SITKA, Alaska (AP) — Mark Sixbey, Sitka Tribe of Alaska education specialist, stood on the porch of the Sitka Historical National Park visitor center and gestured toward the Centennial Pole behind him as he related the significance of its symbols and shapes for the two tourists seated in front of him.
Sixbey wore the Tlingit colors of red and black, and described to the visitors the creation, use, and maintenance of the pole. He explained that the stacked segments — among them, raven, eagle, skunk cabbage, and devil’s club — pay tribute to the park’s 100th anniversary, which was celebrated with the raising of the pole in 2011.
“They have new stories to tell,” he said.
Sixbey holds one of the ten positions at the park created by a new partnership between the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and the National Park Service. He divides his days between the visitor center and the Russian Bishop’s House, and estimates he interacts with anywhere between 20 and 400 people daily, as the visitor center door counter registers 1,300 people on a busy day.
The collaboration between STA and the NPS is the first of its kind in the country, said STA Chairman KathyHope Erickson. There are comparable partnerships elsewhere in the U.S., but they are “project-based” rather than enduring, she said.
The partnership has been years in the making, Erickson said.
The Tribe officially expressed interest in co-management of the Park in 2004.
“You can imagine that it’s been in people’s minds for a lot longer than that,” Erickson said. “It’s been a long time for this dream to come to fruition.”
The agreement between STA and the Department of the Interior was made under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, and funds three year-round and seven seasonal positions at the visitor center and the Russian Bishop’s House.
The Tribe has received $300,000 in 2018 for the project, which will be in effect only six months because of the timing of its approval. It is expected to continue for years to come, however, and negotiations for 2019 are currently ongoing, said Louise Brady, Kiks.adi culture-bearer and lead ranger.
Brady said the Tribe’s new hires received two weeks of training starting in late April, and were delivering their first interpretive programs by early May. She said the arrangement allows the tribal employees, four of whom are Kiks.adi, to reclaim the narrative surrounding their history in Sitka.
“I think there’s a huge significance because, when I come in here, I’m Kiks.adi,” she said. “It’s our clan that fought the Russians in 1804, and the park has always been a really special place for me because I come out here. Most of my life I’ve come out here, if I’m having a rough time or not having a rough time. I’ll be walking through the park, and I’ll think of my ancestors that fought for this land. I’ve heard stories about women fighting alongside the men, so I personally get a lot of strength from this place, from that history.”
Angie Richman, director of visitor services at the national park, said the depth and authenticity of the new hires’ expertise has already proved beneficial to the Park’s programming.
“It’s really wonderful to have our tribal citizens share their own personal stories,” she said. “They are all able share stories that are more authentic than what the Park has offered in the past.”
She said she was glad to see a more diverse NPS workforce, especially one so grounded in local history.
“It’s nice to see so many people in the local community that are employed at the Park, for one, and also we have a more diverse staff in our interpretive operation than we’ve had at the Park than maybe ever,” she said.
Brady said that her main task so far this summer has “just been getting up and running.” Already, though, there have been slight but significant shifts in the programs offered at the Park.
For example, Brady said, when she tells tourists about the Battle of 1804 between the Russians and the Tlingit, she can lean on the oral history passed down, across generations, from Tlingit warriors present at the scene. She can flesh out the narrative, offer textures and perspectives omitted from traditional textbooks and talks.
“In the history books, you can go, ‘OK, so in 1804, there was a battle between the Russians and blah blah blah,’ and a lot of times you don’t get the firsthand accounts, and the ones that we have that have been handed down,” she said.
She tells visitors about the Tlingits’ preparation for the Battle of 1804: how they stockpiled ammunition on an island for years in advance, knowing that Baranof would return, and how a delegation of elite warriors was blown out of the water by the Russians when they went to fetch it.
“Basically, we lost our strongest warriors,” she said. “I think hearing it from our point of view and, you know, why we fought for this incredibly beautiful land and were willing to risk so much.”
Rachel Moreno, one of the Tribe’s seasonal rangers, is also the vice president of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association.
She expressed confidence that she could leverage the five years she spent as a tour bus operator for the Tribe and her extensive experience working with “public lands agencies that are adjacent to or are located where Native peoples live or have lived” in her new role at the Park.
“It’s important that the tribal people are able to tell their story on these public lands,” she said. “So much has been written about us, but not with our input. This is our opportunity to step up and say, ‘OK, this is who we are. This is why we’re here. This is what happened since contact. And, this is where we’re at today.’”
Beyond shifting the focus of the stories told at the Park, Brady and her co-workers have made adjustments to the language used in telling them.
“The big difference, I guess, now is we try to use the Tlingit names and share that information with the visitors whenever possible,” Sixbey said.
For example, one of the interpretive programs offered at the visitor center had previously been called “Totem Talks.”
“Totem,” Sixbey said, is the Algonquin word for carved poles; the Tlingit word is “kooteya.”
Brady now titles the talks, “Tlingit History Through Stories and Songs.”
Another significant change is the revitalization of traditional practices like wood carving and the crafting of regalia, Sixbey added. Inside the visitor center, there are artifacts in glass cases, untouched and preserved for generations to come. Down the hall, however, there are also studios humming with activity.
Sixbey said he has experience bringing cultural projects to different pockets of the community: assisting with the Blatchley Middle School shop program for three years, demonstrating wood carving for the Tribe across four summers, and conducting classes on tools and traditional carving knives at the University of Alaska Southeast since 2014.
Now, he said, he brings that expertise to the programs offered by the National Park Service. This educational outreach and active practice of tradition, he said, is rolled into his new position under the partnership.
“A big change this partnership has brought is the re-awakening of our cultural center inside, particularly the regalia and wood-working studios,” he said. “We’ve brought it back to life.” Prior to Celebration, held in June in Juneau, for example, he helped with the preparation of paddles and regalia.
“While the paddle workshops were happening, the regalia studios were full of people getting their dance aprons and button blankets and collars and moccasins,” he said.
Even in his presentations to visitors, he likes to focus on recent history, which often bleeds into the present.
“I tend to focus on what’s happening right now, what’s happened in my lifetime,” he said, noting that the Park’s carved poles range in age from one to 200 years. “I like to focus on the poles that we do know that stories about... especially, more of these newly created poles here. You know, we have the carvers. They work here some days. That’s a really cool thing.”
Looking forward, Brady will step into the role of STA Operation Lead. She expressed hope that the partnership would continue to thrive in the years to come.
“I hope it continues to be a strong partnership,” she said. “I think we’ve been really successful. Everything has been done in a respectful way, and I think acknowledging the skills and the knowledge that the Park Service has to offer, and I think they’ve been successful with us, as well.”
Moreno added that the new partnership could serve as a pathway to professional opportunities for young members of the tribal community.
“I hope that it continues and that we continue to train our tribal citizens to work in this kind of environment in partnership with our federal agencies,” she said. “It can help our tribal citizens if they’re interested in tribal tourism or if they decide to take a job with the National Park Service, which is a big need... It’s a good first step for a lot of young people.”
She added that even locals could benefit from the programs developed through the STA and NPS partnership.
“Any town has its story, whether it’s Native or non-Native,” she said. “Being able to be a part of that story, or at least know that story is incredibly important for everybody”
Information from: Daily Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel, http://www.sitkasentinel.com/