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Traveling in Southeast Alaska in spring is always an adventure, with no guarantees of on-time departure or arrival. This is particularly true when the journey involves a bumpy crossing in a small WWII-era de Havilland Beaver floatplane. Fortunately, one windswept March evening, an experienced Promech Air pilot delivered the mail, a load of printer cartridges and three weather-delayed passengers to Metlakatla. I wobbled off the plane as daylight faded behind the wall of snow-saturated clouds.
A weekend in Metlakatla 032311 NEWS 1 For the Capital City Weekly Traveling in Southeast Alaska in spring is always an adventure, with no guarantees of on-time departure or arrival. This is particularly true when the journey involves a bumpy crossing in a small WWII-era de Havilland Beaver floatplane. Fortunately, one windswept March evening, an experienced Promech Air pilot delivered the mail, a load of printer cartridges and three weather-delayed passengers to Metlakatla. I wobbled off the plane as daylight faded behind the wall of snow-saturated clouds.

Photo by Lindarae Shearer


Photo By Marcus Nelson

Visitors can exchange the hustle and bustle of the city for a cultural learning experience in Alaska's only Tsimshian village. Metlakatla can be accessed by a short flight from Ketchikan or a leisurely ride on the Alaska Marine Highway's Lituya ferry,

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Story last updated at 3/23/2011 - 1:19 pm

A weekend in Metlakatla

Traveling in Southeast Alaska in spring is always an adventure, with no guarantees of on-time departure or arrival. This is particularly true when the journey involves a bumpy crossing in a small WWII-era de Havilland Beaver floatplane. Fortunately, one windswept March evening, an experienced Promech Air pilot delivered the mail, a load of printer cartridges and three weather-delayed passengers to Metlakatla. I wobbled off the plane as daylight faded behind the wall of snow-saturated clouds.

Located 15 miles south of Ketchikan on the southern end of the Alexander Archipelago, Metlakatla is a Tsimshian village on the western coast of Annette Island. Peeking out at the empty streets from the inside of the air company's van, I tried to picture how the island must have looked to the original founders.

In 1887, a group of Tsimshians led by Anglican missionary William Duncan arrived here by canoe. Problems with the church authorities in British Columbia forced him and his mission to seek refuge elsewhere. About 823 Tsimshian people eventually left their homeland to form a new village in the U.S. territory of Alaska. Each year, the town still celebrates Founder's Day on August 7.

In 1891, the U.S. Congress officially recognized Metlakatla by creating the Annette Islands Reserve, a federal Indian reservation that later included the surrounding waters. Today, the Annette Islands Reserve is the only remaining federal reservation in Alaska. The official name of the tribe is the Metlakatla Indian Community (MIC), and it is governed by an elected 12-member tribal council, mayor, secretary, and treasurer.

"As a reservation, MIC is a sovereign nation, so the council chamber interacts with federal and state authorities on a government-to-government basis," explained Karl Cook, a member of the tribal council and currently the acting mayor.

There are around 2300 members enrolled in the Metlakatla Indian Community, about 1500 of whom live in Metlakatla, said Diana Yliniemi, the tribal executive secretary.

"First Nations from British Columbia and Alaska Natives of any tribe can become a member," added Cook.

The application process requires several steps, including residing in the Annette Islands Reserve for a certain period of time and disenrollment from other federally recognized tribal affiliations. Membership in the community is similar to becoming a citizen of another country, and federal rules prohibit dual enrollment for tribal members.

Like any government, MIC has its own constitution and court system. It provides public services such as a clinic, senior center, police, and fire department. The MIC also owns and operates its own hydroelectric plant, providing clean energy for the community's electric needs. MIC owns and operates community enterprises such as a cold storage, a small casino, a water bottling company, and hatchery. The school district, which includes a blue ribbon elementary school, is administered by the State of Alaska.

The day I visited Metlakatla, stormy winds and sideways snow made indoor chats with locals much more appealing than wandering around. I followed my nose to the smells of the grill at the Tuck'em Inn and Restaurant. A warm cheery place with a distinctive nautical theme, colorful plastic bait hung from the rafters among crystal floats playfully twisted in fishing nets. Photos covered the walls with smiling locals and visitors. They all held up their catch of the day against the backdrop of sapphire blue skies that would not emerge during my visit. The best time to come, I was informed, is after mid-April.

The clock on the wall flashed the time: one hour ahead of my watch. Winter visitors should note that Metlakatla is an hour ahead of Ketchikan. (In summer, there is no time difference.)

Though MIC manages many public services and enterprises, several private businesses on the island are run by tribal members. Lindarae Shearer is one such entrepreneurial Metlakatla citizen. She currently owns the Laughing Berry Company, whose many visitor-oriented services include Laughing Berry Tours, Laughing Berry Gifts, Metlakatla Car Rentals, and Laughing Berry Inn. Her latest venture is Laughing Berry Botanicals (www.laughingberrybotanicals.com), which offers wild-harvested Devil's Club products and more.

"The laughing berry is the salal berry, which grows here," her husband Larry Shearer explained when I asked about the company's name. "When you squeeze it, the skin splits open like a mouth, and it looks like it's laughing!"

Similar to the Tlingit and the Haida, the traditional foods of the Tsimshian include many different species of fish, seaweed, berries, and game meats.

"Ooligan grease is highly prized for its flavor. It's good for mixing in desserts with wild berries," Larry Shearer said. "When I was a young lad, the food was pretty much all traditional foods."

Times have changed, though, and many people in Metlakatla today depend more on the local grocery stores or trips to Ketchikan than on the wild foods of their ancestors. Shearer, who is in his 60's, still gathers, fishes, and harvests traditional foods. "It's the best food in the world to eat," he said.

Because the reservation controls the resources on land and in the surrounding waters, MIC is able to manage its own fishery and issue permits. Unlike Alaska Natives in other parts of Alaska, MIC members are not subject to the subsistence laws set by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game within the water's under the jurisdiction of Annette Island Indian Reserve.

In the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, Metlakatla was excluded. Karl Cook was present during the decision-making process, and he strongly believes the community made the right decision.

"We opted not to participate because we needed to protect our right to hunt and fish on our land and in our waters," he said.

As a tour operator, Lindarae Shearer offers advice on how travelers to Metlakatla can make the most of their visit: "Be respectful by not walking in anyone's yard or taking photos without permission. Free to talk with people. We love to talk about the town and we want people to come and learn about our culture and our beautiful home."

Following her advice, I spoke with Kristine Gillmartin, a lifelong resident of Metlakatla.

"I love it here, and I never plan to leave," she said. "Everything I need is right here. We have our forests, beaches, and mountains, but we also have cell phones, TV and Internet."

Gillmartin has spent time in big cities, but she enjoys the peacefulness of the place she calls home.

"The only thing we don't have is all the people," she laughed.

Visitors, too, can exchange the hustle and bustle of the city for a cultural learning experience in Alaska's only Tsimshian village.

"It's definitely a unique place that everyone should see at least once," said Tawnia Hudson, another Metlakatla resident.

Summer visitors can observe carving projects at the Artist's Village, take a tour of the historical sights, and enjoy the slower pace of island life.

The rain and chill winds still whipped around the floatplane when it was time to leave. On the dock, I chatted with Edi Fawcett about Metlakatla as she loaded mail into the back of the plane.

"There's a sweet smell here that I never appreciated when I was younger," she said, smiling. "It is a really old-fashioned place in terms of family values. Most people here have at least one set of grandparents here, and some even have two."

As the floatplane bobbed over turbulent air currents away from the island and back to Ketchikan, I reflected on my all-too brief visit to Metlakatla. Close enough to the mainland, the village has access to the rest of the world, and yet it remains an isolated, unique place. Each person I met had a special connection to the island, and everyone mentioned family, community values, and the natural beauty of the place.

Metlakatla can be accessed by a short flight from Ketchikan or a leisurely ride on the Alaska Marine Highway's Lituya ferry, which currently operates five days a week. Independent travelers need to make arrangements ahead of time before coming to the island. They should call the MIC council at 907-886-4441 to notify the authorities and obtain updated information about places to stay and people to contact for tours and other amenities. Visit www.metlakatla.com and www.laughingberry.com for more information.

Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer based in Juneau. She can be reached at jennu.jnu@gmail.com.