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Rich Native Cultures Celebrated on POW Island

Abby Twyman
August 1, 2019
Today is: August 21st, 2019

Prince of Wales Island sits in the Alaska Panhandle in the southeastern region of the state, and it is among the largest islands in the United States. It spans across 2,577 square miles and is home to approximately 3,000 residents. The landscape is dominated by lush forests, vast alpine, and deep karst features. It is well-known as the location of the majestic El Capitan Caves. Wildlife is protected in the Tongass National Forest, which encompasses the majority of the island. The first Europeans stepped foot on the island in 1741, but the island was already inhabited by the Tlingit and Kaigani Haida. When you travel to Prince of Wales Island, you will have the opportunity to learn more about these native cultures, explore historic sites and even witness cultural events.

The Ancient Tlingit Civilization

The Tlingit were the island’s first inhabitants. While there is no official record of their settlement on the island, archaeologists have identified artifacts that are 10,300 years old. The Tlingit’s oral storytelling describes creation on the island as well as the struggles of a primitive culture to live harmoniously in a rugged natural environment. Evidence shows that the Tlingit traded with inland native tribes for many years. Tlingit were skilled seamen and navigators, and they also were known for creating embellished works of art. This included everything from woven blankets and baskets with intricate details to ornate clan houses with grand works of art chiseled into the walls.

Totem poles are among their most well-known works of art, and these are memorials or tributes for events or people. At the Totem Park in Klawock, which has the state’s largest collection of totem poles, you can watch totem pole carvers hard at work.

On August 16 and August 17, you will have the opportunity see four totem poles raised in a memorable ceremony.

Kaigani Haida

The Kaigani Haida people are much newer to the area. Their settlement on the island occurred in the early 1700s. They arrived from the area that is currently known as British Columbia, and they brought many of their customs with them. Present-day Kaigani Haida continue to practice some of these customs. The Kaigani Haida spent winters together in communal homes that could accommodate several dozen people. Like the Tlingit, the Kaigani Haida are excellent craftsmen. They used cedar logs to construct their log cabins and their canoes. Recently, the famous and historic Hydaburg Long House was deconstructed, and the Naa Iwaans Cedar Long House was constructed in its place. The raising of this house was a monumental effort that involved the efforts of many people throughout the community. During Culture Camp this year on July 26th, a blessing of the Naa Iwaans Cedar Long House was done as well as the raising and blessing of two house posts in Hydaburg.

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