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The Many Faces of Alaska

Leslie Holgate

The Many Faces of Alaska

Leslie Holgate

Klawock Village
The Tlingit village of Klawock rests on an inlet immersed in the Alaskan wilderness. You may not find a postcard here, but you will receive welcoming waves from passersby as you stroll through the town.

Twenty-one totems create a central meeting place. Aptly located next to the community center, “Totem Park” is a place that brings people together. A visit here reveals the art of creating totems as native Tlingit artisans describe the whole totem-crafting process, from tree to the finished totem. Power tools are absent here; instead only specialized carving tools are utilized. Totems exhibit much more than craftsmen’s carving skill; they tell stories, provide a record of history, and differentiate clans. ExpeditionTrips' Abby Suplizio explained, “There was a totem carving demonstration…We felt honored to be part of this as the craftsman showed us the hash marks on the side of his woodshed that represented how many visitors had ever been there. I counted 35.”

The art of creating totems is interwoven into the community of Klawock. To pass down the skilled craft, the local school offers a hands-on program, much like shop class, where students learn the art of totem carving.
“It’s an entire community-binding project. In addition to carving and painting the totems, people will come together to carry the totem, have a raising ceremony and hold festivals around the totems. One totem requires a team effort and goes far beyond the work of one person. Then the process begins over as totems need to be touched up and repaired. [The residents of Klawock] are working on a tremendous project now involving the remodel of 200 totems," Abby described.

ExpeditionTrips' Abby Suplizio sailed on a Western Coves trip. Check out her Staff Review.

The town of Sitka, population 9,000, is steeped in Russian and native Tlingit culture. Named a 2010 Distinctive Destination by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Sitka hosts 22 of the sites on the National Register of Historic Places!

One notable site is Sitka National Historic Park, Alaska’s oldest national park, established in 1890. Historic totem poles line the quiet wooded trails and reflect stories and legends from villages throughout southeast Alaska. The Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, located in the visitor center, houses a place for local Tlingits to learn, teach, and share their own culture, and visitors can observe residents artists at work. Also, within the Park stands one of the last surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America, the Russian Bishop’s house.

Sitka’s strong Russian Heritage is probably most evident at Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a national historic landmark. According to the National Park Service, Saint Michael’s is the "principal representative of Russian cultural influence in the 19th century in North America" and "was by far the largest and most imposing religious edifice in Alaska until well into the 20th century."

Wandering through the fishing haven of Petersburg, visitors will remark the influence of the Norwegian fishermen who originally settled this town more than 100 years ago. Beautiful Rosemaling (Norwegian toll-painting) decorates storefronts and residences, and Norwegian flags accompany flower boxes.

Petersburg, appropriately nicknamed “Little Norway,” rests on Mitkof Island where the Wrangell Narrows meets Frederick Sound. Isolated from major sea routes, only by small ship can visitors reach its scenic waterfront. A spirit of self-sufficiency encompasses this bustling village. Fishing boats adorn its harbor, boasting the largest home-based halibut fleet in Alaska and providing livelihood for the majority of local residents.

The Bojer Wikan Fishermen’s Memorial Park and Sons of Norway Hall offer a glimpse into the culture of Petersburg. The Fishermen’s Memorial honors those who have lost their lives at sea. And, next door, visitors can sample traditional Norwegian cuisine and watch lively dances at the Sons of Norway Hall, which has held regular community gatherings since 1912.

Petersburg’s Norwegian culture truly comes to life in May during the “Little Norway Festival” which commemorates Norwegian Constitution Day. Residents pay homage to their Norwegian heritage through a colorful, multi-day celebration abounding with costumes, art, music, games, dancing, parades, and delicious seafood buffets and shrimp feeds.