People often say they don’t know art, but they know what they like.
People who know art call Klukwan’s Whale House artifacts “the crown jewels of Northwest Coast art,” “the Parthenon of Alaska,” and “objects of everlasting esteem.”
Our top attractions – mountains, fjords, glaciers, wilderness, bears, multitudes of eagles – can be found elsewhere. The Whale House pieces can’t. They are the pinnacle of Chilkat art, the best of thousands of magnificent hand-made pieces from local villages locked away in drawers and cabinets of museums and private art collections around the world. More than any other singular item, the Whale House artifacts put us on the world’s stage.
For that reason, it’s to their credit (and to our community’s great benefit) that members of the Gaanaxdeiti clan have agreed to put these pieces on display at a museum being built in the village.
A jaundiced view of the clan’s recent decision is that members have “sold out” their culture. That perspective might have validity if Chilkat culture were a timepiece. It’s not. The culture is very much alive, as evidenced by “knowledge camps” that teach traditions, dance groups, and continuing art and language courses.
The Whale House pieces and planned Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center will likely play a vital role in these continuing efforts.
Besides serving as inspiration to future Tlingit artists, the artifacts stand as irrefutable testimony to the grandeur of Chilkat civilization, a culture that was wealthy, sophisticated and in many ways advanced prior to white settlement here.
In a reference to life’s inevitable trade-offs, legendary college basketball coach Al McGuire once said, “If the waitress has dirty ankles, the chili should be good.”
Alaska Power and Telephone’s proposed Connelly Lake hydro project didn’t make it to the trade-offs stage, partly because securing state funding for the project hinged on a cost-benefit ratio the company never completed.
But discussions of the town’s next power source should continue. In winter, we use all the electric that the Goat Lake hydro plant can provide, plus more from the utility’s diesel generators. Unless the town starts shrinking, we’ll need additional sources of power. Eventually, relying on diesel generators for our overages will become prohibitively expensive.
Further, the development of even light new industry – such as a commercial boatyard or wood pellet manufacturing plant – may be difficult or impossible without an additional, economical power supply.
Advancing this discussion is critical to our town’s future.
-- Tom Morphet