Juneau's Native Heritage
Ancient threads are woven into Juneau’s modern social fabric. According to some scholars, indigenous peoples have been living in Southeast Alaska for more than 10,000 years. Today, Alaska Natives comprise the region’s largest ethnic minority.
Long before Juneau was Juneau, it was known as Dzántik'i Héeni ("Base of the Flounder’s River"). The original Native settlement was located north of downtown at Auke Bay, where the land is flatter and the weather is better, thereby more conducive to hunting, gathering, fishing, and agriculture. Because of Juneau’s abundant food and natural resources, local Natives could devote more time and effort to music, dance, visual art, textiles, and storytelling. As such, this area’s Native culture provides unique insight into the tribal heritage of the entire Pacific Northwest.
Juneau and its environs are the traditional homeland of three distinct ethnicities: Tlingit (“clink-it”), Haida (“high-da”), and Tsimshian (“sim-shee-an”). Although languages differ between the groups, they share common core beliefs, ceremonies, legends, and art, all shaped by respect for the land and sea. Likewise, these cultures place great emphasis on kinship, oral history, and the value of haa shagóon — honoring the past while preparing for the future.
The Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian also share a complex social system consisting of clans, moieties, and phratries. In all three, identity is established through the mother’s clan. Tlingit and Haida clans are divided into two major moieties: Eagle and Raven. Tsimshian clans are divided into four major phratries: Eagle, Raven, Killerwhale (Blackfish), and Wolf. Balance between the opposing forces of Eagle and Raven is a fundamental Tlingit-Haida concept (Eagle and Raven oppose Killerwhale and Wolf in Tsimshian).
By incorporating traditional customs into contemporary lifestyles, modern-day Southeast Alaska Natives work to preserve the gift of their culture for future generations. From drumming groups to dance ensembles to storytellers (young and old) to wood and metal carvers, Juneau brims with Native art forms. Local artisans and craftspeople create elaborately engraved jewelry, intricately embroidered clothing, woven baskets, painted murals, and all manner of carvings in the “formline” or “totemic” style.
If you’re looking for totem poles, you’ll find one in front of the Governor’s Mansion, two outside the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, several inside the Mount Robert Tram Mountain House, and several more by the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall on Willoughby Street. Juneau’s most comprehensive collection of Native formline art, artifacts, and other cultural objects — including masks, bentwood boxes, canoes, paddles, and even clan houses panels — can be found at the Alaska State Museum (closed until 2016).
By far Juneau’s most important Native cultural event — and one of the largest in the state — is Celebration, a biennial festival organized by Sealaska Heritage Institute, cultural arm of the Sealaska Native Corporation. Now more than 30 years old, Celebration gathers people from across the region, showcasing Southeast Alaska Native art, culture, and customs while providing a unique opportunity to participate in traditional song and dance, arts and crafts, food, and language. Truly a whole-Juneau affair, Celebration features performances, workshops, exhibitions, a parade through downtown, and a flotilla of traditional wooden canoes landing at Sandy Beach — it’s a scene straight out of pre-history, well, aside from all the people snapping photos with their smartphones.
Sealaska’s beautiful new Walter Soboleff Center serves as a cultural think-tank, living history center, and research facility. The Soboleff Center features state-of-the art performance, exhibition, and research spaces focusing on the Native cultures of Southeast Alaska. The building, itself, features multiple works large and small by Tligit, Haida, and Tsimshian artists, and houses the Sealaska’s growing archival and ethnographic collections. The Soboleff Center honors the late Dr. Walter A. Soboleff, a Tlingit spiritual leader, Native civil rights crusader, and respected elder who “walked into the forest” in 2011, at age 102.
In addition to hiking, a nature center, a restaurant, and, of course, spectacular views the Mount Roberts Mountain House also features various exhibits, a Native art gallery and gift shop, and the award-winning film, “Seeing Daylight,” which provides a comprehensive introduction to Tlingit culture. Mount Roberts Tramway is run by Goldbelt, another Southeast Alaska Native corporation.
Native heritage appears all over Juneau. Look in any direction and you’ll see these vibrant traditions not only survive, but thrive, in Alaska’s capital city.