Finding Your Culture through Discovering Another’s

Cultural Lessons from Visiting First Nations People in Alaska

Finding Your Culture through Discovering Another’s

I am a Canadian-born Filipino. I am the only one of my immediate family to be born outside of the Philippines. I grew up immersed in Canadian culture: hockey, vast open spaces and, later in life, beer. I don't speak Tagalog, I've only been "back" once when I was nine (and didn't want to be there), and I've had very little contact with my grandparents, on either side. What I'm saying is, I have a tenuous connection to Filipino culture.

I don't blame my parents for "Westernizing" me. I am neither sad nor happy about this fact. It just is.

As tied as I am to Canadian culture and as disconnected as I am from my Filipino heritage, I was touched by how closely the Tlingit people — whom I was exposed to during a brief visit in Wrangell, Alaska — stay connected to their culture and traditions.

As soon as my group arrived at Chief Shakes Lodge a young girl, around five years old, greeted us with a drum and a song.

Young Tlingit girl's song

This is where it starts, I thought. This is their future. At her age I was watching Saturday morning cartoons. I wasn't learning about my heritage, about the three centuries of Spanish colonization that my ancestors had to endure.

How this piece of history fits into my own story, I have no idea.

To enter Chief Shakes Lodge you have to duck through the doorway. It makes it feel like you're entering something sacred. Especially since, when you stand on the other side of the portal, you encounter a cavernous space.

I visually swept the area, taking in the big carved beams, or “house posts," that framed the inside of the door. These nonstructural posts depicted animals and humans, clan crests and clan history. Every piece of wood, we learned, was hand carved with an adze by four women, one of which was in attendance. She explained how they carve their own adze from a singletree limb, a process that takes two days to customize the tool to their own hands and arms.

Benches lined the walls of the lodge, and that's where we sat and waited while a group began performing the next song.

Tlingit Welcome Song

A stout woman in a wide-brimmed woven hat led the group of five women and two men, all dressed in their clan's colors and symbols. She explained the meaning of the songs they performed. The potlatch was discussed in detail. It’s a celebration of any number of things — the raising of a totem pole, the dedication of a lodge — full of wonderful food and community.

The potlatch reminded me of visiting family, both in the Philippines and in Canada, where on entering the house I was immediately confronted with a table loaded with food and adults telling me to "eat, eat!" As a kid I never appreciated the connection between food and community. Food brings people together where stories can be told, histories and traditions passed down from generation to generation. Culture survives in the breaking of bread and toasting of glasses. But I was oblivious to all of that; I just wanted to watch TV.

After each song the Tlingit would turn around and face away from us. We were informed that this was no sign of disrespect; they were showing us "who they are" by presenting their family crests and emblems on the backs of their capes. I thought of my family — my parents and three older brothers, all now with their own families — who live in the same province but have only reunited twice in the past six years. There was an ever-growing chasm between my aunts and uncles and cousins and me. If my family had a crest, what might it be?

After fielding some questions from my group, the Tlingit said farewell to us with an exit song.

Tlingit Exit Song

As they disappeared behind the curtain at the back of the lodge, we lingered, admiring the handiwork of people so dedicated to their culture that they spent days upon days of hard work, meticulously carving planks of lumber that could have been efficiently and effortlessly churned out by a sawmill.

But that's really the whole point of it; perpetuating culture and tradition takes effort. There are no shortcuts.

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Carlo Alcos

Carlo is a Managing Editor at Matador and co-founder of Confronting Love. He lives in Nelson, British Columbia.
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