By Sophia Carlisle
from The Alaska Beacon
On Thursday, Alaska Airlines unveiled a new design that replaced the Salmon Thirty Salmon art known by many Alaskans. The new art still features salmon, but this time from an Indigenous perspective. Crystal Worl, Tlingit artist and business owner from Juneau, created the new design in the style of formline art.
Worl said she hopes that the plane will inspire non-Indigenous people to learn about the rich cultural history between Native Alaskans and salmon — and she was excited to share that history from 30,000 feet above.
“This is a really great platform that just seemed really fitting for the message and the story I want to tell about salmon and wanting to get people’s attention,” she said.
The plane is designed in Northwest Coast formline, a style that is characteristic of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska. Formline art stands out for its unique use of positive and negative space and dramatic colors. These colors, including indigo, pink and white, can be seen gracing the new plane, called X̱áat Ḵwáani, which can be translated from Tlingit to mean “salmon people” in English.
To come up with the title for the new plane design, Worl reached out to X̱’unei Lance Twitchell, a Tlingit language speaker and professor of Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, for advice on what the name should be.
“There must be a million different ways in our language that mean ‘our relationship between salmon,’” Worl said. “So he got back to me with some options, and we narrowed it down to X̱áat Ḵwáani, ‘salmon people,’ because of its translation of how people are connected and relate and benefit from salmon.”
“The meaning felt really beautiful,” she added.
According to Alaska Airlines, X̱áat Ḵwáani is the first time that the company has named a plane in a language besides English. The company said it is also the first time that a commercial aircraft in the United States has an Alaska Native title.
Worl said that she felt the name and the salmon symbol bridged a cultural gap within the state of Alaska. “[It’s] the symbol that I felt was connecting not just my identity and Alaska Native identity but Alaskan people. What do we all connect with? What brings us all together? And it’s salmon.”
The design on the plane features sockeye salmon, which Worl said was an homage to her clan, Lukaax̱.ádi clan, the salmon sockeye clan. She said that the art is imbued with meaning, from the pink line that loops around the nose of the aircraft — which Worl said she likes to think of as a lifeline — to the salmon on the tail and tip of the wings that feature salmon eggs.
She included salmon eggs in the design because she said it helped show the connection between now and the future.
“I thought [it] was a really wonderful way of learning from the salmon about the next generation. What are we doing to take care of our environment and our animals and the land so that the next generations can benefit from them as well?” said Worl.
Her art pieces — some of which feature salmon designs — are popping up across Alaska and the rest of the country. From painting an enormous mural in downtown Anchorage to designing a nationally circulated postage stamp, Worl has seen her art in places big and small.
But the big things she’s still getting used to.
“Big things are new for me.” She said in reference to her art on a Boeing 737. Later adding: “I was thinking, did I do that? This is incredible.”
She might have been overwhelmed by seeing her artwork on such a huge scale, but the piece itself, and specifically the piece on an Alaska Airlines plane, was a long time coming.
Marilyn Romano, regional vice president for the state of Alaska for Alaska Airlines said that she and Worl connected after Romano saw her on the cover of Alaska Business Monthly. Romano said that she knew the plane would soon be a blank “canvas” and believed Worl could be the one to fit the bill. Little did she know that Worl was expecting her call.
In 2020, Worl posted on Instagram a photo of her artwork on a plane with the caption: “Are you ready for me Alaska Air?? I’m ready for you.”
While Romano wasn’t originally aware of Worl’s dream to design an airplane exterior, the two connected and were able to make Worl’s vision become a reality.
“We are just honored that we will take art and fly it around the country everywhere we fly,” said Romano, after highlighting the beauty of the salmon design that Worl created on the plane.
The salmon symbol permeates the art that Worl makes, from the design she paints to the clothing she wears — which on Thursday was bright, salmon pink pants that she ordered specifically for the unveiling of the salmon plane.
She said her art featuring the famous Alaska fish was created with the purpose to inspire others and teach and pass on valuable knowledge that was too often erased by Westernization.
“All Alaska Native people, our history with salmon has been for thousands of years and we’ve been fishing them sustainably for a very long time and watching them for a very long time,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of valuable knowledge in that that everyone can learn and benefit from.”
X̱áat Ḵwáani will be making its first passenger service flight from Anchorage. Its first stop will be in Juneau on May 12 where it will continue flying to Seattle. Worl and her family will be on the flight to commemorate her achievement.
“I’m really grateful for my family. Without them, this project wouldn’t exist for me.”
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