Culture Night at Wrangell: June 17, 2013
20 June 2013 | posted at Petersburg
Photo: The rebuilt Chief Shakes House on Culture Night
When we heard from someone in Meyers Chuck that the old tribal house, Chief Shakes House, in Wrangell had been rebuilt, we immediately began scheming to get a tour. In 2008 we'd tagged along on a tour for cruise ship passengers but when we asked at the Stikine Inn if any cruise ships were scheduled, they shook their heads. No cruise ships means no tours. Then we noticed signs in shop windows all over town: Culture Night, June 17. There was to be a potluck dinner at 5 followed by demonstration of native dancing at the tribal house. We asked at the Wrangell Cooperative Association if non-natives were welcome and the answer was yes: bring a salad or a case of drinking water. We opted for the drinking water.
When we arrived at the community center for the potluck, the first thing we saw was a big steamer full of crabs just outside the door. Inside men and women were busy putting platters of salmon, shrimp, turkey, salads and other dishes on a table. Among the dishes I could see bowls of herring eggs on spruce branches and rice topped with seaweed.
After dinner a young man in a red and black vest and braids stood up and announced, "We're here to celebrate changes were making in our lives and how we're returning to our culture." He then introduced a series of other speakers. We learned that Culture Night was in honor of a Traditional Foods Project funded by the Center for Disease Control to combat diabetes in native population by encouraging them to return to their traditional foods. Wrangell's project is one of 15 across the country from places such as Arizona, New Mexico and Wisconsin. Many of the projects had representatives in the room who were in Wrangell for a conference.
From the community hall the assembled crowd walked the few blocks to the marina where the Chief Shakes House occupies a small island in the center. We walked across a bridge decorated with red flags and ducked down to enter the round door of the house. Inside, we found many of the same carvings we'd seen in 2008. I was pleased to discover that the house, although completely rebuilt with new lumber, still had the same feel as the older one. The floorboards still rattled as we walked across the floor to take our seats.
The sound of drumming came from the back of the house and then the dancers, dressed in traditional red and blue button blankets came out. The audience stamped their feet in appreciation, the Tlingit form of applause. The wooden planks reverberated with the sound of chanting and stomping as dancers showed us their traditional dances. In the second to the last dance the announcer called out different regions of the country and invited people from those regions to come join the dance. By the end of the dance almost everyone was stomping and jumping.
"That was better than a tour," said Steve, as we walked back to our boat.