SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Discovering traditions and customs
By Marie L. Monyak


March 13, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - The Friday Night Insight Program sponsored by the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center offered a pleasant surprise for those in attendance this past Friday. The scheduled presentation had been cancelled and in its place was the opportunity to take a guided tour of the Discovery Center instead.

Participants had the pleasure of being led through the Center's Native Tradition Exhibit by Merle Nancy Hawkins, a direct descendant of Haida Elder, Vesta Morrison Johnson and seasonal employee of the Discovery Center.

jpg Tour guide Hawkins

Haida Native, Discovery Center tour guide and narrator, Merle Hawkins.
Hawkins is pointing out the display of items made from the spruce tree bark or roots.
Photograph by Marie L. Monyak

Hawkins began her presentation by saying how much she enjoys her position as a narrator/tour guide at the Discovery Center, talking with the tourists every summer and educating them about Native ways. "I've been here for nine seasons and I can't believe that they pay me just to talk about my traditions and customs," Hawkins exclaimed.

The group was led by Hawkins to the lobby of the Discovery Center to view the three totem poles which provide a wonderful example of the art style of the three Southeast Native Alaskan tribes; Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian.

Beginning with the Haida pole carved by James Hart of the Eagle clan, Hawkins pointed out the carving of a Grizzly Bear, Killer Whale and Eagle which represent the People of the Land, Sea and Sky respectively. "Villages were situated with the ocean in front, the forest behind them and the sky above to signify all three people," Hawkins continued, "Also the sensory organs, eye, nose and ears, are bold and prominent." The totem pole was dedicated to the old Haida masters who developed the art form to record history.

Next was the Tsimshian totem pole carved by David Boxley of the Eagle clan that had the semblance of a Raven, Wolf, Killer Whale and Eagle representing the four main clans of the coastal Tsimshian people. The pole had been carved on site at the Discovery Center several years back and was dedicated to all the Tsimshian people.

The last totem pole in the lobby was the Tlingit pole carved by Israel Shotridge of the Tongass Tribe, Brown Bear clan. As Hawkins explained, "The Raven and Eagle depicted are the two main moieties of the Tlingit people, with the sub clans portrayed by the Bear clan bentwood box at the bottom, the Frog above the Raven and the Killer Whale in the middle just above the Tlingit Chief."

Hawkins steered the group toward the wall where a framed button robe, which she had crafted, was displayed. She explained, "The design belongs to my clan and I had permission [to display it] from my Clan Chief Richard Carl, who is now deceased." The framed button robe wore the design of her clan; the Double Fin Killer Whale. Since Hawkins moiety is Raven, the Killer Whale's double fins were designed to appear in the likeness of a Raven's head. The robe was signed by Hawkins with her Haida name Saand Laany, which was given to her by her grandmother and means "Beautiful Dawn."

Leaving the totem poles behind, the group proceeded to the Alaska Rainforest display. Amazingly authentic, one felt the need to reach out and touch a tree or plant to see if it was real but of course they were not.

jpg discovery center

Hawkins in the lobby of the Discovery Center. The totem was carved by Israel Shotridge.
Photograph by Marie L. Monyak

The trees displayed were Western Hemlock and as Hawkins stated, "In the spring time, when the herring were spawning, Natives would take branches from the young trees and put them in an inter-tidal area and the herring schools would come in and spawn their white eggs all over the branches. You take them home and cook them in water and it's still a delicacy to this day."

Just beyond the trees was the muskeg area complete with devil's club and skunk cabbage. To this day the thorny devil's club, made into a tea, is used by Natives as a medicinal tonic
for various maladies.

Proceeding to the next exhibit, a re-creation of a Native fish camp, Hawkins explained the methods that were used to catch salmon and pointed out the tools in the display that were used to clean the fish and prepare them for hanging from the drying racks before being placed in the smokehouse.

The fish camp display included the many tools that were utilized not only for cooking but for carving out canoes and the making of bentwood boxes that were used in numerous ways for everything from cooking to food storage.

The Natives were skilled craftsmen in that almost all tools, utensils and weapons were made from some portion of the many trees in the forest. The adz is a traditional chopping tool that is used for carving totem poles, canoes, clan houses, and also for cutting planks from fallen timbers to make the shingles for the clan house roofs.

Hawkins pointed out a tree with a long, wide strip of bark hanging from it and explained, "The Natives would strip bark from live trees in the springtime when the sap is flowing. In this way the tree would continue to live. I've seen culturally modified trees in the forest that have had their bark harvested over a hundred years ago and the tree is still healthy and alive.

Moving into the next room of the exhibit, now deceased Tlingit Elder Esther Shea can be heard on a recording, explaining the Native way of life and how nature provided everything that was needed.

There were glassed exhibits that encased items which were made from the Spruce tree roots and bark such as baskets, hats and clothing. Another displayed clothing and regalia made from the skin, fur and hides of many animals.

Hawkins drew the group's attention to a beautiful Chilcat tunic, "This is made out of mountain goat fur and red cedar bark. The materials were gathered by the women and spun on their thighs. It would take up to a year to weave one but once material was introduced they began making the button robes."

Examples of the foods that were provided by nature were displayed in yet another exhibit. Seaweed, dried hooligan, herring eggs, salmon and berries, all the bounty from both land and sea were shown alongside traditional hand carved bowls, bentwood boxes and utensils used in the preparation, consumption and storage of the food gathered by the village.

The last display that Hawkins would direct everyone's attention to was a wall with ten framed oil painting of the Elders, some living and some deceased. Hawkins pointed out the portrait of Esther Shea (deceased) whom she said, "taught me a lot at the University and other classes."

Hawkins continued, "The portrait on the end is Ernie Smeltzer and you can see the colors of his Chilcat tunic." Pointing out several more paintings of Elders, Hawkins said, "This is Erma Lawrence, she's 93 years old and she has wonderful stories to tell and she's working every day on the preservation of the Haida language. This one is Phyllis Almquist, she's been my neighbor for 50 years and she's a treasure. I'm very fortunate to have known all these people.

Hawkins concluded the tour and thanked everyone for attending but remained behind to speak with the group and answer questions from those thirsty for even more Native history.

The next Friday Night Insight Program at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center will be held on March 17th at 7:00 P.M. Local mom and visionary, Dawn Rauwolf will be discussing the exciting idea of an educational museum designed specifically for children in her presentation, "A Children's Museum in Ketchikan?"

On the Web:

Southeast Alaska Discovery Center's Native arts and exhibits

Three totem pole artists mentioned in the article.

David Boxley

Israel Shotridge

James Hart



Marie L. Monyak is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
A freelance writer is an uncommitted independent writer
who produces and sells articles to a publisher such as SitNews.

Contact Marie at mlmx1[at]

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Ketchikan, Alaska