Articles About Metlakatla and Tsimshian Culture
Laughing Berry Gift Shop - Laughing Berry Inn
About Metlakatla, Alaska
Metlakatla, Alaska is on Annette Island in the Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska, 17 miles south of Ketchikan. Metlakatla the first inhabited community in the southern region of the State of Alaska.
The community of Metlakatla (officially named “Metlakatla Indian Community”, referred to as “MIC”) is populated mostly by members of the Tsimshian Tribe, originally of British Columbia, Canada. In 1887 a group of Tsimshians migrated from B. C. under the leadership of Anglican missionary, William Duncan, who left a decent lifetime job in a leather tannery in England to be appointed by the Church Missionary Society as the lay missionary to the Tsimshian people on the West Coast of British Columbia. (See A History of Metlakatla Indian Community for more information.)
Current Economic, Social and Political Conditions
Metlakatla is the only reservation in the State of Alaska, therefore its revenue base does not come from taxes but from federal grants. Its government is a curious blend of “old tribal council” and democracy. At times it is difficult to say which is in effect. Nonetheless the community has survived successfully in its socio-economic aspects.
Metlakatla has suffered the loss of two major industries – the timber industry, which went South after U. S. government imposed strict regulations making it impossible for the Forest Service to set aside adequate timber for commercial use, and the cannery, which suffered immeasurable losses due to a lowered demand for fresh salmon, necessitating the sale of its canning division. Evenso, the community still survives with grants from the U. S. government. These grants fund many of MIC’s major programs. In addition, MIC has several companies whose revenues are used for its upkeep. Some of these are Metlakatla Power & Light, Annette Island Packing Co. Cold Storage and most recently Metlakatla Bingo Hall, which boasts dozens of brand new electronic Bingo machines tied in to a national gaming system that makes huge payouts possible.
In the future the community will look to ventures such as the Bald Ridge commercial gravel and rock company, and options such as the sale of excess electricity coming from a possible new hydro plant located along the new Walden Pt. Road. Although these activities are very slow to be realized, there is hope for the economic health of the Metlakatla Indian Community.
In 2008 the MIC hired a project manager to gather important data from the members of Metlakatla Indian Community with respect to impacts brought on by the opening of the new Walden Pt. Road. With the opening of the road will come benefits and disadvantages and many opportunities for new business, both for MIC and for individual entrepreneurs. (See article “Walden Pt. Road, 2008: Benefits and Disadvantages”.) As of May, 2009 the grant monies from the federal government to finish paving of this 14.7 mile road still have not been realized. However, Councilmembers and Executives are optimistic that it will happen at the latest by the end of the current fiscal year.
MIC has a police department (MPD) with six full-time officers. The MPD operates under the Police Commissioner (the May of MIC) and takes care of misdemeanor criminal activity. It refers felony offenders to State of Alaska courts in Ketchikan, Alaska. Felons are prosecuted there and if found guilty, are incarcerated elsewhere.
MIC also has a Tribal Court, operating under a Chief Magistrate and one full-time assistant magistrate. The Tribal Court handles all misdemeanor cases, civil trials and certain family and probate issues.
MIC has a volunteer fire department, MVFD, that has very up to date vehicles – a couple of fire engines, an ambulance and brand new fast boat for medivacing patients to Ketchikan. Although the boat has not yet been tested in the winter when waters are treacherous from winter storms, thus far in the early stages it appears to function well. It is very fast. Volunteers in medical emergencies are very well-trained and response time is second to none.
The school system is under the Annette Islands School District and is operated by the State of Alaska. It consists of K-12 classes that offer curricula similar to those of other state schools. In addition, various granting agencies contribute to ensure that traditional skills also are taught, such as coastal artwork, beading and native dance. Metlakatla recently received “Heavy Impact Aid” monies from the federal government. U. S. law was amended to include Metlakatla because of its special federal trust status, and will ensure that Metlakatla receives over $1 million in Heavy Impact funds in perpetuity. With the help of the HIA funds AISD has been able to reinstate many sports and other elective programs that were discontinued because of lack of funds.
Currently the language of the Tsimshian, “Shim-all-Giack” is spoken by only a handful of the oldest people in Metlakatla. However, there is a renewed interest in the area to teach the language by former members of the community and a few people who live there. Many people feel it imperative to teach the language to the youth so that it will not be lost. However, there are limited resources to achieve this goal at present.
MIC has a fantastic medical facility for its members, the Annette Island Service Unit (AISU) with a medical clinic and a permanent medical and dental staff of two doctors, two physicians assistants, a full-fledged pharmacy staffed with a pharmacist and two certified pharmacy assistants, numerous medical technicians and state of the art medical equipment. Patients who are unable to be treated at the Metlakatla clinic are referred to the SEARHC (Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium) in Mt. Edgecumbe or to Anchorage Native Medical Center.
Recently completed is the brand-new state of the art medical building that houses all of the medical and administrative staff. The building is a masterpiece in design, with stained glass windows, beautiful beams and local indigenous woods used for trim. It is a pleasure for all who work there to experience such a beautiful building. The lobby has displays of local artists’ work including basketry, carvings and regalia; there also is a photographic display of the work of one of the first and only native photographers in the early 20th Century, Benjamin A. Haldane. In the exam rooms one can find the current photographic work of photographer Scott Hudson, a young member of the Metlakatla Indian Community whose photographs of Metlakatla’s natural surroundings are breathtaking.
The AISU also has staff quarters for visiting doctors, assistants and technicians. Under the direction of its director Rachael Askren, AISU has expanded its physical confines by the inclusion of the “Lepquinum Wellness Center”, formerly a swimming facility closed due to lack of funds. The director has successfully incorporated the facility into a wellness program that includes state of the art fitness machines in the huge gym. This program is hugely successful for many Metlakatla residents who are determined to improve their general health. AISU also has a program for domestic violence called WINGS (Women In Need Gaining Safety) that includes a couple of “safe houses”.
As if all of that weren’t sufficiently excellent, AISU also is a teaching clinic for students from the University of Washington and other institutes of higher education who come to Metlakatla to have on the job training. Also, the director of AISU has a philosophy of continued education for any one of the staff who wishes to further his or her education in a particular field. In general the AISU has come from a tiny understaffed clinic to a 21st Century medical superfacility that is the pride of Metlakatla and envied by many communities in Southeast Alaska.
Although Metlakatla is somewhat isolated due to the fact that it is on an island it does offer many of the amenities found in any small town of the U. S. Some of these are as follows:
- Full service food market
- Fast food and convenience store with full service garage
- Clothing store
- Gift shops
- Hardware store
- Smoke shop
- Hotels , Bed & Breakfasts
- Gas station and tire repairs
Membership in the Metlakatla Indian Community
Membership in the Metlakatla Indian Community is limited to members of the Tsimshian Tribe or other Alaska Natives 18 years of age or older who have resided in Metlakatla for at least one year. Membership is determined by application to the Council. Once membership is established there are certain rules members must follow in order to retain their membership. Non-natives cannot become members but are allowed to live in Metlakatla if they obtain employment, business or residence permits or are married to a member of MIC or have children who are native. Many teachers and medical care providers fall under the employment permit category.
In the 1970s a handful of Metlakatlans began realizing the importance of certain cultural activities heretofore lacking in community life as a valuable expression of the “heart and spirit” of the Tsimshian people. These individuals had enough of a vision to realize that embracing their own culture did not necessarily mean rejecting their new adopted American culture. They were wise enough to know that they could, indeed, have the “best of both worlds”. Because of their vision the community underwent a revival of cultural activities, which continues to this day. Due to the persistence and dedication of this handful of people, the artwork and carving, traditional dance and song, regalia making and basketry thrive today in Metlakatla, Alaska. Metlakatla, in fact, is the home of several world class artists who have their art work in galleries all over the world.