|Organization:||Metlakatla Indian Community|
|Program Area:||Community Development \ Tribal affiliation|
Preserving and sharing cultural knowledge
Metlakatla Indian Community
A federally recognized tribe governing a traditional Tsimshian community, with an active economy and subsistence lifestyle. The Community regulates commercial fishing in its waters, and also operates its own tribal court system, including a Tribal Juvenile Court and Tribal Appellate Court. The Community provides a range of social services to its citizens.
In a cluttered classroom at Metlakatla High School Jack circles a block of alder, studying it intently. He lifts and turns the wood, then sets it down and attacks it with a small, wide-bladed elbow adz. Chips fly until a pile covers his shoes. He rotates it, picks up a smaller adz and renews the assault, swinging rhythmically with short, measured strokes. Twenty minutes later the block has taken on a rounded shape, just beginning to hint at the mask that it will one day become.
On a table next to him lies a mask in progress, a humanlike face with a full nose and lips, and eyes
of inlaid abalone. A fin in the forehead identifies the figure as a killer whale. Though still unfinished,
the symmetry and fine detail of its features make it hard to imagine it once was a crude block of wood like the one he is now sculpting with elbow adzes, traditional tools of a Tsimshian artist.
Like the Haida and the Tlingit who also inhabit the rain forests of Southeast Alaska, the Tsimshian people developed a rich carving tradition. The art flourished when Europeans introduced iron tools, then languished in the 19th century as Native cultures were ravaged by conquest, disease and cultural assimilation. Metlakatla was established in 1887 when Anglican minister William Duncan led about 800 Christianized Tsimshians from their home in British Columbia to establish a new community on Annette Island in Southeast Alaska.
Duncan was not trying to quash Tsimshian culture when he discouraged carving, Jack says. "It's just that he saw that a guy would carve for a week and only get $1 for a mask or a rattle," Jack says. "Or he could fish or work in a cannery and make enough to feed his family."
By 1936, the year Jack was born, the Tsimshian carving tradition had all but died in Metlakatla. The exquisite totem poles and totemic designs of the Tsimshian clans survived, but no one was teaching younger generations how to create them.
Jack left Metlakatla at 16 when his family moved to the Seattle area. After high school he became interested in carving and quickly moved from whittling to studying the art of his own people from afar. He approached Bill Holm, a University of Washington professor, museum curator and noted artist for guidance.
"He told me to come to his class at the university. He said, 'Don't enroll or anything, just walk in and act like you're one of the students,' so I did." Jack says.
With Holm's help, Jack examined carvings held in museums around the Pacific Northwest, applied what he had learned and began to create. Soon he was selling his work. In spite of a blossoming career as an artist, Jack returned to Metlakatla in 1974. Not long after he arrived, the superintendent of schools asked if he'd teach a carving class at the high school. Though he had neither formal education nor a teaching credential Jack saw an opportunity to forge new links the broken chain of traditional knowledge, so he agreed.
Thirty years later, the class is still going strong and generations of Metlakatlans have learned about traditional Tsimshian art forms, and a few are making a living as artists. Now 68, Jack is a senior citizen - an elder - and looking back over his life one can see that he has followed the time-honored path of the tradition bearer making sure that cultural knowledge is preserved and passed on to future generations.