We survived another Celebration and many of us only have sore thighs and a new Facebook profile pic to show for it. For me the most significant part was the landing of the canoes at Aak’w Bay, with the Aak’w Kwáan clan leaders there to receive them in their at.oowu. The Aak’w Kwáan clan leaders were very regal and real, and the strong young men landing were full of the strength and life that make a tribe truly a tribe. As much as I love the dancing of Celebration, it was the energy and fierceness of the landing that spoke to me through the ages and mist of time.
Since then I’ve spoken to a few of my fellow tribesmen about the journey and am genuinely jealous and in awe of their experience. I grew up as Tlingit as I could be, with parents who worked for the tribal government and a public education and all the expectations and trappings of modern life. Sure, I can dance the dances, sing some of the songs, and bring out my regalia when I need to. But I realize something was always missing. I think there were a lot of us growing up who were marginalized and middled out. I can’t speak for the Tlingit who grew up in the villages, but those of us who grew up in Juneau (jokingly and ironically referred to as “the center of the Tlingit universe,” by some) there was always a little bit of confusion as to what exactly our tribe is, how we fit in that tribe, and what any of it had to do with graduating from high school, getting a job and trying to fit in.
There was a rather sad point in my life that I decided that my tribe had nothing to offer to me (other than dental care. Fillings are expensive! The high fructose corn syrup that causes them is not!) Corey Mann, in the documentary Smokin’ Fish put it best when he said, “I felt like I was being punished for something I didn’t do.” It took the death of my maternal grandfather, a Taos Pueblo Indian, to bring me around. I came up “in” the Native American Church. I’m a little hesitant to say it, because for one, I really grew up in Tlingit Aani, where the NAC has virtually no presence outside of my family’s home and because I can probably count the number of meetings I’ve been to on both hands. Still, I remember my grandfather always telling me, “grandson, this way is here for you if you want it. I do this for you.” I never thought much of it while he was alive, but after he died I felt like my link to that world was severed. To me, the way was only there so long as he was sitting up all night in the tipi and I would just occasionally drop in whenever I happened to be in New Mexico. I can still imagine him, pointing to the fire in the middle of the tipi with both open hands while he said it, in that way that only a real Indian can a few moments before dawn after a night of singing and taking medicine. I lamented over this at the meeting held for his death to comfort his family (me.) For me this meant soothing all my Native American insecurities. I was red enough, but did I have what it takes to be a real Indian? My uncle reassured me: nephew, we are still here, and this way is still here for you whenever you need it.
Tlingit Aani…… in particular, the Mendenhall Valley of Juneau Alaska. Nowhere else will you find such a weird dichotomy of suburban American life trying to pretend like it’s not surrounded by hundreds of miles of wilderness (Okay, so maybe Anchorage, but I’m convinced I live in the real Alaska and everywhere else is northwest Alaska.) I think I grew up with some guys who never stepped foot on a boat, which would have been unheard of in pre contact times in this region. I shot a rifle for the first time at 20, and missed the deer I was aiming at. Luckily it stuck around for the second shot. In other words, I am bad at being an Indian, but the Deer Nation takes pity on me and is very patient.
There have been a handful of times in which I have felt like a real Indian. Pretty much all of them have occurred within a few miles of that 1500 year old city built by “savages” in northern New Mexico. I know there are people there who feel it, the good and the bad, most days of the week, but for me, it’s only been a few times. It’s something low, in the pit of your stomach, and high somewhere above you at the same time. Tribalism. Connected. I’ve walked with my ancestors (a few times, at least.) When those canoes came into Aak’w Bay I saw that experience on the faces of the canoers. Later, some of those very same people told me of their experience, and even though I hadn’t been on that journey, I knew what they were talking about. Middle class, suburban raised, lost Indians found their tribe on that journey. Their ancestors were with them. They were singing to them on that trip. I’ve heard them, too. In the mountains above Taos Pueblo, deep in the rain forests of Tlingit Aani, they are there, singing to us. Singing through the young men standing atop their canoes as their brothers hoist them on their shoulders at the shores of that ancient village in Aak’w Kwáan. I saw the creases and pits of a hard life dissolve on some of those faces. I saw honor. I saw tribalism revived, amid iPhones snapping pictures, and even in the midst of JPD officers, there to “keep the peace” of a people united in peace and Celebration in the land of their ancestors. I saw life. I no longer doubt who I am. This way is still here for all of us. It will carry us into the future. Our ancestors tell us that it is here for us when we need it. I keep it alive for my children, and their children. Now we must find a way to live it every day. Gunalchéesh!