Decolonize the Tlingit!

We can look at why the prison population in Lemon Creek Correctional Facility is 85% native when natives make up only 14.8% of the total population in Alaska. We can also look at how our traditional hunting and fishing rights have been altered to make us look like criminals in today’s law systems. The judicial, congressional, educational, and democratic systems were put in place to make minorities fail, and fall subject to the will of the majority, the colonizer.

By Nahaan
Kéet Gooshi Hít

The act of decolonization will strengthen the ancient cultural practices of the Tlingit. Through this paper I will define the words colonization, and decolonization. I will also discuss how these concepts have and will affect the traditional Tlingit lifestyle. Through specific examples of current day issues and comparisons with historical knowledge of how we used to live, I will define also, some suggestions for implementing much needed Alaskan Native Social change.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, colonialism is a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another. The term colony comes from the Latin word colonus, meaning farmer. This root reminds us that the practice of colonialism usually involved the transfer of population to a new territory, where the arrivals lived as permanent settlers while maintaining political allegiance to their country of origin.

This definition of the word “colonialism” itself is given from a privileged colonial perspective. This definition does not give justice to the truth of what took place and how those colonial practices have continued to erode the spirit of the indigenous. Colonialism has taken place in the last 200 to 300 years here in South East Alaska, and many of its affects are seen through the experiences of our parents and grandparents. The traumatic experiences endured by our ancestors echo on through the generations causing many challenges in our lives today.

It is important that the word “colonialism” be aknolwedged for the weight that it carries amungst the Tlingit people. It is also important to be able to see the many ways we have been affected by colonialism in order to critically think about how our lifestyles have been disrupted. The act of decolonization will in part lay the groundwork for the betterment of the future generations. Now is not just a time to dance and to sing and to speak Lingit, it is also time, as Kingeisti would say, “To fly over oursleves as raven would, to look at what we are doing, and to find out what it is that we need to do in order to improve our lives.”

I would rely more on the definition put forth by Aime Cesaire when he says colonization is “neither evangelization, nor a philanthropic enterprise, nor a desire to push back the frontiers of ignorance, disease, and tyranny, nor a project undertaken for the greater glory of God, nor an attempt to extend the rule of law. To admit once and for all, without flinching at the consequences, that the decisive actors here are the adventurer and the pirate, the wholesale grocer and the ship owner, the gold digger and the merchant, appetite and force, and behind them, the baleful projected shadow of a form of civilization which, at a certain point in its history, finds itself obliged, for internal reasons, to extend to a world scale the competition of its antagonistic economies. …the chief culprit in this domain is Christian pedantry, which laid down the dishonest equation- Christianity = civilization, paganism = savagery, from which there could not but ensue abominable colonialist and racist consequences, whose victims were to be the Indians, the Yellow peoples, and the Negroes.”

As we can see by the writings of Cesaire, the concept and practice of colonialism is far more entreating than the dainty definition and understanding of the average educated Joe. In remembering a more true sense of the word “colonialism” as experienced by the people who have been colonized, we gain a better understanding of where we as modern day Lingits are on this scale of defining “colonization” and ourselves.

When Cesaire talks about “the baleful projected shadow of a form of civilization” he makes it clear that colonization is harmful, it is destructive, and it is outright deadly to those it happens to. He also makes it clear in his writings that it is a shadow behind all people playing the positions in the society that he listed. Cesaire also mentions the views of Christianity toward all those who are not of Christian faith and the mistreatment of non Christians by the religous group themselves.

We have seen the outcomes of things like the Comity Act as it divided up our lands into indian boarding schools and religous seperates in order to make us “civilized” enough to be a part of the United States. We have lost focus of how we would take care of our dead. At most of the memorial and funeral services I’ve been to here in Juneau the religous portion is taken care of first, then the A N B services if applicable, then the cultural portion is handled last if at all.

To me, this puts less emphasis on our traditional ways and more emphasis on recent beliefs that were brought by europeans. We as Tlingit need to put our ancient culture before modern day white mans religion. We can do this in part by meeting up with our clans at least as often as we attend church services. We can also remember that our culture and belief systems weren’t until very recently put into writing. We can recite old tlingit parables instead of quoting the bible.

“Between colonizer and colonized there is room only for forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses.” -Aime Cesaire

Again, with Cesaire’s words we can find that his truths parrallel some of the present day life of the Tlingit where many of us must work jobs that we feel are unproductive and unsatisfying and even against our own dreams and aspirations. We can look at why the prison population in Lemon Creek Correctional Facility is 85% native when natives make up only 14.8% of the total population in Alaska. We can also look at how our traditional hunting and fishing rights have been altered to make us look like criminals in today’s law systems. The judicial, congressional, educational, and democratic systems were put in place to make minorities fail, and fall subject to the will of the majority, the colonizer.

“I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out”- Aime Cesaire

There are some 200 fluent speakers of the Tlingit language and some 20, 000 full, half and part blooded Tlingit. In 1993 a church in Kake had many Tlingits burn their precious robes hats and at.oow to prove that they are no longer pagan or savage. Instead of looking to our clans, we now look to our native corporations when we want to carve a canoe, or a totem pole, or when we have questions regarding our land. We are at the mercy of the us government. We are at the mercy of people who have no respect for this lands original people, way of life, or natural resources.

“I am talking about food crops destroyed, malnutrition permanently introduced, agricultural development oriented solely toward the benefit of the metropolitan countries; about the looting of products, the looting of raw materials.” -Aime Cesaire

Though our natural resources are bountiful here in south east alaska, the initial over poaching of salmon, migratory birds, whales and sea otter, by the Russians and americans had a deadly affect on the balance of life here. When oil and minerals are extracted from our mother there is a great deal of pollution in the environment left behind. The natives who work for these industries are also polluted both through their bodies and through a drastic change in lifestyle. These native men and women are also affected by the sense of conflicted interests, where making a living in this colonial and capitalistic society can repel their moral and spiritual traditions.

With our hunting, fishing and gathering rights hindered, we have become largely dependent on shopping at supermarkets and department stores for our well being. Often times the foods we purchase at these stores are heavy in saturated fats, sugars, salts, preservatives, carbohydrates, and dairies that are foreigin to the Tlingit diet. When we consume these foods we see health problems such as obesity, heart disease, and cancers lead the way for native causes for deaths as proven by the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics from 2004-2007.

“Our colonizers have taught us to believe that our health has improved because of Western medicine, Western foods, and Western technology. In a society that values progress, our colonizers taught us that conditions in the world are perpetually improving, that with each new technological advancement, each new discovery, each new way to utilize resources, each new way to alter the environment, that the world is getting better, that it is advancing. These are all lies. ” -Waziyatawin from “For Indigenous Eyes Only”

We can decolonize our diets by eating more of the foods customarily eaten by our Tlingit ancestors, and eating less of the manufactured foods that come in boxes and plastic that are generally most abundant in grocery stores. A large majority of food pyramids are specifically catered to balance a caucasian persons eating habits not a Tlingits.

The effects of colonization have reached every part of the Tlingit lifestyle including how we treat each other. As noted in the book “Russians in Tlingit America”, page 120, “We do not treat our old people cruelly nor harshly like that-push them out to die or to be killed.”(referring to an old man who was continually kicked out of the Russian settlement and who would later be cut, cooked and served by the Russians as food after his death).

In traditional Tlingit households there would usually be at least 3 generations of family members residing in the same space. This belief is not practiced as much anymore, as shown by the need for elder homes, nursing care and single family household structures. Despite the quality of the elder housing itself, it still emphasizes “independent living” where elders from families are often left alone for long periods of time. This colonized lifestyle promotes feelings of worthlessness, and loneliness. This way of life can also make some elders feel un-wanted, and un-loved, full of anger and fear.

We can decolonize how we treat our elders by finding a household that is large enough to hold them and share with them the same loving care that they provided for us after we were born. It is peculiar to hear the emphasis that is placed on being raised and taught by grandparents, then to see those same grandparents now residing in nursing homes.

According to “For Indigenous Eyes Only” a decolonization handbook, “Decolonization is the intelligent, calculated, and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands, and it is engaged for the ultimate purpose of overturning the colonial structure and realizing Indigenous liberation.”

If we are to look at the examples mentioned here in this paper, we can see a few things that we can do as individuals then as families, as clans, and as larger village and communities in order to improve our standard of living. As mentioned in the quote above, colonization must first be addressed as it exists within our own minds and actions. To consider our interactions with ourselves and each other as an opportunity to again relate to the rich histories of our Tlingit people.

Let us think critically and coherently about the situation we are in as Tlingit people residing in this modern day society of a colonized 2012. Let us step away from abuse of self, abuse of others, abuse of land and resources to return to our ancient way of respect, kindness, and reciprocity. Let us not invest ourselves anymore in the perpetuation of colonial attitudes and lifestyles.
Lets return.





works cited – online definition of colonialism

“For Indigenous Eyes Only, A Decolonization Handbook” edited by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson and Michael Yellow Bird, 2005.

“Discourse on Colonialism” Aime Cesaire, 1972, 2000 by Monthly Review Press
originally published as Discours sur le colonialisme by Presence Africaine, 1955

Judy Mason, Tlingit & Haida Regional Housing Authority, Juneau. Interview taken on March 8th 2012.

Interveiw, David Katzeek, Shangukeidi clan leader, story-teller, historian, and grandson. 2010 US Census Bureau

Five leading causes of death by age group, alaska natives, both genders, Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics, 2004-2007

About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s