By Lance A. Twitchell
The history of Skagway is complex. Like many places throughout the United States, what is viewed as discovery and opportunity for wealth from the perspective of American culture is in reality the invasion of the traditional territory of an indigenous population. Many organizations celebrate the gold rush of Alaska without ever recognizing that it marks a time of tremendous suffering, loss, and the onset of oppression for Skagway’s first people. Despite this, the Tribe is attempting to bridge the gaps that exist in and around our community from a tribal perspective; many of which originated with the Gold Rush.
Over the last hundred years, the geological and cultural landscape of Skagway has changed dramatically. Once a small valley full of trees and natural streams; modern Skagway is a collection of historic facades, gravel landfill, and sizable docks that stretch out like fingers towards oncoming tourists. This place was once a vital bridge between Coastal and Interior indigenous groups, who relied upon routes into the interior to trade the riches of the sea for those of the land. Inland groups savored preserved salmon, fish and seal oils, and sea vegetation; and bartered with invaluable copper, moose and caribou meat, and hides.
To this day, trade continues with Coastal and Inland tribal groups. These activities, until recently, had all but subsided because of the United States-Canada border, which effectively separated families, tribes, and traditional relationships due to regulations and a reluctance to recognize cross-boundary indigenous rights and relationships. Recent meetings between the Skagway Traditional Council and the Carcross-Tagish First Nations have begun to address and resolve cross-border issues including traditional trading practices, historical migration patterns, and the use and ownership of the Chilkoot Trail.
The Skagway Traditional Council (STC) is a federally recognized Indian Tribe pursuant to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, and is the governing body for Alaska Native and American Indian activities in the Skagway area. This means that the STC is a domestic sovereign body within the United States that has an inherent right to govern activities involving tribal members and the traditional Tribal territory of Skagway’s indigenous Tlingit population. The Tribe has been strongly active since 1999, and recently constructed a 3,600 square foot Native Community Center.
The building was given the name Héen Agunatáani Hít which is “Whitecaps on the Water House” referring to an interpretation of the name Shgagwéi. To commemorate the event, the STC distributed one-hundred white baseball caps with the name of the building embroidered on the front. The dedication of the building was a true celebration, as the entire community helped breathe life into the only structure the Native community has owned in over a hundred years.
In all things, there is progress, and our people have always lived our life by the tides. The tide had gone out on our people in our ancestral land, but it has now returned. It is a wonderful time to be alive; to see young people learning our endangered language, to see them dancing and understanding who they are by their heritage. And the sharing of this helps our entire community grow. Thank you for visiting, and for taking time to learn about Skagway’s first people.