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.
When I met the wonderful man who would very soon assist me in bearing a son, and later become my husband, the first thing I... Read more
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.
Comments on Thoughts and considerations when trying to raise a proud Tlingit daughter
As a ‘white skinned’ aboriginal Canadian, I throughly enjoyed this piece. Your daughter is lucky to have such a diverse family and I’m sure she will grow to love both her cultures!
When it comes to your worry about teaching her traditional females roles of the Tlingit culture, maybe comical Grandma will be a great help (she might even be willing to teach you as well!)
Having light skin does have it’s benefits. For instance, I often have white people say degrading things about my people around me, not knowing I myself am aboriginal. It’s quite the feeling when I am able to correct them and open their eyes to a new way of living. Be sure your daughter is always proud of herself, both native & non-native hertiage!
I wonder if there is also a female role model besides Grandma that could teach her about what it means to be female in Tlingit culture. If possible, it seems like it might alleviate a lot of the concerns and challenges?
But for this family, Grandma isn’t in the same clan as kiddo so it doens’t work.
We navigate some of the same issues in our family. Finding someone to be “god-mother”/ guide is really, really helpful, but can require lots of self-deprecation and butt kissing in the process (which doesn’t have to be a bad thing)
Beautifully written, thank you for sharing this aspect of your life. Blending family traditions can be difficult, but always interesting. My husband and I are Caucasian, but 3 of my 4 grandparents are from other countries, so there are traditions that seem foreign to him. It’s not as big a contrast, but it is interesting to see how some traditions persist, others fade, and some are revived.
Thank you for this- as a potential future mother to half white/half native babies it resonated quite strongly with me. I’ve tried to express my concerns about being the “white mom out” to a few people, but very few of them understand that it isn’t about how my children might look but what I can offer in terms of cultural support for a culture I’m not a part of myself.
Thanks! I am happy to know there are other people who have these same thoughts. It’s definitely not about looks. There’s nothing cuter (in my opinion) than a native baby!
Huh. Me and my baby boy are Jewish and my husband isn’t. I wonder if he ever feels this way? Previously, he hasn’t had much exposure to the gender division in Jewish practice. I wonder if he’s aware that we will be raising our Jewish BOY to do somethings differently from how I do them.
I was raised in a very traditional Catholic family…until I was 9 and my dad started dating a woman who had spent much of her prior life as an Orthodox Jew. My introduction to her family was her daughter’s Orthodox wedding celebration, complete with all the gender division involved. I don’t think my dad had expected it at all, and I certainly didn’t!
I think the most important thing is to make sure your husband is educated about his responsibilities, and about your culture. Taking the time to guide him through everything will show him how important both he *and* your child’s Jewish upbringing are to you 🙂
Woot Woot! Juneau Pride! 🙂 Awesome article. My husband and I are in the process of becoming licensed foster parents here in southeast, this is a timely piece for sure. Your baby girl is lucky her parents are raising her to value herself and her culture(s)!
First off, excellent article. I’m on the other end of the same boat (euro-canadian mother, chekleesaht dad) and it’s not always an easy path to tread. If you can, friendship centres and first nations studies departments are good places to look for role models. In addition, you’ll likely find elders who would love to help get you up to speed with beading and answer questions as they come up for you. It sounds like you’re doing an amazing job of raising your baby girl!
This so much! I’m whiter than paper (well actually my mother was bill C-31 cut off…but skin tone wise) and recently graduated with my BA in Native Studies and worked for a year in Residential Group Home for Aboriginal Youth. Despite not being native I was welcomed into the community (Blackfoot in this case) because I had a genuine desire to learn- and I learned a lot! Beading, dancing, making teepee covers and moccasins- as well as philopsphy, culture, ceremonies, and literature. I would definitely look into the NAS faculties in the schools nearby, and Friendship Centres are great places for youth to meet in a safe, but culturally friendly environment.
Gosh, how Southeast AKers are there on this blog? I’m one too.
I think you touch on a lot of relevant points.
I feel like race shouldn’t matter and that it often doesn’t. After all, my multi-ethinic friends and I are having these even more multi-ethnic babies. But that doesn’t erase tensions.
Culture should be preserved. Tlingit culture teaches everyone in the region about history and about the land & sea. But it’s too easy for some folks to make ethnicity matter way too much.
I remember the first time I was judged for being something other than Tlingit (meaning mostly white). My friend’s mom decided to take out her rage on the elementary school version of me launching into a diatribe about how horrible I was and how I was unworthy of her daughter’s friendship.
Then I got older. And I felt lucky because all I really had to put up with the occasional rant. I knew not one of my teachers judged me based on my looks or last name as a potential drop-out, a likely victim of domestic violence, or a future alcoholic. I’m sure most weren’t judging my Tlingit classmates either, but those bad few lowered expectations and hurt student morale. That needs to end.
All kids should know they’re loved and all kids should be encouraged toward excellence. I think you have the right idea raising yours to know she is loved and that she will be great.
I’m an Aboriginal Australian with a white father. I can understand why you stress about connecting the dysfunction with her ethnicity… however if you over-compensate and prove otherwise it may actually go the other way. Sadly there are always going to be idiots who say stupid/racist things, and sometimes they won’t just be white people saying it… for me it’s worst when it comes from other Aboriginal people.
Hannah! I have tears in my eyes. I love this article and as you know, deal with VERY similar issues. Well said, my dear. Thank you for articulating all of these things so well.
Hey girl! Thanks! We’re in this together for sure.
My husband and I are in a similar boat, having both grown up in Sitka, Alaska, him half-Tlingit and me all-white. We moved to Washington for college, and I’m worried that besides our children being only 1/4 Tlingit, if we don’t move back to the ‘village’ they won’t know their own culture. I’d love to be adopted by the tribe and be able to join in celebrations, but it doesn’t make sense if we don’t move home.
Thank you so much for this piece, it really really helped to know that there are other mixed-Native families with these struggles. I will try so so hard to incorporate Tlingit culture into our kids’ lives, but still keep our family its own special unit.
Hey JoAnna- that’s even tougher living outside of Alaska. At least here the dance group is only 5 minutes down the road. There are some really great books for smaller kids, “Learn to Count with Northwest Coast Native Art,” “Learn the Colors” etc. that are published in Canada and are nice for incorporating a little culture into everyday reading. I feel like food is a really good way to stay connected too, if you can get relatives to send you smoked salmon or dry fish, although good luck with that, that stuff is gold!
I’m actually really excited for when my husband and I have our mixed babies and we get to share our distinct cultures with them (husband is white, urban Francophone while I am Inuit (mixed), rural anglophone gal).
Though I know there will be challenges, both with racism and ensuring that both cultures and languages are present, it makes me happy to blend it all together for our unique family 🙂
Also, my sister-in law (through husband) is Mexican so family reunions will be awesome!
Just a question and I’m not sure if it’s even relevant but do you ever worry about blood quantum. I ask because it is something I worry about since I know that being only half native unless I get with native of full blood decent or my children do their children won’t be federally recognised as native. I fully identify with both of my cultures but is still something I worry about.
Way to go Hannah! Just chiming in as another Juneau-ite. She’ll turn out great with parents like you two and the greater Juneau community behind her.