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Friday, July 29, 2016

To Know Teslin, Know the Tlingit

We had three nights in Teslin, on the Alaska Highway in the Yukon Territory between Whitehorse and the junction with the Cassiar Highway.  We had driven through on our way up to Alaska, but hadn't stopped here.  We found it a stop worth making as we've been making our way back down to the Lower 48.

The Village of Teslin is not large, but they have done a lot to welcome visitors.  The signage, in particular, is attractive and introduces you to the story:

The bridge is an appropriate logo on the sign, because the bridge in town crosses the Nisutlin Bay of Teslin Lake and is the longest bridge on the Alaska Highway.  It has an attractiveness all its own:

Teslin Lake is gorgeous.  It is 75 miles long, seeming to go on forever as it parallels the Alaska Highway, and up to 3 miles wide.  Nisutlin Bay lies on the north edge of the lake about midway along its length.  Our campground, at the Yukon Motel & RV Park, sat on the shore of the lake, and we had some beautiful views to the north as we took our coffee walks in the morning:

The Village of Teslin is, essentially, a Tlingit ("KLING-git") First Nations community, and it has a welcoming aura about it.  On our walk along the highway, we found the George Johnston Trail, which is an ATV-snowmobile trail that runs from the main part of the village out to the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Center.  More on all of that shortly.  We decided to bicycle the trail and see some of the sights.

The trail is gravelled and relatively easy to bicycle, if you're willing to deal with occasional patches of deeper sand or gravel.  This is bear country, and we saw lots of bear sign in the area.

The Tlingit are an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. Their language is Lingít, meaning "People of the Tides."    The Tlingit are a matrilineal society that developed in the temperate rainforest of the southeast Alaska coast and the Alexander Archipelago. The Tlingit maintained a complex hunter-gatherer culture based on semi-sedentary management of fisheries. An inland group, known as the Inland Tlingit, inhabits the far northwestern part of the province of British Columbia and the southern Yukon Territory in Canada.  The Teslin Tlingit are a branch of this group.  While they maintain close contacts and family relationships with the coastal Tlingit and other Inland Tlingit, the dialects of the various groups differ significantly.

After the arrival of the Russian sealers and fur traders in the 18th Century, many Tlingit converted to Russian Orthodoxy.  Once Canada and the U.S. took control of the area, Anglican and Roman Catholic influence increased, and many Tlingit converted to those religitions.

One of the earliest buildings in the village is the Anglican Church:

What is thought to be the oldest building had been the original Anglican church, but, on the building of the new one pictured above, it was converted to serve as the Parish Hall:

The Tlingit seem to have been successful in combining their own cultural traditions with the new religions.  We found the village cemetery.  Many gravesites are adorned either with headstones bearing symbols of the deceased's tribal clan, or with traditional white fences around the gravesite:

The story of Teslin is not complete without knowing the biography of George Johnston, one of the Yukon's renowned photographers. With a brownie box camera, entirely self-taught skills and a rough dark room in the corner of a bush cabin, he produced hundreds of works depicting the life of his Tlingit people. His photo gallery shows them at church and at school, at cabin building and holiday picnics, beading and dancing, working hides and catching fish, traveling by dog sled and snowshoes, and wielding the tools of work and play. Most of all it records their fruitful lives as hunters and trappers in prosperous years of the early 20th century. It is a masterful sociological and historical record, created in an unlikely place and over 20 years.

In 1928, flush with fur trapping funds, Teslin Tlingit George Johnston purchased a new car, had it shipped by small paddle wheeler several hundred miles upstream in the Yukon River watershed to the remote village of Teslin, then located in a vast and roadless wilderness. There he had readied four miles of crude road, road that 13 years later was to become part of the fabled Alaska Highway north. The car became an icon of enterprise serving as local taxi, pulling his hunting sled, transporting locals up and down 80 miles of frozen lakeway and the vehicle for his renowned photography. The original car, in excellent working order, is on exhibit with a photographic history of its exploits.

Much more can be said about George Johnston and his family, who had a settlement at the south end of the lake, some miles from Teslin.  But the George Johnston Museum, which we visited, fleshes out this man and his community very effectively.

As we left the museum, we happened upon these two little birds, who seemed to be so curious about us that they forgot to be frightened as we approached and set up our camera to take their photo:

The shore of Teslin Lake is beautiful.  We explored it as we worked our way down the George Johnston Trail:

We finally reached our destination:  the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Center, about 8 km north along the Alaska Highway:

As with many other First Nations cultural and heritage centers in Canada, this center is as much a place for the Tlingit to gather and preserve and share their culture as it is a museum and exhibit for visitors.  We were welcomed by totem poles depicting the five main clans of the Tlingit - the wolf, the raven, the eagle, the frog and the beaver:

The center also works to preserve and share Tlingit crafts and arts as well.

We felt that we understood Teslin a great deal better once we began to understand the history and culture of the local Tlingit.

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