Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Different Kind of Family

Read original ratified Indian treaties.

This really doesn't have anything to do with genealogy, but this morning my dad instant messaged me about an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he knew I'd be interested in.

A new totem pole was dedicated at The Center for Wooden Boats...a 24-foot pole that was carved by five young carvers (including at least one girl) from my hometown of Klawock, Alaska, to return the favor of a gift to a man who had created a canoe to honor the community where his wife once lived. These teens were trained by none other than my "Indian brother," Jon Rowan, a master carver and teacher at my childhood community. A celebration involving other Tlinget communities, as well as Haida, Tshimshian (both also from Alaska) and Duwamish (Washington state) tribes, took place yesterday as the pole was raised into position. Each figure on the pole tells part of a story, and I'm sorry to say there aren't better photos of the pole, nor was their anything really written about the story behind it. According to what I can tell, the top figure is a wolf, the next-to-the bottom figure is a killer whale, and the middle figure is holding a canoe.

The article is located here, and there is a photo gallery link you can click on (photo 9 includes a shot of Jon). The Heenya Kwan dancers are the troupe from Klawock. When I was in elementary school, I was a part of this group and had a beautiful black-and-red button dress and blanket made by Jon's grandmother. In ancient times, the buttons were made of abalone shells, but now they are purchased plastic pearly-colored buttons. I also had a headband that I had beaded myself with blue, red, black and white seed beads. (I'll try to find a photo later and add it to this post). Looking at these photos, I can hear the drum beating and I know which native Tlinget songs are being sung. The last sentence of the article mentions one of my favorite treats: smoked salmon. Yum! If I had known this celebration was taking place, I would have made an effort to take the 6-hour drive over to Seattle to be present!

My family was "adopted" into the Tlinget community, with my father being a Raven and my mother and siblings and I being Eagles. Jon, his mother and his siblings were also Eagles, so we were considered siblings, too. It's a complicated sort of family structure, created--no doubt--to prevent incest by the ancient ancestors of the Southeast Alaskan natives. In the old days, the tribe was divided into two clans, the Raven (who has supernatural powers) and Eagle (his friend). There are also sub-clans. For instance, the Wolf is a sub-clan of the Raven, and the Killer Whale is a sub-clan of the Eagle (my blanket had killer whales on the back of it). You could not marry another person of the same clan; it was considered incest, no matter how far apart you may have been related. In this matriarchal society, the children of a couple were considered to be members of the mother's clan, and her brothers and male cousins would take on the father's role and help to raise her children. Her husband, meanwhile, would instruct and care for his sisters' and female cousins' children.

Chiefdom was passed on to the nephew on the sister's side, rather than from father to son. And the tribe had its own form of Social Security: old widowed people were married off to young men and women, who were young and strong enough to care for their elderly spouses. When their spouses died, they could pick someone of their own choice (provided their spouse wasn't of the same clan), knowing that when they were old and alone, a strong, healthy teen would be assigned to care for them in their elder years. Of course this system was obsolete by the time we arrived in Klawock in February 1971.

One of the things I think my father enjoyed the most about being a minister to this community was his visitation duties: checking on the sick and elderly, he loved to sit for hours at a time (which was considered proper and respectful) and listen to the old people--who still could speak the native language--tell the old legends in halting English and describe how life in the village used to be. One elder told my father of the three wives he had had during his lifetime (I just checked the Social Security Death Index, and he was born in 1900). The first wife was an elder, and he cared for her when he was young. The second wife was a woman he fell in love with from his own clan. He married her, but the elders came and took her away from him. He always referred to her as the "wife I loved." After this, he found a woman from the other clan. I've always thought this was a tragically romantic story!

See the actual check the U.S. gave to Russia for payment of Alaska, in American Milestone Documents (free)!


Janice said...


What an intriguing story. I especially enjoyed learning about how the elderly were taken care of.


Miriam Robbins said...

I'm glad you liked it, Janice.