Lance Twitchell shares the significance of the sign outside the traditional council house with those gathered for the naming ceremony.
Skagway Traditional Council dedicates interpretive signs, crowd helps give Tlingit names to relatives
Story by Molly Dischner Photos by Jeff Brady
More than 60 people gathered to help the Skagway Traditional Council dedicate new interpretive signs that add perspective to the gold rush stories told around town.
The five signs, placed throughout Skagway and in Dyea, share Native wisdom, Tlingit names, and information about the Native experience during the gold rush.
Lance Twitchell, one of the events organizers, and a former Skagway Traditional Council President, said the signs share a side of the story often left out.
What had been forgotten in the stories is that this is Tlingit Land, said Twitchell.
National Park Service representative Vic Knox of Anchorage talked about where the Tlingits fit into those stories.
The story here is not just about the people that came from outside, he said. Its also about the land, and the people that were here for centuries.
Twitchell asked everyone to remember that there is a way to do things, and to conduct the ceremony in the fashion.
Theres a way we do things, he said. When things get important, we have to call upon our ancestors.
Speaker Ray Dennis of Haines also stressed that they were just imitating their ancestors.
The voice that you hear might be that of this young man, but it is [the ancestors] youre hearing, he said.
Dennis explained that another clan must balance the ceremony by witnessing and remembering it. The other clan present, the eagles, helped dress each member of the raven clan before Dennis and Twitchell began the naming ceremony, he said.
Tlingit elder Joe Hotch of Klukwon, an eagle, was asked to speak to provide some of that balance. He explained the need for balance, and said the ceremony had its balance.
"The opposite is like a state seal. We never do anything on our own, the opposite is like our seal," he said. Hotch is an eagle, while Twitchell and Dennis are ravens.
A seal is vital when words are used, Hotch said.
"To our Tlingit people, words are sacred," Hotch said. "You said something, and it was truth."
Paul Wilson, of Haines, tells a story about his uncle and aunt, and focusing on positive transition. Former Traditional Council President Amber Matthews and Beau Dennis symbollically name the sign which is at the start of the Chilkoot Trail. Tagish elder Ida Calmagene "kills money" on Morgan Dennis as she names her Kaashtul.líx
Twitchell explained that the guests, considered neighbors wherever they were from, were asked to use their voices and words to help name the signs.
Twitchell read the name of each sign in Tlingit, and asked everyone to repeat it after him. Each name was read four times, with money brushed across the printed words with each reading. Twitchell said that was called "killing money" on the signs.
The money used to name the sign was given to one of the opposites. Along with the name was the responsibility to remember the sign, Dennis said.
The first sign named was one of the two on Broadway: "Asaayíx Kudziteey Haa Léelk'u Hás Aaní."
The sign's name was translated into English for readers: "This Land of our Grandparents Has Tlingit Names." It is on the boardwalk between the Sweet Tooth and Dedman's.
The sign listed Tlingit names for rivers, mountains, and other places around the valley.
"Our language and our lands are like veins and arteries, they're twisted up together," said Twitchell, echoing the sentiments in the sign.
Later, Susan Boudreau read part of what the sign said.
"The language and the land are inseparable this is how it has been, and how it should be," she read. Boudreau is the superintendent of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
Twitchell, members of the Traditional Council, and guests helped lead the crowd through the symbolic dedication of three other signs, all located in the park. The last dedication was on-site at the Traditional Council.
One, at the start of the Chilkoot Trail, reminds visitors they are on Tlingit land, Twitchell said. It also recognizes that something terrible happened to remove the Tlingits from their land, he said. The sign is named "Ch'aagú Daax, Lingít Aaní Áyá." In English, that is "From long ago, this has been Tlingit Land."
Boudreau said that was her favorite sign. She read a quote from Carcross-Tagish First Nation leader Andy Carvill during the gold rush centennial: "It will be good to see people moving in our land who understand the difficult heritage we share together."
The sign at the Nelson Slough pedestrian bridge in Dyea is called "Ách Áyá Haa Toowú Wlitseen". "This is why we gained strength of mind," the sign says in English below the Tlingit name.
Another sign "Woosh Awoonéi Ch'a Ldakát At Yís" had information about Tlingit traditions, mostly medicine and spirituality, said Twitchell. In English, the name of that Slide Cemetery sign means "Respect for all things a Tlingit tradition."
The sign outside the Traditional Council house was the final sign named, given the name "Shgagwéi Kwáan Naa Kahídi" or "The Tribal House of the Skagway People". Twitchell said it was the most personal sign for him.
"This one here is probably the closest to my heart now is the time for those of you here to learn your Tlingit language, to learn your culture it is time to continue preparing for things and stand up there and imitate the ancestors," Twitchell said.
The blanket that covered the sign was given to Hotch after the sign was named. And Twitchell sang a song to commemorate the event and honor his grandmother.
Terry Williams and Lance Twitchell dance together as WIlliams earns his Tlingit name, Deix Téelx'i, or two-shoes. Skagway Traditional Council President Delia Commander cuts the cake after the naming ceremony. A member of the Dak'laweidi Dancers wearing an eagle headdress leaves during the group's exit song.
Andrea Parent was given a name to commemorate the day, Twitchell said, and told her that with her name, Héen Agunatáani Sháawatki, she was asked to remember the story of what happened that day. Her name was drawn from the name of the Traditional Council's house, which means white caps on the water house, he said.
"When we give names, sometimes they come right back," he said, giving an example of a name given at the house dedication but since returned: Woosh Jee Xoo.
"It is a difficult thing, but we stand with each other. This is how we love each other," he said.
Twitchell gave Amber Matthews, another former Traditional Council President, that name. It was her sister's, who "went around the corner" last year.
Morgan Dennis was given a name related to a story about strength coming from the land. She was called Kaashtul.líx.
The women danced for their names, helped by the other women being named, and others from their clan.
The last name given was not to a Native, but to someone Twitchell said he had called brother for many years. Twitchell thanked local businessman Terry Williams for his help in filling the Traditional Council house with art.
Williams' name came from an English name Twitchell said he knew
Williams had been called by, Terry two-shoes. His Tlingit name was Deix Téelx'i, or two-shoes. Boudreau was given the money killed on Williams.
Dancer Marilyn Jensen, from the Yukon, said it was good to see the names given out.
"Your name has to go on it's alive," she said. "To see the names go back into place was very special."
Twitchell and those present said the ceremony was more than just a time to give names. It was also a gathering of family and friends.
"There's a border between the US and Canada that separates the land of my grandparents," he said. "Since the completion of this building, we've wanted to have functions and work together with the ones on the other side."
They were also there because it was a ceremony for them, too.
"That trail connected us to our relatives in the interior, that's why we asked them to stand with us when we do this," Twitchell said.
The friends and relatives from across the border not only witnessed the ceremony, they danced for those gathered. The dance group, known as First Nations Performances or Dak'laweidi dancers, helped Williams dance for his new name. They also performed what Jensen called "inland" dances, a fire dance and a grouse dance, as well as battle songs (during their entrance) and an exit song.
For many, the dancing, learning, celebration, and even gathering of families, was symbolic of something more.
Williams said the ceremony would change and create relationships.
When people look back, they will see today as when Skagway started to heal, Twitchell said.
"There's something very sacred about people who are oppressed, when they stand up to speak," said Twitchell.
"We've been here only a few days in this country approximately 10,000 years it's just a small portion of time," Dennis said. "Today in this house we share a small portion of history."
Mayor Tom Cochran said that ceremony marked a new beginning and that he would work with the tribal council to do what he could for the betterment of the community.
Cochran spoke without notes. Twitchell said that the free-flowing speech represented the Tlingit value of calling upon ancestors.
"Words straight from the spirit that's what we mean when we say imitate our ancestors," Twitchell explained.
The Park Service, and tribal council were not the only parties involved in making the signs happen. The Bureau of Indian Affairs also played a role, Twitchell said.
Kristen Ke'it explained that the BIA was the canoe that carried the signs through. It took people pushing to make it happen, the BIA just facilitated their actions, she said.
Everyone involved said this was the start of working together, and a better relationship.
"I commit to push forward as strong as I can," Twitchell said.