Cruising along the Inland Passage of Alaska reveals few “tourist traps.” The landscape is simply too big to allow any encroachment by man to seem significant against the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and ocean. Just standing on the upper deck of our small cruise boat allows us to take in vistas of ice, snow, forest, and water which make the occasional human settlement seem irrelevant. Still, we need to stretch our legs daily, and there are stops which allow us to focus our eyes on things less than 100 yards away.
One morning we stop in Kake, a traditional Tlingit village. Our guide is a plump and charming Tlingit girl, who is learning her native language as a second language and teaching it to others She explains that the Tlingit society is matrilineal, and divided into two moieties, the Eagles and the Ravens. Each moiety may only marry into the other to avoid incest. A man mentors his sister’s sons, not his own, to make sure the boys understand the customs of the mother’s clan to whom they belong. I wonder how Tlingit women speak of their fathers-in-law – how deep does role-reversal go?
For Alaska’s centennial the wood carvers of Kare created the worlds largest totem pole, originally 168 feet high. Totem poles, however, are not designed as long-lived memorials; the top twelve feet with its watchward Raven fell victim to weather and wind and now lie in the grass next to the splintered and faded pole.
After a visit to a woodcarver’s studio where we have a chance to support the local economy, we crown our visit with a Tlingit dance performance in the local high school gym, which is brightly painted with their Thunderbird mascot in black and red. An octogenarian matriarch leads the ceremonies; the dancers range from babes in arms to very old elders.
The lead dancer is a black man adopted into the tribe on marriage with a Tlingit woman. He dances in a finely embroidered cape made for him by his mother-in-law as a memorial to his daughter, who was murdered while walking home from a dance the previous year by a boy from a rival clan. At the end of the dance the family of the murdered girl is presented with a ceremonial paddle marking her passage to the afterworld now that a year of mourning has passed.
At the conclusion of the ceremony we are all invited to join in the final dance, women moving more or less counterclockwise in one line, men moving in the opposite direction in a second line. The atmosphere was both solemn and festive, and somehow we were welcomed; as part of the dance, we belonged.