Imagine, if you can, a forest of 17 million acres, or 5 Connecticuts, with a watery edge of 11,000 miles that forms one geography of life—the Alexander Archipelago—that if it were on the East Coast would stretch from New York City north beyond the coast of Maine to the Bay of Fundy, or from San Francisco south to the Mexican border. Fifty-seven thousand miles of rivers, streams, and creeks that are the world’s best spawning habitat for salmon. This place provides nearly 30% of the global supply of wild salmon. It is a dynamic, inter-connected, ever rising and falling place of tides where the genetic material of salmon are found embedded in spruce trees 75 miles inland. The three largest islands—Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof—are home to more brown bear than almost anywhere in the world, one per square mile.
The true story-tellers of this place are the Tlingit. It is a place of abundance. From time immemorial, the humans who live here found everything they needed to make a good life. They were rich. Distinguishing themselves only as a different species of life, they call themselves “the people” or Tlingit. Wealth accumulated rapidly enough to be redistributed every year in potlatch ceremonies. Their art spoke to their ancestors, and still does. Every mountain, every bay had a name they knew attached to it. Every place they gathered their food, or buried their ancestors, was the home that defined them, made them who they are. Outsiders call this place a National Forest, but the people call it homeland or Haa Aaní: “our land.” To say they love this place would be hollow; it would be far more powerful to say they created a culture that co-existed with and fiercely protected Haa Aaní. This place produced a human culture defined by balance: ravens on one side, eagles on the other.
This land of abundance entered a time of conflict called “The Timber Wars” or alternatively “When Times were Good” depending upon one’s perspective. As trees fell, money flowed into Native communities, but families, tribal governments and their Native corporations moved in different directions over how to be in relationship with the land and with each other. Sisters were divided from brothers, as were culture bearers from Native corporations, and fishermen from loggers.
Conservationists, many of whom in Alaska were non-Native, enlisted allies in the lower 48 to stop the logging in the Tongass. It was an era of assaults and divisions that did not stop until decades later when most of the mills had shut down. Between Native corporations and the federal government, 850,000 acres of forest, an area the size of Maryland, had been clear-cut by 2005, with less than 200,000 of these acres owned by Alaska Native corporations. The landscape and the people had fallen out of balance. About this era, Wanda Culp of Hoonah said, “What have we become? People of the stumps?” (Boudart, 2014)
Now, this landscape is shaped by a new generation, children of The Timber Wars and of lost generations, yearning to create a new era of balance. Can there be opportunity to live whole, modern lives without scarring the land?
How can we help each other to find the land we have dreamed of?