The dancers ranged from as young as 3 to as old as 83. They wore beautiful Tlingit regalia. They danced, drummed and chanted energetically. When they invited the visitors to participate, I joined in. The men dance by getting very low to the ground. Think exercise lunges for 5 minutes straight. The purpose of this particular dance was so young men could show young women that they were strong enough to hunt and to care for a family. After the dance, I looked like a quarter horse after a three mile race – breathing hard and sweating out of every pore of my being. The Tlingit men looked unfazed though they wore heavy regalia (and this was not their first dance). Lesson – these guys are tough!
Last summer we were invited to a culture camp in Hydaberg, Alaska. We were working on a cultural reclamation project in a Haida village, Kasaan, and had been invited to the culture camp to help “pack the pole.” About 100 men carried a totem pole, made from a yellow cedar, on a parade route through town. At times elders and children were carried on the pole. After raising it, a feast of seafood followed. And then after dinner, the people who represented various Haidi and Tlingit clans performed dances.
One of our friends here spoke about how he encouraged his children to learn the ancient dances. So they did. He was so proud of them. Then one of his aunts, who gave him a very stern look as he was proudly watching them said, “you cannot simply watch. For their sakes, you must dance with them.” So at 40 years of age, he danced his first dance. Dance, for the Tlingit people, is a means of expression and communication. Songs and dances are owned property belonging to a clan, and can only be performed with the express permission of the clan leaders. They are based on stories that have been passed down for hundreds of years. He said a strange sensation washed over him as he danced with 5 generations of men and women. Connectedness… with centuries-old traditions and his own place in his culture.
“If we had learned about Jesus, our clan house would have become a center of worship. Totem poles would begin to tell the story of Jesus. We would have drummed, chanted and danced to the God who had finally been fully revealed. But the American missionaries denounced us as savages and railed against all of our cultural practices, which they said were rooted in idolatry.”
Another point of connectedness is salmon. Life revolves around the cycle of return of salmon. There is a dance called the salmon dance where the salmon are gathered into the center by the fisherman with nets. Dances with fishes. Fish come in clans; the Sockeye Clan, the Coho Clan and the Chinook Clan.
The same friend talked about how his father had made him take his brothers out to net sockeye salmon. They labored all morning and caught 200 fish. They filleted them all and brought them home in wheelbarrows. Their father had them load the pickup truck and they went about the village giving fish to every family who had need or desire. He was not happy with his father. By the time they returned home there was only one fish left. His father said, “Perfect, I want some fish stew and that will be just enough.” Later he said to his sons, “Today we fished for the clan. Next week, we fish for our family.” The following week they gathered in abundance.
He continues his father’s the tradition with his own children. The only real way to teach your children, he said, whether via song, dance, stories or acts for the betterment of the clan, is to do it alongside one another. Whether about dance or fish, the Tlingit are engaged in a multigenerational effort to revive their culture. The people are rediscovering a culture that they were made to be ashamed of by the arriving Westerners.
It is a fascinating culture. Learning about it forces us to ask questions about culture and humanity and the brokenness of our own western culture. We are losing connection with one another. We don’t talk on our way to and from work; we plug in our ear buds and listen to iTunes. In our neighborhoods, front porches and front doors have been replaced by back decks and automatic garage door openers. Families rarely eat together, and when they do, they don’t seem to know how to communicate. One generation has no idea how to talk with another.
In the church, we lament the fact that our young people are leaving. Too often we focus on the fact that they are leaving church, but we should be more concerned that they are abandoning Jesus. Why? Is He lacking? Have we shared an “optional Jesus” with them? Who exactly have we been teaching them about?
Could this be rooted in our own relational brokenness? Is Jesus a Person in my home, or an abstract that has to do with how to live? Have we really shared the song, dance, stories, acts for the betterment of the clan, and His presence in ways that give our own children a chance to see Him in action; life on life? Or have we parceled that out to the experts – like we do to sports coaches and music teachers? Are we consumers of Christian goods and services, hopeful that our children will choose our favorite brand outlets, or do we live a life with Jesus that matters; one they see as inseparable from who we are? Maybe we need to return Jesus to the place of eminence in our homes and churches and enjoy Him as whole families.
There is still a place for clan house worship in Alaska. And there is still a place for full multi-generational engagement in our Christian clan houses.