Tlingit connects with heritage through art

Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2003

Tucked away in a small room at the back of the Ninilchik Village Cache, a man works diligently in his workshop.

The smell of cedar hangs thickly in the air and the ground is strewn with wood chips. The still silence of the small room is periodically interrupted by an almost rhythmic scraping sound.

The walls of the poorly lit workshop are festooned with intricately carved objects of various shapes and sizes, all depicting easily recognizable creatures of the natural world in varying degrees of realism.

The color scheme is -primarily black, blue-green and red. The patterns are distinctly Native, but are of a style and motif not locally known.

In the center of it all sits the man with a cigarette almost magically dangling from his lip, the swirling white smoke wafting upward. He is deeply focused on the task at hand.

The task is a traditional Tlingit wood carving, and the man is Jack Austin.

Austin is a full-blooded Tlingit, originally from Juneau. Historically, Tlingits weren't found anywhere close to Ninilchik. Their range was much farther away, along the coast on the beaches and islands of Southeast Alaska.

Traditionally, Tlingits were expert carvers of stone and wood, and they were equally skilled at weaving, basket making and working copper. However, the great crafts for which the people are so well known are rapidly disappearing. Austin recognizes this and is doing his part to keep his Native culture alive.

"I'm sad to see it dying," Austin said. "I try to keep up with tradition. In the Southeast, they're trying very hard to keep it alive by teaching carving, dancing and language in the schools. I dedicate myself to the artwork here because I'm trying to keep my culture alive."

He added, "I may only know how to say a few words in Tlingit, but I speak it through my carvings."


Austin holds a rattle made of yellow cedar he is still working on. Yellow cedar cannot withstand the weather as well as red cedar, and so often is used for items that will remain indoors.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

So what is he doing on the Kenai Peninsula, carving so far from his ancestral roots?

"I was drawn here," said Austin, who decided to come here in 1994 to be closer to family members who had moved to the area.

"I was meant to be here. I like it here. There's a few Tlingit around, but they're spread out. There's one elderly lady in Kenai and a few others around."

He said it can be challenging keeping his culture alive, because it's a culture he is not entirely familiar with. Much of what he knows about Tlingit culture he learned as an adult.

"The aunts and elders, they knew the Tlingit language, but were forbidden to speak it," he said, referring to the forced acculturation common after contact with Russians and European Americans. "The missionaries had an effect. They banned carving. They thought it was bad. The Tlingit fought over it, though, and brought it back. As a kid I didn't know much, but as I grew up and learned who I was, I wanted to be a part of it."

Austin said his uncle began to teach him.

"In the Tlingit tradition, uncles are supposed to teach. They teach about hunting, fishing, the land, all sorts of things. It's like being a dad to your nephew. My uncle told me a story or two. He told me what went on in the history."

He said his uncle also explained that Austin was in the Eagle/Wolf Clan, like his mother. Austin explained how this came to be.

Traditionally, Tlingit society was split into two halves, which in anthropological terms are known as phratries. One half, according to Austin, is Raven, the other half is Eagle.

Each of these halves is further sub-divided into clans or totemic families, which can include beaver, frog, sea gull, coho, killer whale, wolf, bear, shark or thunderbird, Austin said.


Surrounded by a clutter of ongoing projects and supplies, Austin reviews a recent sketch he made.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Since Tlingit society was matrilineal, not to be confused with matriarchal, people inherited their clan based on whichever clan their mother belonged to. The clan system helped regulate marriages, and people could marry in any clan of the opposite phratry, but never in their own.

Austin said he also read a lot of books on Tlingit traditions to educate himself and gleaned a tremendous amount from an apprenticeship under his first cousin and accomplished carver Reggie Peterson.

"My cousin was working doing carvings at the visitors center in Sitka," Austin said. "I said to him, 'I want to learn the ways.' He put his project down and got serious. He said, 'If I teach you, you must be serious. It will take a year-and-a-half to teach you, and you cannot give up on the artwork (once taught) because it's a dying artwork.'"

His cousin also said, "No complaining. If I tell you, you just do it."

Austin agreed to the terms and Peterson open a large drawer with lots of designs sketched out on parchment. His cousin explained what colors to use and then let him get to work.

Austin said he spent the next several months painting, which is an important part of the completed projects. He also painted house posts and other items, but he yearned for more.

"He had a whole deck of knives I was just aching to use, but he wouldn't let me," Austin said. "He was teaching me. He wanted to me to learn the forms. All the different ovoides, u-forms, split forms and s-forms."

When he finally started carving, Austin said he asked his cousin for help initially. "He would say, 'You have to draw your own. That's why I put you in that drawer so long.'"

So, Austin started doing his own and found he had learned a lot.

"I started to get my own designs," he said, explaining that the cuts for the eyes of a carving are typically rounded, but he does his at 45-degree angles. "My cousin told me that was my signature."

Austin has been carving for close to 12 years now and does all kinds of things, including plaques, paddles, spoons, bowls, canoes, masks, staffs and rattles.

From his explanations, the pieces he carves almost pick their own designs.

"I look at the pieces to see what I see in them. I will just look at it and then maybe see a raven on it, and then say, 'no-no-no.' Then I see an eagle on it and I know that is what it has to be."

In addition to their clan significance, there is traditionally a story behind every animal used, but "I'm still lost there," Austin said. "I don't really know what they mean, but I'm still learning."

He said once he knows what design he wants to carve, forming it out can be the hardest part. Some pieces require the use of an adze, an ax-like tool, while others just require a balance between brute strength and a delicate hand to perfectly shape a design with a carving knife.


Tools of the trade come in many sizes and shapes, but typically include bent knives, semi-bent knives and straight edge knives. An ax-like tool (not pictured) also is commonly used. Traditionally, carvers would make most of their own tools.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Carving can't just be done at a designated time either, Austin said. It must be pursued only when the carver knows the time is right.

"You have to feel when to carve," he said. "When I'm into it, I can finish a carving in a few days. Other times it takes much longer just to shape it out."

Sometimes he may even start a piece and then not finish it for weeks or even months.

"When I know it's ready, I'll carve and finish it," he said.

He reached for a half-carved spoon with a raven head on the end, as if providing an example. After looking at it silently for several minutes he held it up and said, "He's got an important meeting to get to one day."

Austin also said carving can be frustrating.

Some items have had to be carved in as many as three attempts due to pieces breaking while only halfway completed. He said sometimes when that happens he just puts everything away and comes back to it later.

"Patience is the most important thing," he said.

Austin also sells many carvings in the Ninilchik Village Cache, but he said sales can be a mixed bag since the artwork is a form not traditionally known on the peninsula.

"Sometimes it's hard to sell because people don't know the art here," he said. "But sometimes people recognize it and say, 'That's Southeast, What's that doing here?' They can't believe someone is doing the art here, so far from the Southeast coast. Not many know it, but some people do.


Austin uses a recently completed eagle plaque to explain his "signature" of carving around the eye at a 45-degree angle as opposed to completely making a rounded ovoid cut.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"Even when business is slow it's OK, because I'm keeping my culture alive."

He said finding suitable carving material also can be challenging.

"You can't find the cedars here like in the Southeast," he said. So he walks the beach for cottonwood as an occasional substitute medium.

Because he is a member of the Juneau-based Native regional corporation known as Sealaska, he sometimes gets red and yellow cedar through it.


Photo by Joseph Robertia

Two small paddle that are not yet complete are Austin's work in progress.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"The red cedar can be carved while wet and it can withstand the weather outside so it's good for totem poles," Austin said.

"The yellow cedar's not so good for outside because it cracks and breaks. It's better for inside, for rattles, staff sticks, spoons and bowls."

He said some of the items he carves will be given as gifts during potlatches.

One of his proudest accomplishments was a large paddle he gave away to his sister's children to be used in their dance group, once again demonstrating the significant role uncles play in Tlingit society.

"It makes me proud when people say to them, 'Wow, where did you get that paddle?' and they say, 'My uncle made it.'"

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