By Frank Hopper
One of the first things said in the documentary Musicwood is that for acoustical guitars the vibration of music comes from the wood. This hit me like a missile as I sat with about twenty other people viewing the first Seattle screening of the film at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center on August 12th. The vibration is in the wood.
From the opening moments the film featured stunning shots of the Tongass Rainforest in Southeast Alaska where Sitka Spruce trees hundreds of feet tall grow like moss on hillsides that come right down to the water. Some of these trees have been growing for two or three hundred years, absorbing vibrations from the environment. Their wood can make a guitar sing in rich, elegant tones when used to make the front soundboard of the instrument. All well-made guitars use Sitka Spruce for this vital component.
Musicwood starts with this simple relationship between wood and music and then slowly leads us into a labyrinthine story of corporate greed, environmentalist politics, and Native American rights. After showing us the beauty of the Tongass, director Maxine Trump reveals the destructive logging practices of Sealaska, an Alaska Native Corporation based in Juneau, which has clear-cut over one-hundred-thousand acres of this unique ecosystem, the largest and one of the last remaining temperate rainforests on the planet.
The images of barren land covered only with tree stumps and abandoned debris form a harsh contrast to the earlier shots of the forest. The clear-cut areas reminded me of pictures of battlefields strewn with corpses left to rot in the sun. Not only were the trees gone, but the wildlife too, the birds, bears, deer, and countless other living things that depend on the trees, all turned into environmental refugees. As a Tlingit Indian myself, born in Juneau and living in Seattle, my eyes filled with tears at the sight, as if I had returned home and discovered my family slaughtered.
A Greenpeace study of the logging practices in the Tongass revealed that although most of the wood was being exported to Asia, a small percentage was regularly being shipped to guitar manufacturers here in the U.S. So in 2006 they approached the heads of Gibson, Fender, Martin, and Taylor guitars with the idea of forming a coalition of suppliers and manufacturers who agreed to work toward creating more environmentally friendly and sustainable production policies.
In 2008 the heads of three of these guitar companies, Dave Berryman of Gibson Guitars, Chris Martin of Martin Guitars, and Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars, traveled to Southeast Alaska to meet with executives of Sealaska, the biggest logging company in the Tongass. Musicwood is the story of this journey.
Sealaska was formed as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. I still remember when ANCSA was passed and Sealaska was formed. As an Alaska Native whose mother was a full-blooded Tlingit Indian, I was given one-hundred shares in Sealaska and entitled to dividends that came like clockwork every year. Suddenly I was a shareholder, a Native American capitalist, and like all shareholders I cared only about one thing, dividends. I never asked where the money came from. I never read the shareholder reports sent to us. I only cared about how much we were going to get.
Little did I know it was blood money. I know trees are not humans that bleed red blood. But seeing the shots of clear-cut forest that go on for miles in the Tongass, I couldn’t help but think about what the film first said, that the vibration is in the wood. Life is a form of vibration. And just as the vibration of guitar strings is made into music by the wood, the vibrations of generations of my ancestors must also echo like music in the Sitka Spruce of the Tongass.
The Musicwood Coalition of Berryman, Gibson, and Martin went deep into the rainforest, traveling by bush plane, boat, and finally by foot to reach the remote locations were three-hundred foot tall Sitka Spruce giants still stood, some taller than the Statue of Liberty. Then they met with Sealaska executives Rosita Worl and the late Clarence Jackson.
They explained they were working toward using only wood from companies certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which meant smaller clear-cuts and also a more selective logging practice that used helicopters to extract specific trees instead of just blindly cutting down everything. They hoped Sealaska would agree to FSC certification, which would force them to use much more expensive logging methods.
Sealaska told them they’d look into it. They would do a study. In the film they are shown taking coalition members on a helicopter tour of logging sites. At one point Rosita Worl and Clarence Jackson perform a first tree ceremony in which Clarence sings in Tlingit and plays a drum. A logging employee then chainsaws down a tree on a Tlingit blanket that has been sprinkled with eagle down. The tree bounces over the blanket as if refusing to participate. They then drape the blanket around one of the coalition members and look around for cameras to capture the photo-op.
Meanwhile, in the village of Hydaburg, a Native lady shows us jars of home-canned salmon in her modest house. She explains she’s received little benefit from her shares in Sealaska, just a few hundred dollars a year in dividends. She says Sealaska is not about economic development. “It’s about resource extraction,” is what I recall her saying.
My own mother and my Aunt Judy were raised in Sitka. Their mother died when they were just toddlers and they were sent to live in Hoonah with their grandmother. Their younger brother and an older sister died of pneumonia during that time. Their father later married a good Tlingit woman who sent for the kids and raised them as her own, insisting they speak only Tlingit at home.
They lived in poverty, surviving from my grandfather’s subsistence fishing and on the sale of moccasins that my step-grandmother made and sold to tourists from the cruise ships. My Aunt Judy later had two little boys of her own who would die in a fire in Juneau in the early fifties. My middle name, Phillip, was the oldest boy’s first name.
Into this bleak life came ANCSA and the promise of economic advancement. Congress wanted to turn us all into capitalists. Instead of giving land back to the tribe, they made us form corporations and gave the land and money to these companies with each tribal member becoming a shareholder. It sounds so modern. No messy reservations for us. Nice, clean shareholder certificates and the promise of fat dividends kept most of us in line.
My Aunt Judy died in 2008 at age 84 without ever receiving the wealth that was promised. In the years since then the members of the board of directors of Sealaska have been paid over forty million dollars according to figures provided by the Sealaska Shareholders Underground, which also provided financial data to the filmmakers.Some Native executives have sat on the board for decades because there are no term limits and most shareholders “vote discretionary,” which means they let the board of directors vote for them at the annual meeting.
There is a term Tlingit use when someone dies. They say the person has “walked into the forest.” In Tlingit cosmology the forest is where we enter the spirit world. It is the interface with the land of our ancestors and the home of our tribal archetypes. For a year before she died, my aunt told me of dreams she had of moving through the forest. She said she would see Tlingit people there dressed in traditional regalia who looked at her.
At the time I had no idea what this meant. I’m a city Indian who doesn’t speak Tlingit or know much about the culture and traditions. Walking into the forest was a term I’ve only recently learned about. But my aunt surely knew and for a year before she died she quietly prepared for her walk into the forest, where her ancestors were waiting to welcome her.
The vibrations of my aunt’s life, her struggles and hardships, must have also returned to the forest when she passed away. There I’m sure they joined the vibrations of the thousands of our tribe who went before her. These vibrations have been accumulating in those wise, old Sitka Spruce trees for nearly ten-thousand years. The music that the wood brings to guitars is in some way the same as the music of my silent ancestors.
And while the Sealaska board of directors play their corporate games, pushing new legislation through Congress that would give them even more land to clear-cut, and while the original Musicwood Coalition has been disbanded with one of its members, Gibson Guitars, being investigated for importing illegal ebony wood from Madagascar, and while Greenpeace has moved onto other publicity campaigns, the old trees that contain the vibrations of generations of Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida people grow fewer and fewer.
Musicwood documents this tangle of concerns in an elegant, graceful dance of image and music. Without taking sides, the director fairly examines the issue, allowing the viewer to make up their own mind. It is a parable of how the greed of modern society moves like an unstoppable glacier destroying everything before it, no matter how much people try to prevent it.
One day, each of us will take our walk into the forest. Unless we heed the warnings given by a film like Musicwood, there soon won’t be any trees left to receive our music.
Musicwood will be opening at the Goldtown Nickelodeon Theater in Juneau, AK on August 23rd.