In 2007, when cartographer John Cloud was cataloging more than 7,000 maps at the National Archives in Washington D.C., he came across two that immediately chilled him.

“In fifteen minutes, I found two different maps done by Alaska Natives working cooperatively with the Coast Survey (present day NOAA) in the nineteenth century, and nobody knew about this. There was no memory of this,” said Cloud, who at the time was a historian for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

One of the maps, noted for its uniqueness compared to Western maps (for example, distance is denoted by the number of days it took to walk) was drawn in 1869 by Klukwan chief Kohklux and his two wives for scientist George Davidson. It detailed the trade routes used by Chilkat Tlingits from Klukwan up to the furthest northern point of Fort Selkirk in the Yukon.

The story, Cloud said, goes like this: Davidson came to Alaska to research and document a solar eclipse as background for mapping the new territory of Alaska, purchased from Russia in 1867. He arrived in Klukwan, where he met Kohklux. In exchange for a depiction of the eclipse, Kohklux and his wives drew Davidson a map of the area- one small version, and one larger, which took three days. With permission, Davidson then traced over the map using a cloth overlay and pencil, creating a third map.

Kohklux’s first hand-drawn map ended up at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkely, where it was discovered in the 1980s by an archivist for the Yukon Territory, Linda Johnson. It wasn’t until Cloud published his finding of the traced map in 2007 that the two researchers were able to piece together history.

Taken together, the maps credit the original map-makers: Kohklux and his wives (on the overlay, Cloud said, Davidson attributed them). The significance of the credit, in Cloud’s “high falutin’ terms,” shows “Indians having agency over their lives. These were maps that they did for the Coast Survey as opposed to Coast Survey maps that the Coast Survey did without input from the locals.”

Further, Kohklux’s wives, Raven clan sisters from Stikine (named Tu’eek and Kaatchixixch), are now understood to have greatly contributed to the map making, since many of the depicted areas are further north than where Tlingits normally travelled for trading.

This year, the Kohklux maps turned 150 years old. To mark the anniversary, a group of First Nations and Tlingits gathered at the cultural center in Haines Junction earlier this month for a celebration.

Marsha Hotch, a native Chilkat and Tlingit teacher who attended the celebration, said that the maps speak directly to ancestral history.

“I think it just goes to show their intelligence,” she said. “I’ve driven that road how many times. Can I draw a map? No. What I really liked was that this map helps the First Nations to really see, although we know it because we’ve been told, but where our ancestors actually roamed. Knowing how we interacted and just trying to fit ourselves into that timeframe, it’s quite incredible.”

Hotch said she would eventually like the use the maps to preserve her culture by leading language groups on along parts of the trail.

“It’s sort of like when a French teacher teaches their language, they can go to France and really be immersed in that language,” she said. “But when Tlingit language leaves with the last speaker, there’s nowhere else to go. I think it would be the ideal time to start showing people what the land means to the clan systems, and how they got around.

Haines Borough mayor Jan Hill, who served on the planning committee for the celebration, said the most significant takeaway from the map was to witness the close ties that the Chilkat Valley has to its sister city Haines Junction. “It’s a personal connection for me,” she said. “It’s a connection between two communities, between two countries, even. I think this map demonstrates that connection.”

Last weekend, anthropologists, historians-Cloud among them– cultural bearers and First Nations people gathered in Whitehorse for a conference on the Kohklux maps. The maps themselves, which live permanently at Bancroft Library, were flown in by staff from the National Gallery for the weekend.

Cloud, who presented his decade-long research on the Kohklux maps at Haines Junction, was driven back to Haines by Haines Sheldon Museum director Helen Alten, who offered him a ride and a free room at the Aspen Hotel in exchange for a presentation at the museum Tuesday evening.

Fifty-nine residents showed up to hear Cloud speak.

Harriet Brouillette, tribal administrator at Chilkoot Indian Assocaition, said the presentation sparked her interest in learning more about Kohklux’s wives, as one of them comes from the Raven-Frog house, her same clan.

“It makes me wonder more about them,” she said. “In Tlingit culture, women play a larger part of the decision making, and we’re given more credit than they were during the European American phase of our history. I think a lot of the information about those two women is lost, which makes me sad.”

Moving forward, Cloud said he expects more information to be uncovered about the maps. Just last month, researchers at the Bancroft Library discovered a fourth Kohklux map on the back side of the larger map. During a preservation cleaning of the map, it was separated from the backing paper it was glued onto.

“What that revealed was that the Kohklux map was written on the other side of another map,” Cloud said. “And that was an 1850s British admiralty chart of the panhandle of Alaska. It had all kinds of annotations and Tlingit place names and notes going south from the Chilkat (in Davidson’s handwriting with the help of Kohklux and the wives), whereas the Kohklux map goes north from the Chilkat.”

One local, Tim Ackerman, said it’s all fine and good to talk about the historical Chilkat Trail renderings, but he’s ready to live them.

Ackerman has begun “ground truthing” the trail his grandparents once traversed, in partnership with Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. In September, Ackerman and friend Mike Bott traveled by foot and boat for one week covering about 1,000 miles from the Tahini River,a Chilkat Lake tributary, up along the old trade route to Kusawa Lake in Canada. Last year, he completed another week-long piece of the trail, along with three Bureau of Land Management employees, from the lower Chilkat up to the beginning of the Kohklux route. Ackerman documented cultural artifacts along the trail, including rock markings, culturally marked trees, and a well-worn path from years of trading. Next summer, he plans to tackle another portion of the trail. “We’re done talking,” Ackerman said. “Now we’re walking.”