a few steps into the woods, everything changes.
James points out petroglyphs on a rock in Berners Bay north
of Juneau, Alaska, on Sunday, June 3, 2018. James and other
Tlingit leaders were showing others the generations-old carvings
as part of the new Tléix' Yaakw (One Canoe) conference.
(Alex McCarthy - The Juneau Empire)
Juneau, AK Just
a few steps into the woods, everything changes.
On the rocky beach at
Berners Bay, clumps of seaweed dried in the sun as people chatted
and the engine from the catamaran was still audible. But stepping
into the quiet, cool shade of the spruce trees was like stepping
back in time.
in the rocks that were made at least hundreds of years ago
are still visible. They're a bit faded and lined with moss and lichen,
but the shape of a face is distinguishable on one stone as the shape
of a swirl is visible on another.
The people who were passing
by the stones earlier this month were here as members of a new convention
entitled Tleix' Yaakw (One Canoe), which brings together Alaska
Native leaders with Native Hawaiian leaders to explore their common
ground and delving into solutions to preserving nature and indigenous
Those from Hawaii's Polynesian
Voyaging Society, including Lehua Kamalu, saw the generations-old
petroglyphs and, as she put it, broke out in "chicken skin," or
"You can almost feel
as if you were walking in the same way that those people who were
here first had experienced it," Kamalu said.
Kamalu said there are
similar etchings in places in Hawaii, but towns and buildings have
impeded on many sacred areas. She said seeing the way Alaska preserves
and honors its historic sites sets an example for them in terms
of keeping culture alive.
Nainoa Thompson, the
president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, took it a step further.
He spoke about the fact that climate change is affecting people
from the Arctic to the Equator, and that the way Alaskans care for
their natural resources can set an example not only for Hawaiians
but for people around the world.
"We're all reaching and
stretching in a very fearful way about what the future's going to
be like as we grow our population and deplete our natural resources,"
Thompson said. "Alaska's the school, it's the stronghold of doing
The excursion to Berners
Bay to see the petroglyphs was one aspect of the whole conference,
which includes speeches, trips to sacred Alaska Native sites and
brainstorming sessions. Thompson said he hopes this conference becomes
a "moment we'll remember" when the two groups took action
in preserving the environment, culture and language of their peoples
for the sake of future generations.
Midway through the time
when the passengers of the Allen Marine catamaran were exploring
the woods, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott arrived, driving a small motorboat.
He spoke with a few guests, finding time to take in the area's beauty
and even skip stones into the water.
More than two decades
ago, Mallott was a key figure in uniting Alaska Natives of Southeast
together with the Polynesian Voyaging Society. In 1989, Thompson
and the organization undertook an ambitious endeavor, looking to
reconstruct a double-hulled canoe in traditional native fashion.
They named the vessel Hawai'iloa, a voyager of legend who is credited
with the discovery of Hawaii.
They were struggling
to find logs in Hawaii that were large enough for the hulls, according
to the Hawai'iloa website, due to forestry and cattle grazing. Fortunately,
Thompson was able to connect with Mallott, who was then the CEO
of the Sealaska Corporation, through mutual friends. Mallott helped
coordinate the use of Sitka spruce logs for the hull of the vessel.
During the excursion,
Thompson called the collaboration between the two organizations
"a beautiful story." He reiterated the point that people elsewhere
can learn from the way Alaskans have taken care of their natural
The harmony between the
people and the wildlife in the area was a theme of the excursion.
As Tlingit elder David Katzeek was telling stories to the group
on the way out to Berners Bay, killer whales were spotted near the
boat. He stopped his storytelling and began to sing to the whales.
One of them leapt out of the water soon after Katzeek stopped singing.
"They're dancing for
us," Katzeek said. "I should probably sing again."
Another such moment happened
as people disembarked the catamaran onto the beach. Tlingit leader
Fran Houston was among the first to come ashore, and said she immediately
asked the ancestors of the area (as the beach used to be the site
of a village) for permission to be there.
"I got my answer," Houston
told the group, pointing toward a tall spruce to the north of the
beach. "There are two eagles at the top of that tree."
They were watching over
the group, Houston said. The eagles sat there for the next hour
or so, flying away just before the group got back onto the catamaran.
On the beach, Houston led a song to welcome the visitors to the
area a song entitled Cha Dat Sa, the meaning of which she
declined to share. The Hawaiian visitors also sang a song, Thompson
said, called Ahu Nua traditionally used to ask permission.
These instances, as well
as the maintained petroglyphs and efforts to revitalize the Lingit
language, have stuck with Thompson during his visits to Alaska since
the 1990s, he said.
"I wish that we can make
more and more people around the world see the stories of Alaska,
because this is an important school," Thompson said. "This is more
important of a school for the earth than Alaska's ever been."