Bringing Tlingit Stories to Troy Hill

Ph.D. Candidate Rae Di Cicco discusses Tlingit visual culture in the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History


Bringing Tlingit Stories to Troy Hill

Author: Rae Di Cicco

PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

Adding to the department’s many collaborations with local cultural institutions, I have been working with Stephen J. Tonsor, Director of Science and Research at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and Stewart Urist, Managing Director at Quantum Theatre, to connect programming at the theater on Troy Hill to local collections.

In December, I led a tour of the Carnegie’s Tlingit collection to the production and design team of Quantum Theater’s upcoming show, Inside Passage (March 2-25). Based on playwright Gab’s Cody’s true experiences, Inside Passage meshes Gab’s patchy memories of her early childhood in Alaska spent with her parents, step-siblings, and Tlingit foster-siblings with family lore and her true quest for reunification 35 years later. I will lead an additional tour of the Carnegie, open to the public, on Saturday, March 24th at 3:30pm.

During the tour, visitors will have the rare opportunity to see objects outside vitrines, and learn about the importance of art and ceremony to Tlingit storytelling, adding important cultural context to the narrative of Inside Passage. The following is a text I was invited to contribute to the program for Inside Passage:

“The push and pull of the ocean’s waves around the islands of the Alaskan panhandle are mimicked by the rise and fall of the tides, the pendulum of the seasons, and the growth of red cedar and its eventual disintegration back into the soil. The Tlingit (Klin-kit) people have called this landscape home for thousands of years, passing down stories of their origins in Southeast Alaska to younger generations. Prior to contact with Europeans, the Tlingit did not have a written language, but instead relied on oral storytelling to chronicle their own history. However, the foundational narratives of the entire Tlingit nation, in which the mythical creature Raven takes center stage, are the only broadly shared body of oral literature in traditional Tlingit culture. Other stories are viewed as clan histories. Dating to a time when animals could transform into humans, the origin of clans often entails an ancestor’s overcoming a supernatural foe, partnering with a mythical figure, or transforming themselves from an animal into a human, thereby establishing a new clan. Because they represent familial histories, only clan members have the right to tell such stories.

Indeed, the Tlingit conceive of stories as important immaterial sources of wealth shared among clan members. This type of ownership is manifested within the narrative content and structure, means of transmission, and visual record of stories. Ownership is usually indicated within the story itself; characters represent important ancestors or mythological creatures representative of the clan in stories with morals about familial duty, respect for natural resources and the changing landscape, or the duality inherent in all creatures. Most overt announcements of clan ownership have been removed in textual publications of Tlingit stories, but within the culture, ownership of oral texts is recognized and respected by audience and storyteller alike.

Tlingit oral tradition extends beyond verbal communication of narratives to incorporate artistic and ceremonial tradition as well. The stories are not meant to stand alone, and clan chiefs often commission totem poles to represent a chosen narrative to be shared at a potlatch ceremony. For a people with no written documentation, the potlatch ceremony gathered together members of the community at the host’s clan house to publicly share a piece of clan history. The totem pole would often be carved in secret, with only the commissioner and the artist knowing what story the imagery represents. At the potlatch, the totem pole – seen for the first time – is raised in stages. The pole rests on a log crutch intermittently to accommodate breaks for dancing and the explication of the story in successive acts. When the story and ceremony end, the sculpted poles stand as material reminders of the narrative they represent, while confirming the identity, rank, and social standing of the clan. The ceremonial act of storytelling thus canonizes events to a collective history while reaffirming the strict social structure of Tlingit society.

Removing native children from this context divorces them from their clan histories, making them resource-poor members of the tribe, if they have access to indigenous culture after removal. Inside Passage balances the serious, and often heart-breaking, realities of Indian child welfare with a comedy that mirrors the tension and release seen in Tlingit oral tradition and artistic design. Much like the push and pull of the waves on Alaska’s coast, Inside Passage chronicles one woman’s separation from her indigenous foster siblings and her return, decades later, to the landscape of her earliest family memories. This is Gab Cody’s story."

For more information about the tour, Inside Passage, and to purchase tickets, click here

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