Exhibit explores ancient place names, Native inventions used to catch fish
April 24, 2018
Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) next week will unveil its new exhibit, Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land, which explores ancient place names and the innovative inventions that were used to catch halibut and salmon. The community is welcome to explore it free of charge on First Friday.
The exhibit shares knowledge about Southeast Alaska through Native perspectives and voices and includes three sections: Native Voices on the Land; Salmon People; and Halibut, Attack the Hook! All three exhibits are offered on interactive platforms.
The exhibit offers a window into how Native people historically survived and thrived in the region, said SHI President Rosita Worl.
“Indigenous people have lived in Southeast Alaska for more than 10,000 years, and during that time, our people invented ingenious tools to catch salmon and halibut and to sustain fish populations. Our people also documented important places, including subsistence areas, through names,” Worl said. “Our goal is to share this knowledge with the public and to honor the ingenuity of our ancestors.”
The exhibit takes its name from the book Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land by Tom Thornton, which was published in 2012 by SHI and the University of Washington Press. Shux’aa aa aan saax’u (original place names) are cultural terms and rich sources of information about a way of life both past and present. The names document productive hunting, fishing and gathering locales as well as spiritual events. For example, Gathéeni translates as Sockeye Salmon Creek and Xáat Áa Dugich Yé means Pitching the Fish Place. Thornton, working with hundreds of Elders and other tribal people, documented about 3,500 Native place names and their locations in Southeast Alaska.
Native Voices on the Land is an interactive component of the exhibit that allows visitors to touch Native place names on a table screen, see their English translations and, in a majority of cases, hear Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian names spoken in the indigenous language. Multi-media presentations accompany some place names. The exhibit is searchable and allows users to zoom in on places.
Salmon People explores the intertidal fish traps and lures invented by ancient Tlingit fishermen that allowed them to harvest salmon in a way that protected the populations. Salmon follow the tidal cycle when they swim towards the streams in which they were born. As the tide comes in, salmon approach their streams and ascend them on the high tide to spawn. Those salmon that do not ascend move back out into the estuary or bay to wait for the next high tide. Tlingit fishermen observed this pattern and devised a system of intertidal fish traps to catch salmon only during the ebbing tide. These traps were designed to flood during the high tide, allowing salmon to swim freely upstream to spawn. This flexible design provided a bountiful catch for the fishermen while ensuring enough salmon entered their streams to reproduce. No Western harvest system has ever accomplished this.
The exhibit includes a replica by David A. Boxley of an old salmon trap stake collected on the Stikine River in Wrangell. The stake, found in the early 1900s, depicts a boy inside a salmon and is based on the story Aak’wtaatseen (“Alive in the Eddy”), which is also known as Salmon Boy. The story teaches about respect for the Salmon People. The stake was attached to a fish trap to show respect to the salmon and to draw them in. SHI in 2017 published a book based on this story. Innovative lures designed by Native people also allowed them to catch king and coho salmon swimming among the islands in ocean waters.
Halibut, Attack the Hook! explores the remarkable hooks invented by Southeast Alaska Native people. The hooks were engineered to catch medium-sized halibut, leaving the smallest and the largest fish behind to promote the conservation of the species. The exhibit also explains the spiritual dimensions inherent in the hooks. The northern Northwest Coast halibut hook in February was inducted into the Alaska State Committee for Research (SCoR) Alaska Innovators Hall of Fame because its sophistication and innovation make it unique from any other fish hook.
The exhibit will open to the public on Tuesday, May 1, in the Nathan Jackson Gallery in SHI’s Walter Soboleff Building in downtown Juneau. The community may explore it free of charge during First Friday, scheduled 4:30-7 pm, May 4.
Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.
CONTACT: Amy Fletcher, SHI Media and Publications Director, 907.586.9116, email@example.com