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

Following the death of his mother, the author fell into crime, and landed in prison. Could his Tlingit spirituality save him? Part II of the story.
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Editor's note: This is the second part of a personal narrative that began with Frank Hopper's "How Sacred Objects Heal: A Tlingit's Journey, Part I".

Medicine Locked in a Fortress

I wondered how medicine can help people when it's treated like a museum relic. My own growing sense of connection to my mother's tribe told me at.óow is alive. Not a relic, not a keepsake. Alive. SHI keeps our culture alive artificially, the way my mother was kept alive on machines. But just as I couldn't speak with my mom in the ICU, couldn't hug her or hear her voice, I also couldn't receive the healing medicine objects such as that old, wood panel had to offer.

As with so many other aspects of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian culture, Sealaska Heritage Institute institutionalizes sacred art, commodifying it into displays of corporate power. I began feeling as if I needed their approval to learn about my heritage. As if I needed to read their books and attend their functions if I wanted to be a true Tlingit. This flew in the face of my experience with the Tribal Sons, where hearts listened and no one had exclusive rights to the truth. My resentment toward the sterile SHI kept me locked outside their fortress, away from the medicine and healing. Then I remembered my mom's headband.

The author's mother in her button blanket and headband (this is the uncropped version of the image at the top of this story; courtesy Barbara Searls and Freda Westman).

Making my own Medicine: Unofficial At.óow

My mom was a founding member of the Seattle Camp of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, the female counterpart to the Alaska Native Brotherhood. She fought for Native civil rights in Seattle when I was a kid, just as her father, my grandfather, had done in Sitka in the 1920s. Every year she returned to Alaska to attend the annual ANS/ANB convention and at every convention she danced.

The conventions always ended with a "Grand Ball" in which members of each camp danced Tlingit, Haida or Tsimshian dances and sang songs while wearing regalia from their respective clans. My mom made her own regalia, a button blanket with a killer whale on the back, the crest of her mother's clan, a felt vest and a felt headband with the beaded image of an eagle on the front.

Courtesy Barbara Searls and Freda Westman

The author's mother in her Alaska Native Sisterhood koogéinaa sash) and hat. Photo taken in Alaska, 1971.

I received this headband after she died, but didn't understand its significance. I wound up giving it away as a gift to a Tibetan lama. I later lost touch with this lama and have no desire to reconnect with him. So to me the headband is lost, just as the shaman's old bentwood box was lost nearly 200 years ago.

But at.óow is alive. And even though my mom's headband was never officially made into one of our clan's at.óow, it functions that way for me. It represents my mother's desire to keep our culture alive and it represents her love for her father, who was there in 1929 at the convention in Haines when the Alaska Native Brotherhood decided to sue the U.S. Government for taking our land. It is my physical link to our tribe's noble history. Even though I can't hold it in my hand, it still exists.

Photo from the archives of the Tlingit and Haida Central Council and appearing in the book, “Sold American: The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land, 1867-1959” by Donald Craig Mitchell.

The author pointing to his grandfather, George Ward, in a picture taken at the 1929 Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand Camp in Haines, Alaska. The brothers voted at this convention to sue the U.S. Government for taking our land, which eventually resulted in the payment of nearly one-billion dollars to Alaska Natives in 1971 as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA.

How At.óow Heals

Now I imagine standing beside my mother's deathbed, holding her eagle headband in my hands, but instead of feeling numb I feel the ocean of rage my numbness once held back. Why did you take Juneau away from me? I was so young, nearly three years old. I loved Juneau! You took it away! We went into the big machine up into the clouds and when we came back Juneau was gone! I didn't understand what happened! I was just a little kid! I hate you! I'll never forgive you for bringing me to Seattle!

Now the tears come the way they should have back in 1984. The at.óow has burst the dam of repression that held back my rage. Out it flows and in its wake is peace and clarity. The headband shows me an old Tlingit woman who fought for her children and her children's children, who honored her father's legacy. Not the hidden monster formed in my baby mind so long ago, but a loving mother who only wanted her children to get ahead in the modern, civilized world and who had no idea of the wound she inflicted on her youngest child.

In my mind I hold that headband. I feel the soft felt, the smooth beads. I imagine it on my head and absorb its healing power. It clears my mind and allows me to see my mother as a whole person for the first time in my life. At.óow is alive. And wherever it is, my personal at.óow heals me.

Yee gu.aa yáx? x?wán – Have strength and courage.

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Further Reading on Tlingit At.óow and the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood:

Being and Place Among the Tlingit, by Thomas F. Thornton, University of Washington Press, 2008

A Dangerous Idea: The Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Struggle for Indigenous Rights, by Peter Metcalfe, University of Alaska Press, 2014 (release date: November 15)

Haa Kusteeyí, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories, edited by Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer, University of Washington Press, 1994

Haa Tuwunáagu Yis, for Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory, edited by Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer, University of Washington Press, 1990

Sold American: The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land, 1867-1959, by Donald Craig Mitchell, Dartmouth College/University Press of New England, 1997

Symbolic Immortality: The Tlingit Potlach of the Nineteenth Century, by Sergei Kan, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989