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How Sacred Objects Heal: A Tlingit's Journey, Part I

Following the death of his mother, the author fell into drugs and crime, and landed in prison. Could his Tlingit spirituality save him?
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Haa at.óowu haa ?usteeyíx? site.


Our at.óow is our life.

—Emma Marks (1913-2006), Tlingit elder

Discovering the Wound

I was in the room when my mom died. A massive intracranial hemorrhage had reduced her to a lifeless puppet on a respirator, her only movement coming from the puffs of air pumped into her lungs every second or two. The doctors said the bleeding caused so much brain damage she would never wake up. My dad accepted their recommendation to let her pass peacefully.

My brothers and I were allowed, one at a time, to go into her room in the ICU and say goodbye. As the youngest, I went in last and approached her bed completely numb. I wanted to touch her hand, but she was covered with a thin, white blanket. Maybe if I touch her face, I thought. But the tube taped into her mouth made me hesitate.

Something else bothered me even more. Why wasn't I distraught like my dad? I was her youngest, her baby. Why wasn't I crying? All I felt was nothing, numbness. Eventually, a nurse came in and unceremoniously turned off the respirator. She returned a few minutes later and shooed me out of the room.

Courtesy Barbara Searls and Freda Westman

The author's mother, on the right, in her button vest with an eagle she beaded herself. Photo taken at an ANS/ANB convention in Alaska.

I kept the mystery of my numbness secret. I never connected it to my cocaine abuse six months later, or the string of jobs I walked away from, or my divorce, or my criminal behavior, or abandoning my kids. The healing was decades away locked in a Tlingit headband.

Discovering the Medicine

After my mother died I trashed my life, turned to drugs and crime and landed in prison. While in prison I joined a Native spirituality group called the Tribal Sons and attended talking circles and a monthly Sweat lodge. I knew my mother's people had different traditions than this, but the Native inmates welcomed me like family and I felt safe with them. Deep down, however, I longed for a connection to my own tribe's traditions.

After I was released I reached out to other Tlingit I found on the Internet and read books on our culture. My experience with the Tribal Sons convinced me Native medicine was real. I knew the right Native medicine could heal things Western medicine couldn't, such as wounds to the identity.

I discovered that in traditional Tlingit culture, sacred objects such as special geographic sites, names, songs, crests and ceremonial regalia provide us with a link to the spirit world, an interface through which the blessings of our ancestors flow. These objects remind us of the sacred covenants made with beings in the spirit world who protect and bless us. They are called at.óow, owned or possessed things belonging to one's clan within the tribe. The rights to use images such as the eagle, wolf or raven were paid for with human lives, human sweat and human suffering. This payment, along with generations of faith and respect from clan members, ensures the continued flow of blessings. Most importantly, at.óow gives us strength and courage by telling us who we really are.

My friend Du Aani Kawdinook Xh'unei (Lance Twitchell), a Tlingit of the Lukaax.ádi clan and Assistant Professor of Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, says, "[The damage caused by] the separation of people from at.óow is immeasurable, as is the separation of people from land, people from family, and people from language. Because less than 1% of us speak our own language, these concepts become foreign. In Tlingit we do not have to define these terms, only figure out how we can continue to relate to them in a way that respects who we are, who we have been, and who we will be."

Lost Medicine Returned

In September the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau, Alaska, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Alaska Native Corporation, Sealaska, of which I am a shareholder, announced the return of a lost sacred object, a decorated panel from a bentwood box, nearly 200 years old, which may have held a Tlingit shaman's implements. The panel came up for sale in Paris at the Marie-Francois Robert auction house along with other sacred objects from the Apache and Hopi tribes. SHI wrote letters trying to prevent the sale but were unsuccessful.

Courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Detail of the panel from the bentwood box returned to the Tlingit people by the Annenberg Foundation.

Enter the Annenberg Foundation, a private philanthropic organization based in Los Angeles, who had two representatives attend the auction and purchase the items. The panel was then delivered to SHI in Juneau where they're holding it while determining to which clan it belongs.

When I read this I felt a surge of hope that my own wounds could heal. For years I thought my mother's culture was dead and gone. But the healing power of my friendship with the Tribal Sons and reading about at.óow convinced me the Native treatment for my inner pain actually existed and was not far away. 

Coming soon: Part II, "Medicine Locked in a Fortress" and more.