There was a light mist in the air as I walked across the wooden bridge that leads to the Chief Shakes Clan House located along the shoreline of my home, Ḵaachx̱aana.áakʼw Wrangell.
One by one, I followed as people ducked in through the Clan House entryway to come in from the rain and join together for the Warming of the Hands ceremony, the opening welcome to the 2022 Sharing Our Knowledge Conference (Wooshteen Kanaxhtulaneegí Has At Wuskóowu). The Stikine Ḵwaan clan leaders stood at the front of the full house, first introducing themselves, then welcoming the visitors to Wrangell. They proudly welcomed the Inland Lingít who had traveled down from the interior. They responded, filling the room with a loud and full “Gunalchéesh!” (thank you) that eased the room into an atmosphere of respect.
Then, the Teeyhit’taan announced how, when a noble man dies, the village slows down and that’s why there would be no dancing. The crowd in the Clan House became hushed and somber, furthering the Clan House’s atmosphere into one that embraced the theme of this year’s conference: A Time For Peace.
I was touched by that sense of peace. The view of the Clan House full of people with the quiet harbor below struck me as beautiful. I was surrounded by neighbors, relatives, and those who had traveled to come together in a celebration and exchange of knowledge around the Lingít, Haida and Tsimshian nations. This was the 11th Sharing Our Knowledge Conference since the first one was held in 1993 in Haines and Klukwan. For me, it was the first I’ve ever been to, and I am proud to say that I attended. I learned so much about the importance of preserving culture, respecting your neighboring clans and healing. It was a special time for the Lingít, Haida and Tsimshian.
My high school Lingít teacher, Virginia Oliver Xwaanlein, was the first to tell me about the conference. She brought it up one day while I was in class, hinting that I should attend. I am really glad she did. At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect out of many days of seminars, talks, and educational experiences, but I’ve come away more inspired and motivated to continue learning about my Lingít culture. In our talks since the conference, Virginia has continued to share with me the importance of the conference, “There is a revitalization of our culture through the Lingít language.” Virginia, who is also a planning committee member for the conference, went on to list, “SOK is continuing to share with people about language revitalization, linguistics, archeology, art, music, Alaskan native history, museums, cultural anthropology, indigenous law, clan protocol, fisheries, and traditional ecological knowledge.”
I watched my first seminar at the conference, which was called “Seafood: Protecting Food Security” by executive director of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Guy Archibald. His research on radioactive waste in sea mammals was absolutely fascinating and scary that the food in the ocean that we rely on could be so vulnerable to pollution at the same time. This was a great opportunity for me to apply what I have been learning in my Rural Alaska Students in One-Health Research, science class. A few more memorable moments for me were, throwing Lingít spears with Eric Hollinger, of the Smithsonian Institution, and joining in on the fifth international Lingít spelling bee with Daphne Wright. This was a great opportunity for me to show off some of my vocabulary practice I’ve been doing with Virginia. From my perspective as a student, I was able to make connections while listening to seminars, meet with influential people, and gained knowledge that I will carry into the future.
On Saturday, the conference dedicated a day to the important healing work of acknowledging and sharing about boarding schools and specifically the Wrangell Institute. This day opened up deep wounds in Wrangell’s history. Jim LaBelle, a boarding school healing advocate, spoke about his personal experience at the Institute. People were in shock and disbelief by his story. Virginia said, “Wrangell was really taken aback by it and I just think that it was a good stepping stone into healing.” One of the main events of the Institute healing ceremony was the gauntlet reenactment. There were two lines of people who were given a flower and words of affirmation as they cycled through. Bob Sam Shaagunasstaa, an elder who also is a member of the SOK Planning Committee, organized this demonstration to look like a peaceful version of the way the students would line up at the Institute and receive abuse for using their native language. Virginia added, “I believe that boarding schools were the breaking of the Lingít language.” Bob Sam has successfully practiced his own healing methods since his boarding school experience. He said, “I feel that we as a people have suffered from abuse, domestic violence,.. and people have become angry and ashamed of our culture… [The ceremony] provided people with an opportunity to leave [the shame and anger] behind them. It’s so important, my friend, to be free.”
The last day of the conference, Sunday, was dedicated to a field trip to Anan Creek.
Currently, Anan is famous for its bear observatory, but this location has been used by people for at least 3,500 years. It has a very rich history of Lingít activity including a historical summer fishing village along the peninsula and on the shores of the Anan Lagoon and Bay. The Lingít would spend the summers there smoking salmon, hunting, and gardening in preparation for the long winter in Old Town. As we touched the shore at Anan, people felt connected to their ancestors and past.
“Originally the purpose of the day was to share some of our archaeological techniques and how we might search for buried layers of shell midden, looking for scientific evidence of habitation that can be carbon dated. This work helps add information to traditional knowledge that is already known from stories and oral histories” said Tory Houser, the U.S. Forest Service staff leading the Anan Creek field trip along with archaeologists Gina Esposito and Tyler Rounds. “But really, organically, what the day became was more of being in place and having a conversation, and I think continuing a lot of the healing that started at the Institute day.” She continued, “I hope that through conferences like Sharing Our Knowledge where people are getting together and empowering themselves to learn more about their culture, language, and places — we [the USFS] are engaging with tribes in a meaningful way and being a part of a long term healing.”
Tory, the USFS recreation staff officer for the Wrangell and Petersburg Ranger districts, also worked closely with the Wrangell Tribe (WCA) to support them in securing federal funding to commission full video documentation of the entire SOK conference. That was one part of a greater funding application that the WCA put into the USDA’s new Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy, a collaborative approach by the agency to listen to community priorities, support locally-led initiatives, and engage meaningfully with Tribal Governments and organizations throughout the region. The investment towards the Sharing Our Knowledge conference was some of the earliest funding released through the Sustainability Strategy. It was a great first step for the funding to support documenting the SOK conference on video so that anyone can view every seminar online (sharingourknowledge.org). It is a gesture of the peace and dedication to future generations that the conference upholds. Further, as referred to by the Sharing our Knowledge 2022 symposium resource, the conference wouldn’t have been possible without WCA, United States Forest Service, City of Wrangell (Nolan Center and Parks & Recreation), Sweet Tides Bakery, Alaska Waters Inc., Etolin Bus Co., Breakaway Adventures, Wrangell Sentinel, KSTK-FM and Outer Coast who dedicated both staff and volunteer time to support participation and healing.
As a student and part of the upcoming generation, I was really grateful for the experience of attending this conference. When the conference is held again in 2024, I hope that more high school students like me attend. It felt important to meet important people from across Lingít Aaní and also from my very own community. There is so much to be learned around Lingít science and history, and other Indignenous cultures throughout Southeast Alaska.
Without a mentor and teacher like Virginia, I would not have had this experience at the Sharing Our Knowledge Conference. She has shared so many opportunities with me, and I am so grateful for her support, and blessed to be her student. My first year in her Lingít class, it was just her and me. This gave us the opportunity to collaborate on multimedia projects. She had me help her make beginning Lingít language videos for every grade in the elementary school. We made up material daily. For example, I would introduce myself then sing a song, go over the alphabet, or say colors all in Lingít. Virginia documented everything we came up with and then we turned it into a program called The Application of Learning Lingít Language on the radio. We ended the series with 41 episodes that are aired a few times a week.
My second year in Virginia’s class I decided to start my own podcast titled Mia’s Gift, sharing things about Wrangell, my Lingít class, and traditional stories. These episodes have been being broadcasted on KTSK, our local radio station. You can give it a listen here: https://www.kstk.org/2022/06/02/mias-gift/ When I set out to make this podcast, I decided to only record and research things I was truly interested in. In doing so, I’ve been able to interview my classmates during Lingít class, share more about the Wrangell Institute, and share Lingít tales from Dennis Waller’s Otter Tales book.
This year, I’ve decided to add more episodes to my podcast. Attending the Sharing Our Knowledge Conference was a huge component in that decision. I came away so inspired by the conversations, seminars, and encouragement from those who attended, as well as the focus on sharing place-based knowledge of topics that related to the Lingít history of the Wrangell area. The conference was a great inspiration for one of the projects that my podcast will focus on this year, which is part of my Living Heritage Research and Communications internship with the Sitka Conservation Society. During this internship, I will partner with the US Forest Service Wrangell District archeology and recreation teams to research the historical and current Lingít usage of areas around Wrangell that are now managed by the Forest Service for recreation, such as the Chief Shakes Hot Springs. I plan to create an episode on the history and usage of each location, and I hope that, by sharing this knowledge, current and future users of these places can come to recognize and appreciate the significance and the cultural heritage of the areas that have been and continue to be cared for by the Shtax’héen Ḵwáan.
As I look back, I am really thankful that Virginia hinted for me to go to the Sharing Our Knowledge Conference that day in class. As my Lingít teacher, she has built my confidence levels in learning, teaching, and she has always encouraged me to do my own sharing. As I continue my journey of learning and sharing about my culture, I understand that that is what Sharing Our Knowledge is all about, and in so many ways I see how Virginia embodies those values of the conference in her everyday life. I hope to emulate Virginia’s passion for sharing knowledge and encourage more of my peers to participate in these learning opportunities by presenting the results of my research at the next Sharing our Knowledge Conference. To Virginia, Bob Sam, and so many others who made my experience at the conference possible, I would like to extend my biggest “aatlein gunalchéesh” — for continuing to preserve our cultures for future generations and students like me.
• About the Author: Yeil Dlaak’ yoo xat duwasa’akw. Yeil naax xat sitee. Raven a’ya’ xat. Wrangell kudzitee. My name is Raven’s Sister. I am raven moiety. I am a junior at Wrangell High School and a living heritage research and communications intern for the Sitka Conservation Society. My English name is Mia Wiederspohn. I have my own podcast called Mia’s Gift where I tell stories, speak Lingít, overview place-based history, and interview my Lingít language learning classmates. My Lingít teacher, Virgina Oliver, and I also have a radio show called “The Application of Learning Tlingit Language.: Both series are broadcasted on KSTK, our local radio station.
• The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. It envisions self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. SSP can be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly.