This Nov. 5, 2020, photo provided by the Sealaska Heritage Institute shows a Zoom memorial service for Tlingit elder David Katzeek, conducted by the Institute, showing highlights of Katzeek’s life as people honored him over the internet as the pandemic had made in-person ceremonies impossible. (Sealaska Heritage Institute)

This Nov. 5, 2020, photo provided by the Sealaska Heritage Institute shows a Zoom memorial service for Tlingit elder David Katzeek, conducted by the Institute, showing highlights of Katzeek’s life as people honored him over the internet as the pandemic had made in-person ceremonies impossible. (Sealaska Heritage Institute)

Technology allows thousands to say goodbye to Tlingit elder

‘They were all over the country, wherever our clan members are living’

By MARK THIESSEN

Associated Press

ANCHORAGE — When a Tlingit elder dies, leaders from the Alaska Native tribe’s two houses, the Raven and Eagle clans, typically come together along with family and well-wishers for a memorial ceremony featuring displays of traditional tribal regalia.

After elder, tribal leader and college professor David Katzeek died last month, the tribe scrambled to find a way to observe their sacred traditions while keeping everyone safe during the pandemic, with coronavirus cases surging in the state.

“We know that many of our people are grieving over this great loss, but we also recognized that we need to protect each other and make sure we stay healthy. We also wanted to honor Kingeisti in our traditional way,” Sealaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Worl said, using Katzeek’s Tlingit name.

Katzeek, 77, died unexpectedly Oct. 28, according to the Juneau-based institute, an Alaska Native nonprofit that promotes Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures. Worl said they understood the cause to be heart failure.

The first president of what has since become the institute, Katzeek is credited with helping revive Alaska Native culture in the state’s southeast, encouraging oral histories and efforts to preserve the Tlingit language.

To honor him safely, the institute turned to the same technologies that people across the world have employed to remain connected in the coronavirus age, using Zoom video conferencing to bring people together while broadcasting live on its YouTube channel.

The institute had already been transforming in-person programming such as theater lectures to virtual events due to the coronavirus.

They figured, “If we can do that for all of these other activities, why can’t we do that for our cultural activities?” Worl said.

During a memorial ceremony, leaders of the clans typically offer comforting words while also bringing out regalia such as Chilkat robes, clan hats and blankets, invoking the spirits of clan ancestors to assist the grieving process.

Held virtually, there had to be some adjustments such as not having people stand near others in support but instead taking turns speaking on the video call. The chatroom served for tribe members to give the traditional thanks to speakers and comfort others. The clan regalia was visible in the background of those who spoke instead of being displayed in front of a coffin or held in person as at a traditional memorial.

Perhaps the biggest change was capping how many could speak and limiting each person to five minutes. So while memorials can run as long as 10 hours, this one happened in just about four.

Holding the memorial online had at least one advantage, in that it allowed some 2,000 people to take part from New Mexico to California — “they were all over the country, wherever our clan members are living,” Worl said.

She said the memorial was an innovative and successful merging of traditional rites with modern technology and the public health and safety requirements demanded by the pandemic. The institute is now using the experience to write guides for others to do the same.

“One of the strengths of our people is our ability to transform our cultural needs to current circumstances … while at the same time maintaining our culture,” Worl said.

Provided by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, this photo from a Nov. 5, 2020, Zoom memorial service for Tlingit elder David Katzeek, in Juneau, Alaska, shows a 2018 recording of children performing a song written by Katzeek as people honored Katzeek over the internet as the pandemic had made in-person ceremonies impossible. (Sealaska Heritage Institute)

Provided by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, this photo from a Nov. 5, 2020, Zoom memorial service for Tlingit elder David Katzeek, in Juneau, Alaska, shows a 2018 recording of children performing a song written by Katzeek as people honored Katzeek over the internet as the pandemic had made in-person ceremonies impossible. (Sealaska Heritage Institute)

Provided by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, this photo shows a Nov. 5, 2020, Zoom memorial service for Tlingit elder David Katzeek, conducted by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, showing the hall in Juneau, Alaska, where his memorial service would have been performed if the pandemic hadn’t made that impossible. Cultural leaders scrambled when Katzeek died at age 77 in late October 2020, to find a way to still hold the traditional memorial during a pandemic. (Sealaska Heritage Institute)

Provided by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, this photo shows a Nov. 5, 2020, Zoom memorial service for Tlingit elder David Katzeek, conducted by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, showing the hall in Juneau, Alaska, where his memorial service would have been performed if the pandemic hadn’t made that impossible. Cultural leaders scrambled when Katzeek died at age 77 in late October 2020, to find a way to still hold the traditional memorial during a pandemic. (Sealaska Heritage Institute)

More in News

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Tuesday, Nov. 24

The most recent state and local numbers.

A sign seen near Twin Lakes on Sept. 17 encourages residents to wear cloth face coverings while in public. Health officials are asking Alaskans for help with contact tracing. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Health officials seek help with virus notification

Recent surge created a contact tracing backlog.

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Monday, Nov. 23

The most recent state and local numbers.

It has always been a police car. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020

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

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Saturday, Nov. 21

The most recent state and local numbers.

This July 2014 photo shows Margerie Glacier, one of many glaciers that make up Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. U.S. officials on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, released details on proposed land conservation purchases for the coming year amid bipartisan objection to restrictions on how the government’s money can be spent. (AP Photo / Kathy Matheson)
Land conservation plan stirs fight over Trump restrictions

It would buy up private property inside the boundaries of Glacier Bay National Park.

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Friday, Nov. 20

The most recent state and local numbers.

Has it always been a police car? (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020

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

Sherry Simpson and a BMW she loved to drive in New Mexico, where she moved after leaving Alaska. (Courtesy Photo / Scott Kiefer)
Alaska Science Forum: Remembering a gift of observation

Consider this, a closing tribute to a modest superstar.

Most Read