus that offers college credit with a combination of both classroom-based and outdoor learning. Over the years since it began, Tidelines has sought to strengthen relationships with the nearby community of Hoonah, offering programs to Hoonah youth and residents on many occasions.

The Xa’Kooch story pole, which commemorates the Battle of the Inian Islands, tells a prominent Lingít story from the area: the story of the giant octopus. This is the story that the Chookeneidi clan derived two of their crests: the octopus and porpoise. Previously told by Chookeneidi elders, Amy Marvin and Lilly White, this story was passed on from Mary Rudolph to Skaflestad and was fully incorporated into the pole’s design. Future students and others coming to the site will get to see the pole and learn more about their ancestors’ use of these sacred lands.

This was a moment of healing, a step in the right direction after the long, difficult and complex history here in this location. This site specifically was where a fox farmer turned a gun on a clan member who had returned to hunt and fish the lands he and his ancestors had cared for for centuries. At gunpoint, he was told never to return. It is likely that the fox farmer had obtained a lease from the Forest Service to use the land as a fox farm; this was a practice that expanded throughout Southeast Alaska in the 1920s. When the clan member attended ANB meetings to share his experience, he found that other Lingíts were having similar experiences. Thus, the permitting of fox farms and their establishment on seasonal sites was recognized as a substantial threat to Lingít lands and resources. After its use as a fox farm, the Tidelines Inian Islands campus location changed ownership to other non-native owners. Healing relationships between tribal citizens and the Tidelines Institute is an important part of the journey forward, the raising of this pole being one manifestation of that.

One by one, Gordon Greenwald, who emceed the event, introduced all of the Lingít speakers who shared various fishing stories from the Glacier Bay area, the family members of theirs they shared these waters with, their connection to the place, and their appreciation to be a part of this significant moment: one they expressed would be remembered by the youth in attendance and be passed on in story.

Darlene See takes the stage: “It’s such a special, special place here. You just look and the beauty of the land: our ancestors truly are in the trees– on the water. Beautiful. Beautiful. It’s undeniable.” Her words seem to resonate in the winds as her clan members, friends, and family look upon her. “I mentioned that Tidelines opened their doors, we brought some youth here. The students went out kayaking and they went fishing from the kayaks. Well, one student caught a fish,” the crowd bursts into laughter, “but to go out and to kayak and fish… what a feat! They enjoyed themselves immensely because they knew they were here where their ancestors lived and worked and survived. They knew that! Gunalchéesh. Gunalchéesh for being here and helping share this history with our students. It is so special, so special, and it would not have been possible without Tidelines Institute collaborating with the Hoonah Indian Association.”

To know these lands are still being used as they have for thousands of years is the best starting point for further recovery and reclamation. As the elders and culture bearers gave their speeches, there were many instances where Tidelines members were recognized as shared “caretakers’ of these lands and waters that have been continually cared for and depended on by the Lingít people of this area for thousands of years. For many, this pole raising and increased relationship building between the Institute, the community and tribal citizens, are early steps in a complex journey of healing.

When asked about how the partnership came to be, Zach Brown shared that Tidelines Institute’s partnership with the Hoonah Lingít has evolved over the past four years, and that it will continue to develop. “We first ran a fruiting plant workshop back in 2018 in Hoonah. Since that time, we have brought Hoonah youth to the Inian Islands, brought Hoonah women to Gustavus to harvest nagoon berries, and much more. We have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Hoonah Indian Association,” HIA being the federally recognized tribal government of the Hoonah Lingít.

Brown also shared that along the way, Tidelines has been greatly aided by their Lingít board members: Jeff Skaflestad, Amelia Wilson, Jeromy Grant, and most recently elected was Rebekah Contreras. Additionally, they have been aided by Wayne Howell, who is not Lingít, but has deep experience in the Hoonah community.

There is so much power in connecting a person back to their place, one that not only I experienced in falling back in love with the region that I grew up in at Tidelines, but one that many Hoonah youth will experience among the waters and lands their ancestors, and current and future generations are able to live and thrive upon. When asked about the youth’s experiences at the Inian Islands, Brown reflected on some of the most memorable moments from this last spring sharing “It was amazing to paddle with the youth through the Inian passes and hear them spontaneously start drumming on the sides of the kayaks and singing. One girl said she felt closer to her homeland, closer to her ancestors.” Much like the spontaneous singing, dancing, and drumming that occurred on the trip here for the pole raising often led by Wanda Culp who gifted a painting she has done of the head rock at the Inian Islands to the institute.

Wanda Culp smiles with Zach Brown and his wife Laura Marcus at the raising of the Xa’Kooch story pole. (Shaelene Grace Moler / For the Capital City Weekly)

Wanda Culp smiles with Zach Brown and his wife Laura Marcus at the raising of the Xa’Kooch story pole. (Shaelene Grace Moler / For the Capital City Weekly)

Of course, this is an experience not only where the youth get to learn from Tidelines, but Tidelines learns in reciprocity from the youth. Brown discussed a memory where one taught him that deer heart (a Southeast Alaska plant) – which he’d walked through thousands of times because it’s often the dominant groundcover plant in spruce-hemlock old growth forests is in fact edible. “I thought I knew our Southeast Alaska edible plants pretty well, but I didn’t know one of the most common and, it turns out, most tasty!”

He also talked about the culturally modified trees around the Inian Islands and how when the Hoonah youth visited with Greenwald, who is a carver from Hoonah, they were able to tell that the marks in that tree were adze marks (rather than a different type of tool), which told them a lot about when and how the tree was carved.

Gordon Greenwald stands near Mary Rudolph during an event commemorating the raising of the Xa’Kooch story pole. During the event, Rudolph, the clan mother for the Chookaneidi, said it was the ancestors dancing through the night in recognition of that event. (Shaelene Grace Moler / For the Capital City Weekly)

Gordon Greenwald stands near Mary Rudolph during an event commemorating the raising of the Xa’Kooch story pole. During the event, Rudolph, the clan mother for the Chookaneidi, said it was the ancestors dancing through the night in recognition of that event. (Shaelene Grace Moler / For the Capital City Weekly)

At the end of the night when I’d said my goodbyes to Brown, my professor from this summer, and all the guests and I had returned home on the catamaran and the sun had sunk into the horizon, the night sky lit up with the vivid dance of northern lights. Mary Rudolph, the clan mother for the Chookaneidi said it was the ancestors dancing through the night in recognition of that event. May the healing and this partnership continue to grow.

• Shaelene Grace Moler is a Southeast Alaskan Tlingit writer who served as one of two Sustainable Southeast Partnership interns in the summer of 2022. She is currently a University of Alaska Southeast student majoring in English and environmental studies and has been published in Tidal Echoes, Alaska Women Speak, Capital City Weekly, and by 49 Writers. During her internship, she pursued a course in environmental rhetoric at the Tidelines Institute as part of her professional development.”

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