Klukwan breaks ground at long-awaited culture center
Klukwan youths held cards naming deceased villagers who supported the dream of a culture center but didn’t live to see it realized, then helped turn shovels of dirt at the ceremonial groundbreaking for the Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Center and Bald Eagle Observatory May 8.
“These people (on the name cards) took a stand for the culture and carried the knowledge of the culture to the next generation. The young people will have to carry it forward when we’re gone,” project leader Lani Hotch said after the gathering.
Hotch told the assembled crowd they were part of an effort for a village museum conceived before Alaska became a state. Documents show members of the Alaska Territorial Legislature tried to get federal funding for such a building, she said.
The groundbreaking included performances by the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Dancers, acknowledgment of funders, and speeches by Smith Katzeek Sr. representing the Raven moiety and Joanne Spud of the Eagle moiety.
Clearing work started this week at the north end of Chilkat Avenue, where the 12,000-square-foot building is planned to be enclosed by winter. But the project may stop there, as project funding is limited.
“It will look done on the outside, but it will be an empty shell of a building. If we get additional funding, they’ll continue working through the winter, but that’s a big ‘if,’” Hotch said.
An initial $9 million plan for the center included a $5.8 million structure, plus landscaping, boardwalk and a plaza. The village has replaced that plan with a phased approach that will add items as funding becomes available.
Hotch said the building will include a replica clan house and feature a vaulted ceiling looking out toward the Chilkat River. Plans call for designated spaces for eagle viewing and for classroom instruction, coinciding with efforts to partner with the state Division of Parks and the University of Alaska, respectively.
Use of the center for eagle-viewing and for university classes in Tlingit culture would bring in operation revenues, and possibly staffing, under current plans. The Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Committee recently endorsed a partnership between the Division of Parks and the non-profit that will operate the center.
In recent months, villagers have brainstormed about possible museum exhibits, starting with the question: “If you wanted to teach something about Klukwan, what would be the most important thing to share?”
Ideas include the annual cycle of subsistence activities, Chilkat weaving, history of the village site, and the roles of the church, school and ANB/ANS in village life. “You want to keep local interest high by changing out exhibits. To me, it’s going to be a living cultural center, not some place where if you’ve seen the displays once, you’ve seen it all,” Hotch said.
Arrangements are still being made with clans about displays of crest pieces, the most important and sensitive Native handiworks and artifacts. Some historic pieces created in Chilkat villages are considered among the world’s greatest indigenous artworks. Control and use of them, however, is bound by Tlingit protocol and clan relationships.
Work to reinforce the Chilkat River bank adjacent to the site was completed in January. Future plans call for an elevated walk from the center building to the riverbank, Hotch said.
The first two phases of the project included creation of a riverside cultural camp and construction of a “hospitality house” featuring a dining hall, gift shop and bathing facilities. The house is intended for use both by museum-goers and those attending culture camp activities.