The most interesting man I met in Alaska had to be Joe Williams. Williams is a full-blooded Tlinkit, the tribe that dominates this part of the United States and Canada. He lives near Ketchikan and led a walking tour of this town that I wish I had taken but didn’t.
He later addresses a group of rapt passengers about his beliefs with his daughter as his assistant. I didn’t understand a lot of what he told us, but I never once questioned his sincerity or his profound commitment to these beliefs. I surmised that he would be the perfect person to interpret the totem poles that I saw all over Ketchikan.
There was a big crowd for his presentation that day and a misty rain was falling. His subject was to be The Misty Fjords that many would visit the next day in kayaks or on zodiacs. Ruth was one of them. Joe Williams lives in a part of the world that gets 140 inches of precipitation each year, which is normal. His beliefs turned out to be not as predictable as the weather. I was thoroughly confused by most of them.
Joe Williams began by talking about 2 Tlinkit phenomena, the Eagle and the Raven. He explained that everything in Tlinkit culture was owned by the woman of the tribe. It is a strictly matriarchal society. He said he was an eagle because of this fact without explaining.
Tlinkits firmly believe that humans were once animals. He told us that the raven was the central character of creation myths as he took off his colorfully decorated vest with an eagle on his back and passed it to the audience for close inspection. He told us the story of its creation. It had, of course, been made by a woman who knew him well. He told us that it took 2 1/2 years to make for his 25th anniversary as a family member. He told us that proper behavior was a sign of good breeding. He told us that the father plays a minor role in any Tlinkit family. He expounded on the importance of ravens, bears, salmon, and eagles in Tlinkit families and beliefs.
He told us that all tribal marriages were arranged and that Tlinkits do not believe in divorce. He called the love concept blind, stupid, and dumb. He called his daughter over and talked about her deer hide dress. I read an article just this morning about how many young people want gender reassignment, but few of the so-called experts know how to handle this phenomenon. I wondered if such matters impacted tribal operations and beliefs, but I was admittedly largely lost. It was one of those times when a person’s sincerely held beliefs seemed at odds with current social practice, but I didn’t know how to bridge the gulf that was developing.
I was left with one thought, the raven is the central character in Tlingit creation beliefs.