A Troubled Walk Into the Forest – A review of the documentary Musicwood

By Frank Hopper

Clearcut in Tlingit Aani. Copyright Helpman Productions

Clearcut in Tlingit Aani. Copyright Helpman Productions

One of the first things said in the documentary Musicwood is that for acoustical guitars the vibration of music comes from the wood. This hit me like a missile as I sat with about twenty other people viewing the first Seattle screening of the film at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center on August 12th. The vibration is in the wood.

From the opening moments the film featured stunning shots of the Tongass Rainforest in Southeast Alaska where Sitka Spruce trees hundreds of feet tall grow like moss on hillsides that come right down to the water. Some of these trees have been growing for two or three hundred years, absorbing vibrations from the environment. Their wood can make a guitar sing in rich, elegant tones when used to make the front soundboard of the instrument. All well-made guitars use Sitka Spruce for this vital component.

Musicwood starts with this simple relationship between wood and music and then slowly leads us into a labyrinthine story of corporate greed, environmentalist politics, and Native American rights. After showing us the beauty of the Tongass, director Maxine Trump reveals the destructive logging practices of Sealaska, an Alaska Native Corporation based in Juneau, which has clear-cut over one-hundred-thousand acres of this unique ecosystem, the largest and one of the last remaining temperate rainforests on the planet.

The images of barren land covered only with tree stumps and abandoned debris form a harsh contrast to the earlier shots of the forest. The clear-cut areas reminded me of pictures of battlefields strewn with corpses left to rot in the sun. Not only were the trees gone, but the wildlife too, the birds, bears, deer, and countless other living things that depend on the trees, all turned into environmental refugees. As a Tlingit Indian myself, born in Juneau and living in Seattle, my eyes filled with tears at the sight, as if I had returned home and discovered my family slaughtered.

A Greenpeace study of the logging practices in the Tongass revealed that although most of the wood was being exported to Asia, a small percentage was regularly being shipped to guitar manufacturers here in the U.S. So in 2006 they approached the heads of Gibson, Fender, Martin, and Taylor guitars with the idea of forming a coalition of suppliers and manufacturers who agreed to work toward creating more environmentally friendly and sustainable production policies.

In 2008 the heads of three of these guitar companies, Dave Berryman of Gibson Guitars, Chris Martin of Martin Guitars, and Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars, traveled to Southeast Alaska to meet with executives of Sealaska, the biggest logging company in the Tongass. Musicwood is the story of this journey.

Sealaska was formed as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. I still remember when ANCSA was passed and Sealaska was formed. As an Alaska Native whose mother was a full-blooded Tlingit Indian, I was given one-hundred shares in Sealaska and entitled to dividends that came like clockwork every year. Suddenly I was a shareholder, a Native American capitalist, and like all shareholders I cared only about one thing, dividends. I never asked where the money came from. I never read the shareholder reports sent to us. I only cared about how much we were going to get.

Little did I know it was blood money. I know trees are not humans that bleed red blood. But seeing the shots of clear-cut forest that go on for miles in the Tongass, I couldn’t help but think about what the film first said, that the vibration is in the wood. Life is a form of vibration. And just as the vibration of guitar strings is made into music by the wood, the vibrations of generations of my ancestors must also echo like music in the Sitka Spruce of the Tongass.

The Musicwood Coalition of Berryman, Gibson, and Martin went deep into the rainforest, traveling by bush plane, boat, and finally by foot to reach the remote locations were three-hundred foot tall Sitka Spruce giants still stood, some taller than the Statue of Liberty. Then they met with Sealaska executives Rosita Worl and the late Clarence Jackson.

They explained they were working toward using only wood from companies certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which meant smaller clear-cuts and also a more selective logging practice that used helicopters to extract specific trees instead of just blindly cutting down everything. They hoped Sealaska would agree to FSC certification, which would force them to use much more expensive logging methods.

Sealaska told them they’d look into it. They would do a study. In the film they are shown taking coalition members on a helicopter tour of logging sites. At one point Rosita Worl and Clarence Jackson perform a first tree ceremony in which Clarence sings in Tlingit and plays a drum. A logging employee then chainsaws down a tree on a Tlingit blanket that has been sprinkled with eagle down. The tree bounces over the blanket as if refusing to participate. They then drape the blanket around one of the coalition members and look around for cameras to capture the photo-op.

Meanwhile, in the village of Hydaburg, a Native lady shows us jars of home-canned salmon in her modest house. She explains she’s received little benefit from her shares in Sealaska, just a few hundred dollars a year in dividends. She says Sealaska is not about economic development. “It’s about resource extraction,” is what I recall her saying.

My own mother and my Aunt Judy were raised in Sitka. Their mother died when they were just toddlers and they were sent to live in Hoonah with their grandmother. Their younger brother and an older sister died of pneumonia during that time. Their father later married a good Tlingit woman who sent for the kids and raised them as her own, insisting they speak only Tlingit at home.

They lived in poverty, surviving from my grandfather’s subsistence fishing and on the sale of moccasins that my step-grandmother made and sold to tourists from the cruise ships. My Aunt Judy later had two little boys of her own who would die in a fire in Juneau in the early fifties. My middle name, Phillip, was the oldest boy’s first name.

Into this bleak life came ANCSA and the promise of economic advancement. Congress wanted to turn us all into capitalists. Instead of giving land back to the tribe, they made us form corporations and gave the land and money to these companies with each tribal member becoming a shareholder. It sounds so modern. No messy reservations for us. Nice, clean shareholder certificates and the promise of fat dividends kept most of us in line.

My Aunt Judy died in 2008 at age 84 without ever receiving the wealth that was promised. In the years since then the members of the board of directors of Sealaska have been paid over forty million dollars according to figures provided by the Sealaska Shareholders Underground, which also provided financial data to the filmmakers.Some Native executives have sat on the board for decades because there are no term limits and most shareholders “vote discretionary,” which means they let the board of directors vote for them at the annual meeting.

There is a term Tlingit use when someone dies. They say the person has “walked into the forest.” In Tlingit cosmology the forest is where we enter the spirit world. It is the interface with the land of our ancestors and the home of our tribal archetypes. For a year before she died, my aunt told me of dreams she had of moving through the forest. She said she would see Tlingit people there dressed in traditional regalia who looked at her.

At the time I had no idea what this meant. I’m a city Indian who doesn’t speak Tlingit or know much about the culture and traditions. Walking into the forest was a term I’ve only recently learned about. But my aunt surely knew and for a year before she died she quietly prepared for her walk into the forest, where her ancestors were waiting to welcome her.

The vibrations of my aunt’s life, her struggles and hardships, must have also returned to the forest when she passed away. There I’m sure they joined the vibrations of the thousands of our tribe who went before her. These vibrations have been accumulating in those wise, old Sitka Spruce trees for nearly ten-thousand years. The music that the wood brings to guitars is in some way the same as the music of my silent ancestors.

And while the Sealaska board of directors play their corporate games, pushing new legislation through Congress that would give them even more land to clear-cut, and while the original Musicwood Coalition has been disbanded with one of its members, Gibson Guitars, being investigated for importing illegal ebony wood from Madagascar, and while Greenpeace has moved onto other publicity campaigns, the old trees that contain the vibrations of generations of Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida people grow fewer and fewer.

Musicwood documents this tangle of concerns in an elegant, graceful dance of image and music. Without taking sides, the director fairly examines the issue, allowing the viewer to make up their own mind. It is a parable of how the greed of modern society moves like an unstoppable glacier destroying everything before it, no matter how much people try to prevent it.

One day, each of us will take our walk into the forest. Unless we heed the warnings given by a film like Musicwood, there soon won’t be any trees left to receive our music.

Hopper with director Maxine Trump and producer Josh Granger at the Seattle screening of Musicwood on August 12th.

Hopper with director Maxine Trump and producer Josh Granger at the Seattle screening
of Musicwood on August 12th.

Musicwood will be opening at the Goldtown Nickelodeon Theater in Juneau, AK on August 23rd.

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 Environment, Frank Hopper. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to A Troubled Walk Into the Forest – A review of the documentary Musicwood

  1. This powerful documentary exposes the blatant greed of Sealaska. No more public land should be conveyed to them to destroy.

  2. Clarice Johnson says:

    It is heartbreaking. You have eloquently stated what I also feel as a shareholder and someone who revers this land. I was deeply offended by the sham “tree ceremony”. Although I have very little connection to my culture, it was clear that Sealaska created this photo opp for the film. Rosita and Clarence should be ashamed for participating in (and possibly creating) a faux ceremony to help justify the destruction of our homeland.

  3. As one of our most valued native women, Wanda Culp stated in the video “Fate of the Tongass” it was a dirty shame to place native land in the hands of a corporation.

  4. CúChulainn says:

    a d’athbhlagáil ar Occupied Cascadia éagus d’fhreagair:
    Grrrrrrma! for the review Frank. You were born to write! (amongst other things, no doubt). Labhairt ar a son na foraoise má labhraíonn sé a thabhairt duit. Ná déan dearmad ar ár bhaile fíor, áit a thagann againn ó agus filleadh.

    • Frank Hopper says:

      Thanks Casey. Bioregional decolonization has given me a lot of hope. I’m ashamed I don’t know Tlingit the way you know your Native tongue or I would respond in Tlingit. You and Vince are good examples to follow that way and I’ve benefitted from knowing you both.

  5. This is a really thoughtfully written piece. It’s the second writing I’ve seen of Mr. Hopper and I was impressed the first time as well. I also find it heart-breaking that trees are seen only as resources. However I happen to believe that’s probably the way the guitar companies see it as well. I’ll want to see the film for myself, of course.

    I’m no fan of the way Sealaska runs its timber business (I too am a shareholder). And I think conveying additional lands will simply mean more of the same. Part of me is also a little worried about how the guitar companies are portrayed. My guess based on who supports the film (looking at their facebook) is that movie might draw an uncomfortable colonialist construct: guitar companies and Greenpeace—the great white saviors of a Native corporation gone astray. In the end, the guitar company’s motivation for less clear cut may be so they may have more choice wood for their guitars. Maybe I’m wrong and the movie and the guitar makers are completely altruistic.

    Like I said, I need to see the movie.

    ANCSA was written specifically to be resource extraction driven for all the corporations. It was crafted in such a way that likely should have resulted in utter capitalistic disaster for every village and every regional corporation established. It’s painful to see indications that supporters of corporation practices try to also paint it as traditional regard for the trees. And I am 100% supportive of the idea that regular change in the board would bring in a broader and more responsive corporation to the people who are forced shareholders.

    However, Greenpeace has spawned some people who aren’t really all that concerned about indigenous people or indigenous rights. It’s good to be aware of all players and all of the motivations. In the end, I suppose what I really hope is that Native folks who are shareholders can work together to change the practices. Of course it will require that more of them wake the hell up.

    • Vince says:

      Thank you for your thoughts! I share your point of view regarding Sealaska as well as “the great white saviours.” There is a long, unsteady history between native peoples and environmental conservation organizations. I haven’t seen the movie myself, but from past experience I know that there is often a clash of cultures when it comes to the environmental movement coming into Indian Country. I don’t doubt that the making of this movie fell into similar territory.

      I thoroughly agree that change needs to come from within our tribes.

    • Frank Hopper says:

      Thanks for bringing these points out. I share all your concerns. I had mixed feelings about the members of the Musicwood Coalition as well as about Greenpeace. Still, the film serves as a balanced observation of a knot of corporate and environmental activist forces. The creation and subsequent dissolution of this knot is fascinating to watch, whether or not you care about trees.

      However, I think it’s a gross presumption to imply that guitar manufacturers are going to bring about the salvation of the Tongass. Musicwood is promoted this way and I personally find that insulting. We Tlingit have eyes and hearts. We don’t need some rich CEOs to come tell us that clear-cutting is bad. We know it’s bad. But the powerful forces in society that brought it about are complex and convoluted. They aren’t going to be instantly solved simply because some executive from the lower 48 comes on vacation and waves a magic wand.

      The problem is systemic, I believe, embedded within the corporate structure. But it is also aided, as you point out, by shareholder apathy and lack of access to dissenting voices.

  6. Notanurban Indian says:

    “I’m a city Indian who doesn’t speak Tlingit or know much about the culture and traditions.” I think this brave admission by the author says it all. Mr. Hopper, you know not what you speak. You didn’t know anything about Sealaska when you cashed the dividends created from timber and you still don’t know anything now as you continue to cash the checks.

    • Frank Hopper says:

      I know enough to recognize a Sealaska Lackey who hides behind a made-up name. At least I don’t try to make money from my ethnicity, selling language products, for example, that are substandard. I’d rather be a city Indian seeking the truth, than “real” Indian who tries to profit by packaging up his heritage and selling it to other Indians.

  7. Hi All, this is the Musicwood filmmaker. I just wanted to give a little background to the story and the reason we felt following guitar makers would broaden the film out to a bigger audience. Music is one medium that tends to unite people, the guitar makers may never have visited the area, your majestic homeland, if they were just using this incredible wood for home construction. As Bob Taylor puts it, he doesn’t think he would have got in the room to talk about slowing down clear cuts with Sealaska if he wasn’t a guitar maker. I hope that gives a little context as to why we covered the story in this way.

    The film then broadens out to explain ANSCA and brings a forest and a people, to an audience that they would otherwise know nothing about. We would also like to expand out the information on our website to explain about Sealaska discretionary voting etc. Any help in this area we’d be grateful. Any information we post has of course to have the journalistic fact checking policy too, so if we use real numbers we would need the document/s to back it up. It’s great to read all of the comments above, hope you all get to see the film at some stage soon.

    • Frank Hopper says:

      Thanks for this explanation and especially for your offer to include information about Sealaska’s other questionable practices on your website. I’ll pass this on. I attempted to help get the film a better showing in Seattle and tried to get a short review published in a newspaper here, but got no response at all. I think media outlets in Seattle feel this issue is an internal conflict among us Natives and they don’t want to be seen as choosing sides. So there’s resistance to getting the film shown in Seattle. Hopefully this won’t be the case in other towns.

      I think using guitars and music as a vehicle to enter the world of Native American politics in Alaska was well-intentioned, but it seemed to create a somewhat unbalanced equation. On one side are thousands of acres of old-growth forest pending destruction and on the other are three guitar companies who only use perhaps 150 trees a year for their manufacturing needs.

      For us Natives this just doesn’t make sense. It implies that people will listen to the concerns of non-Native, out-of-state guitar manufacturers more readily than to the concerns of thousands of Native shareholders whose homeland is being destroyed. Perhaps this is true. If so, it’s a sad comment on the modern world.

      My own personal feelings about the film are somewhat conflicted. On the one hand I hope it is successful and brings a lot of attention to the issue of Native American clear-cutting. On the other hand I feel somewhat hurt that few people will listen to the plight of thousands of Natives, but will listen to three non-Native CEOs of small companies out of state. A more subtle implication is that Natives can’t resolve their own internal problems and require the assistance of Caucasian businessmen to come in and do it for them.

      Your film documents this situation fairly and my criticisms here aren’t directed at you. I think you’ve done a great service to us shareholders and to the public. I just feel a bit sad that it took the interest of guitar manufacturers to bring this story out in the open. Natives have been trying to do so on our own for decades and no one pays attention. Two other documentaries have been made about the clear-cutting and neither of them made much impact. Yours is quite beautiful and heartfelt and is already making a difference.


  8. Discretionary voting, seen from the outside:

    Plenty of outsiders completely understand the workings of how your Native voting process works, including the default votes defer to the boards discretion when left unused.
    It’s a pretty good scam your board of directors puts in place to keep itself in power.
    All the trappings of a democracy but all the unbalanced power of a theocracy (Divine Power).
    You vote, but it means nothing you aren’t in charge, you are out voted on anything that threatens the board of directors power, and you can change next to nothing.
    There are to many apathetic members which works in the boards of directors favor. AND GUESS WHAT IT WAS INTENTIONAL!
    There were some people JUST smart enough to rig the system for themselves. It will take a MONUMENTAL effort to undo it. One vote,one voice,no proxy votes. the choice has always been yours.

    For the record, I’m a white man, I have no interest in Sealaska or any other Corporation, I didn’t steal your land, I’m not out to get you, I don’t begrudge you your benefits, entitlements or otherwise.
    Posted by Akromper Juneau Empire 2009.

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