Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit
The Inside Passage is also known as the state’s Southeastern region, which is essentially a narrow corridor spanning 500 miles along Canada’s border and stretching south of Ketchikan. Like the Southwest, there are more than 900 islands, each one with virtually untouched natural beauty and wildlife.
Of the five Alaska Regions, the Inside Passage is the most popular tourist destination, largely due to the booming cruise industry and accessible Native villages.
The most popular Alaskan cruise is through Glacier Bay, a 3.3 million acre natural wonder that features awe-inspiring mountain ranges, rainforests, deep sheltered fjords, and, or course, glaciers. Glacier Bay is home to 11 named glaciers, including the famous Marjerie, Grand Pacific and Johns Hopkins.
The spiritual homeland of the Huna Tlingit, Glacier Bay is one of the largest internationally protected biosphere reserves in the world, and is recognized by the United Nations as part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site. There is so much wildlife, including whales, and natural monuments that all cruise ships employ park rangers to identify and explain them all as tourists coast slowly through the icy waters.
The Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian and aforementioned Tlingit people all live throughout Alaska’s Southeastern panhandle, as they have for an estimated 10,000 years (you read that right). The Tsimshian people live primarily in Metlakatla, located on the Annette Islands, Alaska’s only Native reservation. From Ketchikan, a visitor can only reach Metlakatla via boat or chartered plane. The Metlakatla Reservation voted to opt out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of the 1970s in order to retain their rights to their land and waters.
Tlingit villages are found throughout the region, where residents happily welcome visitors with traditional dance performances and storytelling. No matter where you travel in Southeast Alaska, you are sure to find Native people with centuries-long traditions of not just hunting, canoeing and fishing, but also crafts, artisans and woodworking as well. Intricate baskets for cooking, ceremonial robes, pottery and other crafts and works of art can be found in just about every village. However, no work of Native Alaskan art may be as well known as the totem pole.
It is in the Southeast region that a visitor can learn all about the totem pole, and see some of the most beautiful and intricate totem poles in the world. Totem Bight State Historical Park, located a few miles north of Ketchikan, is one of the most famous.
Totem Bight State Historical Park is an 11-acre park within a dense, lush rainforest that is packed with restored and re-carved totems. A former fishing camp, iIt was abandoned by natives who relocated to other communities and left behind the iconic totem poles. The site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hiking within Totem Bight State Historical Park is possibly the best way to witness Native history up close. Ancient landmarks and statues are found throughout the park, some hundreds of years old. Tourists can walk right up to any of the 15 totem poles on the site, and read information plaques that explain each totem and the history behind it. Every landmark found at the park represents the livelihood, traditions and culture of the Natives at that particular moment in history. The park also features a recreated clan house from the early 19th century.
Just south of the park in Ketchikan, you will also find the Totem Heritage Center, where a visitor can learn about traditional and modern carving techniques, as well as the stories behind the totems.
Perhaps one of the most interactive Alaskan Native cultural experiences can be found in Sitka. Established in 1972, Sitka National Historic Park is the oldest park in Alaska, and the smallest park, but it is also one of its most popular. Every year, more than 100,000 people make the long trek to Sitka, with many coming from thousands of miles away for the experience.
The park has been known officially by several different names, including Sitka Park, Government Park, Indian River Park, Sitka National Monument, and now Sitka National Historical Park. It is just as often referred to by its unofficial names, Lovers’ Lane or Totem Park. However the purpose of the park throughout the years has always been the same: to preserve and protect the Tlingit and Russian history that has been such an important part of the Native Alaskan story.
Tlingits lived in Sitka for thousands of years before Russian traders began arriving in the 19th century in search of natural resources and goods. They found, among other things, the sea otter which was valuable in the Chinese market, which led to the development of the Russian fur trade. Tlingits and Russians fought often for years, and then uneasily coexisted under a truce. When the Russians finally left after six decades, both peoples had been changed forever.
Today, visitors travel from the world over to experience tribal drumming and hear traditional stories shared by the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Dancers at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House. The dancers perform native storytelling such as the raven dance wearing regalia decorated with shells and clan crests. The audience is invited to participate, who always do – dancing and singing sacred songs and dances as if they were part of the tribe themselves. The immersive and elaborate cultural experience is said to be a true spiritual awakening by those visitors who have participated.
Of course, a tourist can also hike the Totem Trail within the Sitka National Historic Park to see 20 incredible totem poles. 13 of these poles were showcased at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair to attract interest in the region, and then relocated back to Sitka. There were actually originally 15 totem poles sent to St. Louis from Sitka, but that’s another story.