Good morning, Saat-Kaa coming to you from my place to yours!
That’s how I start most of my YouTube videos, and I’m writing this blog in the morning. Saat-Kaa is my Tlingit name, and Yakei Tsootaats is how we say Good Morning. I’m going to take you on a journey of how the idea of carving the Spirit of Glacier Bay mask came to be.
Earlier this year, my wife Ivy and I were discussing with an agent about the possibility of going on a cruise ship as an Alaska Native Artist. We talked about the scope of my experience of sharing the Tlingit culture and what we can bring to the table.
“As a Tlingit carver and an Elder, I see myself as a cultural bearer with a responsibility of sharing and upholding the Tlingit culture”.
I recently finished carving a giant Devilfish mask that represents the Tlingit Chookaneidee clan - The Kaa-Kooch story of “How the Chookaneidee earned the right to use the Devilfish/Octopus (Na’akw) as one of their Clan symbols."
I was invited by Dr. Rosita Worl, the director of SHI - Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau to do a lecture presentation for their monthly lecture series program, which I was honored to do with the help of my wife Ivy, granddaughters Rae, Jordynn, and our great-grandchildren.
What I found when developing a workable venue with the Cruise line industry is that they are super busy, constantly planning their season. Trying to fit a Native venue into a cruise ship's schedule isn’t as easy as one might think!
Venue ideas discussed with our agent started out with carving an 8-10 ft Totem pole (that would represent Glacier Bay) for up to 5 hours a day from May to September, with the idea of carving and answering questions as the passengers stop by to watch. Usually, tourists on cruise ships get to see a Tlingit totem pole being carved when they get off at a port of call and see a local carver at work. Having an artist on board, a passenger would be able to watch more of this process in action; with an option that the cruise line could purchase the Totem at the end of the season since this is an Alaskan cruise.
After Zoom meetings and discussions, carving a Tlingit totem pole was put on hold. The new focus was on the Presidential cruise that was scheduled for June 23rd – 30th. I was asked again about my experience in Tlingit culture I can share.
Here is my proposal:
- Bring the Giant Kaa-Kooch mask to display.
- Demonstration carving.
- Carve a mask, it’s more suited for a week, than a totem.
- My wife and I can drum, sing, and dance Tlingit songs in regalia.
- Share Tlingit language.
- Have chookaneidee stories of Glacier Bay
- Stories of Mom and siblings growing up in Glacier Bay 75 years ago.
- The mask will represent the Chookaneidee story of Glacier Bay.
- Share the lecture of Chookaneidee Kaa-Kooch story.
- Carving tools and supplies.
The ideas were shared with the cruise line as our agent was negotiating a contract. Ivy and I will have a stateroom, and free meals while on board. I was being brought on as a Guest Speaker. Our itinerary proposal went something like this:
- Do 2 presentations in the main theatre called “Beyond the Podium”.
- Carving demonstrations throughout the week, answering questions.
- Join the narrative of glacier history when in the Glacier fields.
- Wear regalia as we sing, dance, and share the Tlingit language.
Remember when I said that the cruise line industry is super busy?
That also means waiting for a decision can take more time than you anticipate. Finally, we heard back, and they added us to their sailing schedule. Awesome, that meant making a list of items we needed to take with us. Prepare the lecture material, get luggage large enough to carry my carving supplies and Ivy says one large enough for her make up, make a tripod to hold the Giant Kaa-Kooch mask when displayed, and whatever else that may come up. You know the usual stuff in planning a trip. We made arrangements with our places of employment for the dates we’ll be gone.
To our surprise, we got a call from our agent in April. She asked us if we could be available to go on a cruise ship for the month of May, from May 3rd - 26th. We would get on the ship and stay on board the whole time; this would be the same cruise ship as the one in June! I looked at Ivy and she nodded yes! We told her “Yes!”. Our agent said that she would let the cruise person know were available and she would call us when she heard back.
We received this call on Wednesday April 26th, on the Friday we received a confirmation call that we were going on the ship. That meant that we had 4 days to pack for a month!
We also found out that we would be embarking on the ship in Vancouver BC and finishing the cruise in Seattle. Originally, we thought we would start and finish in Seattle. Unexpected things come up from time to time. This was no exception.
Well, we didn’t want to take our car up to Canada and leave it there for a month only to disembark in Seattle, find a way home with all our stuff, and go back to Canada to pick up our car. The logistics didn’t add up. The solution was to take an Uber, which we did! We ordered an XL Uber that barely fit all our luggage and the 4ft x 33in x 19in mask, but we did it! All right, another hurdle we got over in that short amount of time. Just like a football hurry-up offense at the end of a game.
We made it, going through customs at a busy cruise ship port was a lot like a busy airport. Once on the ship, we met the events director, discussed our needs as well as theirs, and got a copy of our itinerary. What Ivy and I eventually became aware of besides this being our first cruise in any capacity, was that the people on the Celebrity Solstice Alaskan Cruise also heard 4 days ago that we were coming aboard. They had to make accommodations for us and add us to their already busy crew who were responsible for setting up and taking down equipment needed for each act.
With nervous anticipation, we poised ourselves for a new adventure, or I should say my nervousness was much higher than Ivy’s. We eventually got use to the layout of the ship, our routine, and the adjustments along the way. We were on the ship for 3 different cruises and each week we had to move to a different stateroom, these rooms were filled in advance. We thought we would be in one room the whole time! Oh well.
There is a Tlingit saying that goes like this: “Yei Awei!”, which means “And That’s the Way It Is”, when things are out of our control… “Yei Awei!” Is the best response.
Beyond The Podium presentations:
The first day: I presented my PowerPoint lecture on “How the Chookaneidee earned the right to use the Devilfish/Octopus as one of their Clan Crests” in the main theatre. My giant Kaa-Kooch mask was displayed on stage.
Second day: Ivy and I shared the Tlingit culture through songs, dancing, storytelling including audience participation. They learned how to say words and phrases in Tlingit.
Carving Demonstrations: were scheduled for 45-50-minute, like all the acts in that part of the ship. There was an act scheduled before me and one after. So, Ivy and I would set up our awesome display, and help put the Giant Devilfish mask on its tripod. Do my carving demonstration, answer questions, then hurry up and help get our display taken down for the next act.
Glacier Fields: I was invited to be up in the bridge area where the captain, mates drive the ship. Anyways the naturalist and I would take turns sharing.
I brought some blocks of cedar to carve on during the carving demonstrations. I was glad that I had already started shaping the block for the Spirit of Glacier Bay because the amount of time I was scheduled to carve was narrower than we thought.
The Spirit of Glacier Bay mask actually represents our Chookaneidee Clan Kaasteen story. I shared this story as part of my narrative on the bridge while visiting the Glaciers with all the icebergs floating around.
Our Story: Mini Ice Age
190 years ago the Tlingit lived in Glacier Bay. The Chookaneidee had 5 Tribal longhouses there, along with 4 other clan houses. Kaasteen was at the age where she was transitioning into womanhood. Like other indigenous traditions Kaasteen was isolated from the rest of the village. During this transitioning time, young women have the most Power in their lives! Kaasteen was getting bored one day, so she started to beckon the glacier to come to her. The glacier started moving towards them. The people in the village knew exactly what happened. They knew what Kaasteen did.
The glacier was moving at a fast pace. The people had to get into their canoes and flee the Bay. Since Kaasteen put the Tlingits in harm's way, her punishment was she had to stay behind as a sacrifice with hopes it’d appease the Glacier. As the last canoe was pulling out a wolf hopped in the canoe, laid down in the back, and stayed there, not moving. It was fleeing Glacier Bay as well. The people were pulling as hard as they could to stay in front of the glacier. As they were pulling away, they looked back and saw the Glacier crush the longhouses that lay in its path.
The Glacier followed them out into Icy Straight and spanned the width of the straights. When the canoes reached Point Adolphus they sacrificed a person to appease the Glacier, This time it worked, the Glacier stopped as it touched the land of Point Adolphus. The wolf jumped out of the canoe and went into the forest.
This is the version I heard.
Other versions say that Kaasteens grandmother took her place, another Grandma stayed back with Kaasteen.
To this day the Tlingit of Glacier Bay, primarily the Chookaneidee say “Kaasteens spirit lives in the Glacier, and she watches over us when were in the Bay”.
So I carved 2 masks:
- The Spirit Of Glacier Bay (Kaasteen)
- The Grandmother
The Spirit Of Glacier Bay (Kaasteen) mask:
As I was carving the Spirit of Glacier Bay mask, I didn’t know what the finished piece was going to look like. I knew she was going to have a labret and needed to embody the Glacier. The mask evolved through a process I call “Finding my way”.
The cedar was dry, making it hard to carve, so I softened the wood fibers by spraying water on it. I also soaked the mask, helped when hollowing the back. Cedar can crack in places when releasing moisture, and close when it dries.
My mask started to show some serious cracking. Normally I would get worried, but for this mask I got excited! Remember when I said that this piece needs to embody the glacier? Glaciers crack and fissure during the calving process. I hoped these cracks would stay because I wanted to have cracks and fissures. I also added broken pieces of Abalone shell around the mask to represent the icebergs floating. I chose blue paint for the color of the glacier. I added Abalone for her pupils and labret to reflect the ice of the glacier (when light shines on Abalone it does a beautiful dance)! As an artist I tried to capture the Spirit of Kaasteen in the Glacier!
During the time I was carving the Spirit of Glacier Bay mask I started another mask. Ivy and I were still on the Alaskan Cruise. I wasn’t sure what this next mask was going to be. Ivy suggested that I carve Kaasteen’s grandmother. That was a great idea! Thank you Ivy!
So, I started carving away. This was easier to visualize than Kaasteen’s. My main challenge was capturing the wrinkles of older people and make it look live and part of the mask, which isn’t as easy as it may seem. Once you decide with a style of wrinkle your committed to it, the goal is to not have it take away from the mask but add to it.
As I was finding my way, I found the look I wanted, added it, and went onto the next thing. I added Abalone and less paint as I did on Kaasteens mask. When I think of Grandparents, I see beautiful gray hair. I made my cedar bark hair like usual, but this time I made my own solution for making gray patina. I had to apply a few coats of this solution to get the desired look. The gray hair made the mask pop. I believe I captured the look of Kaasteen’s Grandmother!
Going on an Alaska cruise is always a good choice I’d say!
When Ivy and I were on the cruise ship sharing the Tlingit culture, I always let the passengers know that the Alaska Cruise is mostly in Tlingit Aani meaning Tlingit Land, from Ketchikan to Yakutat’s Hubbard Glacier.
So, our greeting was: “Welcome to Tlingit land.”