My husband and daughter are Alaska Native; they are Tlingit and Haida. I am an even blend of nearly all things considered Caucasian. In our home we tend to embrace the Tlingit culture stronger than anything else, because that’s how my husband grew up and frankly it’s so much more interesting than the average middle-class white-girl way that I grew up. The greatest thing about being a hybrid family is that we can choose what’s wonderful about being Tlingit. We love hunting, gathering, beautiful Tlingit art, the fantastic jewelry and Tlingit dance.
However, for me there are difficult things about raising a child who may identify mainly as another race. For one thing, I just don’t fit in. It’s not my skin tone that’s the problem, it’s the fact that Tlingits have an incredibly rich and complex culture and I don’t know all the rules.
This condition is exacerbated at ceremonial gatherings because in the Tlingit culture husband and wife must belong to separate moieties. My husband is Eagle, therefore I am Raven. Tlingit culture is matrilineal so our daughter is Raven as well. The most important ceremonial gathering in Tlingit culture is the Koo.eex, or “pay off party.” If, for example, an Eagle dies, the Raven family members assist the family by helping with the funeral and giving support during the 40 day mourning period. A year or more later follows the Koo.eex, when the Eagles host a HUGE party and pay back the Ravens for all their help during their time of grief.
Yes, the party part is fun, but this means is that I, as a Raven, must sit alone with my daughter while my husband busily serves us and about 300 other people. There is sitting, there is rising, and there is singing in Tlingit! Generally I have no idea what I am supposed to do. Last fall at a party at one point during a song I was holding my daughter, then only about a year old, and swaying when an elder tapped me on the shoulder and said “No dancing!” I could have died. It was mourning song.
Traditional Tlingit culture also separates along gender lines, which further complicates things in our family. Women’s and girl’s dance is nothing like male dancing. So we argue about who has to dance with our under two-year-old daughter at practice. Him: “I’m not a girl!” Me: “I’m not Tlingit!” As well, beading and sewing both fall under the female category and there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to do things. For example, sewing buttons below the border of the felt is Tlingit, placing the buttons on the border is Haida, a closely related people but historic adversaries. I relaxed a bit on the sewing of my daughter’s regalia — I realized that if I am making it, the regalia is never going to be a sacred museum-worthy piece, and therefore a few artistic liberties would be okay.
We do blur traditional gender lines in our family though, because I don’t process my husband’s meat or fish. Two generations ago, there would be no question that the wife would do this. However, I was raised vegetarian so just eating the meat was a big step for me. I know my husband will teach our daughter all the proper ways to care for the harvest and I also know that he will be taking her out hunting and fishing, even though that is not the traditional female role.
Another difficulty we face is that here in Southeast Alaska, Tlingits are the traditionally marginalized minority. There is still a great deal of discrimination against Alaska Natives and culturally they deal with a lot of sad issues like alcoholism, poverty, obesity and suicide. I will do anything to make sure that my daughter grows up proud of her heritage despite these issues. I buy her Tlingit dolls and books. But I can’t be a strong female, Tlingit role model for her and I can’t stop kids at school from making nasty comments about Alaska natives.
What worries me is that my family is so awesome and my husband’s can be so dysfunctional. I think it’s fairly normal to have dysfunction in your family, but I don’t want my daughter to conclude that Tlingit = dysfunctional. My husband and I try to address this head-on. Usually it’s me saying something like, “Look, you need to read to her. I don’t want her to think only white people read books.” I also try to just relax and enjoy what is really great about my in-laws. Is my mother-in-law’s life style, economic situation, education level etc. anything I would want for my daughter? Not at all. But is she hilarious? Yep. Grandma on a good day is one of my favorite people in the world and we just have to treasure those moments.
Still, I worry. It worried me at first that my daughter is so fair-skinned. She has brown eyes and a lot of my husband’s features, but she has my coloring. For some reason this made me think that my husband’s family wouldn’t like her as much. But the more I immerse myself in Tlingit culture I realize they will accept my daughter because she is one of them no matter what she looks like. Likewise, I am what I am — someone who will slowly become more of their community over time and with patience, and I won’t win anyone over by trying too hard. That’s okay. If I went to party and tried to impress everyone by wolfing down seal flipper or stink eggs, it would really crush the spirits of the elders who love to show off their iron stomachs. I would be forever known as that greedy woman who hogged all the seal flipper. If my daughter were to go to a party and enjoy an extra helping of stink eggs elders would weep with joy. I am fine with this. More seal flipper and stink eggs for them.
The other day I saw a t-shirt that at first I wanted for my daughter, but then it made me pause. It said “Half Tlingit, Half Amazing.” That in my mind is not quite right. My daughter is half Tlingit, ALL amazing. Being part of my side of the family is really great, too. My family traditions do not date back to time immemorial, but some of them are fun and some of them are very important to me. We are really great with western holidays and never, ever buy a birthday cake at the store.
So again, I am trying to relax. Ultimately it’s my daughter who will determine where the Tlingit culture belongs in her heart; my job is to let her know that I love everything about who she is.