Anchorage residents will get relief from the clear and cold weather that has set in over the last few days, but the transition could be messy.
Forecasters expect temperatures to hover in the mid- to upper-teens on Thursday, with up to 2 inches of snow falling in the late afternoon and evening.
National Weather Service forecaster Bill Ludwig says the snow will likely turn into freezing rain early Friday morning, which will continue through most of the day.
“At this point, it really doesn’t look like we’ll have a heavy freezing rain event, that if we get some, it’ll be light, but sometimes you don’t need a whole lot to make things pretty nasty,” Ludwig said.
He says he expects less than a quarter of an inch of freezing rain accumulation.
Temperatures are likely to rise to around freezing by Friday afternoon. Then, between 3 and 5 inches of snow is expected Friday evening.
The National Weather Service is forecasting similar conditions for the Mat-Su Valley.
The federal government has finalized new guidelines on the use of sea otters by Alaska Natives. The change is aimed at better-defining a requirement that hides must be “significantly altered” in order to be considered authentic native handicrafts or clothing that can be sold to non-natives.
“These are guidelines and they are to help the native artisans to understand what exactly qualifies as significantly altered,” Andrea Medeiros is a spokesperson for the US Fish and Wildlife Service which has been working on the revised wording for more than a year
The final guidelines say a sea otter will be considered “significantly altered” when it’s not recognizable as a whole hide and has been made into handicrafts or clothing. The language goes on to define that in more detail.
It’s a positive step, according to the Sealaska Heritage Institute which teaches classes in the native tradition of skin sewing. SHI Chief Operating Officer Lee Kadinger says the new wording still needs some adjustment but, overall, he says SHI appreciates the change.
Kadinger thinks it helps clear up a term that, he says, has caused significant harm to artisans over the years, “Clarifying significantly altered to more align with the marine mammal protection acts original intent is…. we feel this language is going to help continue a tradition practiced since time immemorial without fear of prosecution….Protecting this inherent cultural right is not only good public policy but it supports and preserves cultural diversity and respects the traditions and lifestyles of Alaska Native people.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s new definition of “significantly altered” is very similar to language endorsed last year by the Alaska Federation of Natives. That’s with the exception of a line requiring that an otter skin be changed enough that it cannot be easily converted back to an unaltered hide or a piece of hide. According to Kadinger, S-H-I is concerned over the words “piece of hide” since it would be hard to prevent someone from cutting a piece of fur from finished clothing or handicrafts.
“We feel it is acceptable to require individuals, or an item, that cannot be converted back into an unaltered hide. Conversely, we feel including the few words ‘cannot be easily converted back into a piece of hide’ is unnecessary and problematic. So the real issue there is the four words ‘piece of hide’ that we hope to continue to work with Fish and Wildlife service to understand what that part means,” says Kadinger.
Sea otters are a federally-protected species and only coastal Alaska Natives are allowed hunt them. The revised language was, in part, prompted by concerns that unclear regulations and past enforcement actions had discouraged native use of the animals.
According to the agency, the final guidelines are based on input from a 2012 workshop with native artisans and hunters as well as extensive public comments on draft language that came out last spring.
Some commenters had found the draft language too restrictive. Others opposed the change as an attempt to weaken protections and encourage more hunting for the animals which have come into conflict with some of Alaska’s fisheries.
The state of Alaska has more time to develop a plan to improve Fairbanks air quality. An Environmental Protection Agency deadline that passed last year is now December 31, 2014. The new timeline also comes with more stringent requirements related to addressing Fairbanks wintertime fine particulate pollution.
Dozens of friends, former staffers and other well-wishers gathered Monday at UAF’s Rasmuson Library to celebrate what would’ve been former Sen. Ted Stevens’ 90th birthday.
Monday’s commemoration also marked the opening of a new exhibit in the library’s collection of Stevens’s official papers generated during his long career as a U.S. senator from Alaska.
There are many tales that are told of Ted Stevens’s nearly 40-year career in the U.S. Senate – like how he wore his Incredible Hulk tie on days when he knew he’d have to do some serious arm-twisting to get fellow senators’ support for a piece of legislation he was pushing.
Marie Matsumo Nash has heard a few of those tales during the 29 years she worked for Stevens, and she shared one of them Monday. Nash says many years ago Stevens asked her at the last minute to cook some salmon for a meeting of Republican lawmakers in Washington.
“We had to dress it up,” she said. “We were peeling the skin off and putting sliced cucumbers on, making it fit for the senators that were going to be eating it. So that wsas kind of fun. It was something that I’d never done.”
Now there’s another Stevens tale to add to the lore. It’s the story behind an exhibit of Alaska maps related to the senator’s career that UAF graduate student Susannah Dowds has set up in the Ted Stevens Papers Project in the Rasmuson Library.
“It was the first map of the United States that had Alaska in the correct proportion, in the correct position, and Hawaii in the correct proportion and the correct position,” she said.
Dowds says it’s called The Stevens Map because early-on in his Senate career, he directed the U.S. Geological Survey, the USGS, to publish a map that would clarify once and for all that contrary to how the state is depicted on many maps, Alaska is not some disembodied land mass located somewhere just off the coast of Baja California.
“When Alaska first became a state … cartographers just decided to put Alaska as an Insert south of California,” she said.
Dowds says over the years cartographers typically stuck Alaska somewhere near the lower left corner off the Lower 48, and usually at a much smaller scale than the rest of the states, because Alaska is so big, and so far away that it was impractical to show it in the correct place and size.
After it came out in 1975, the senator widely distributed copies of The Stevens map – and it quickly became very popular, especially among educators.
“He sent off copies to all the school in Alaska and we got letters from teachers, or his office did, and they asked for extra copies, because their students didn’t really know where Alaska was in relation to the rest of the United States,” Dowds said.
The “Mapping Alaska” exhibit will run through May.
A Sitka man was indicted last Friday for receiving a package containing over $30,000 worth of heroin and methamphetamine.
According to a criminal complaint filed in Sitka Superior court, a United States Postal Inspector had intercepted the package addressed to 35-year-old Jeremy Claggett on November 4, and notified the Sitka Police Department.
The package contained 1.63 ounces of methamphetamine and 24.8 grams of black tar heroin – quantities worth $9,000 and $24,000, respectively.
Four days later, police officers tracked Claggett as he picked up the package, traveled with it to an industrial site, opened and discarded the packaging, and drove away with its contents. Officers stopped traffic to detain Claggett on his way home.
According to court records, Claggett admitted to police that he had expected to receive a box containing controlled substances in the mail. He confirmed his address on the package. Claggett also admitted to being a convicted felon, and to possibly having handguns at his residence.
The Sitka Grand Jury indicted Claggett on four felony charges: possession with intent to manufacture or deliver heroin, possession with intent to manufacture or deliver methamphetamine, possession of a concealable firearm after having been convicted of a felony — this count applied twice for the two handguns found in Claggett’s possession.
Claggett’s next court appearance is scheduled for Wednesday, November 20.
Another member of Bartlett Regional Hospital’s leadership team is stepping down.
Chief Financial Officer Ken Brough will resign at the end of the year, according to a hospital news release. Interim CEO Jeff Egbert made the announcement in an email to hospital and medical staff and the Bartlett board of directors.
Brough has been with Bartlett since August 2012. He’s the third member of the hospital administration to resign or announce plans to resign in the past three months. CEO Chris Harff resigned last month, and Human Resources Director Norma Adams resigned in September.
Earlier this year, some hospital employees complained publicly about a culture of fear created by senior leadership officials. The city launched a personnel investigation in June.
When CEO Harff left the hospital in October, Brough was named acting CEO – an action that was questioned during public participation at last month’s board of directors meeting.
“How could the board allow Chris Harff to appoint Ken Brough as interim CEO knowing that both of them were under investigation?” asked Ron Gardner, spouse of Bartlett’s director of materials management Sue Gardner. The board did not respond to the question.
Brough plans to move to Prince of Wales Island, where he wants to build a fishing lodge and work as a health care consultant.
Egbert says Bartlett plans to name an interim CFO to serve during the search for a permanent replacement.
Bartlett Regional Hospital is owned by the City and Borough of Juneau. Its board of directors is appointed by the Juneau Assembly. It operates largely on patient fees.
KTOO’s Casey Kelly and Lisa Phu contributed to this report.
State officials announced this week that the tanner crab fishery would not open for the 2014 seasons in the eastern Aleutian Islands. But Unalaska’s small boat fishermen think they’ve found a way to expand the fishery — in an area that’s been closed for two decades.
Unalaska’s tanner crab fishery opened up for the first time in years in January 2013, only to be shut down again for the upcoming season.
State area management biologist Heather Fitch says fisheries can be unpredictable, but in this case, the problem could be in the management.
“Our surveys kind of seem to not necessarily line up. One section’s open one year, it’s closed the next,” she says. “We want to have a better idea of what’s going on.”
Right now, the Department of Fish and Game relies on trawl surveys to keep tabs on crab stocks. State biologists compared the results of this year’s surveys to decade-long averages.
The results varied in the three areas where the tanner crab fishery is located. In Akutan, the number of mature male crabs was far below the legal threshold to open the fishery. In Unalaska and Skan Bay, there were enough mature males to satisfy that requirement — but not enough that fishermen could make their quota without depleting the stock.
Fitch says the crab that’s out there now might be ready to harvest in a couple of years.
“From what it looks like through the rest of the survey, it looks like there’s a big incoming recruit class, so my feeling is if you wait, like, two years, you’ll see them before they come into the fishery — maybe a year, maybe two,” she says.
But local fishermen don’t want to get stuck in a cycle of closures and openings. Instead of waiting for these tanner crab stocks to stabilize, they’re looking for a new area to fish.
Beaver Inlet has been closed to fishing for about 20 years. Fitch says trawl surveys there don’t produce good results.
Zac Nehus is a small boat fisherman and a board member of the Unalaska Native Fishermen’s Association, or UNFA. He says there’s enough crab in Beaver Inlet to support a new fishery, if you know how to look for it.
“It’s kind of our belief that they’re just not seeing the tanner crab, and that’s why a pot survey is needed where you can access these deeper depths and these areas where tanners reside,” he says. “And if we can show that there’s a harvestable biomass there, then maybe we can have a fishery there in the future like we’ve had in other areas around the island.”
Ten members of UNFA met Monday with Heather Fitch to talk about the fishery closure and their pot study idea. They voted to look at sending one boat out next August to do the study. The boat would throw back all the crab it caught, rather than selling them.
Nehus says they’d hoped to do the study this season, but he says August works too — the weather is good and the crab is of legal size, but there’s not much meat on it. He says they want to do the first survey by 2015.
“Once the process is in the works, maybe then you’re able to do it every two years or every three years, and you start to have data to compare against,” he says.
And that’s data that could help the state improve how it manages the fishery as a whole. But those kind of changes are a ways off. There still won’t be a tanner crab season this January.
Nehus says the closure of the Unalaska section, the most active of the three, is more of a loss for the community than it is an economic blow.
“It’s a fun fishery to do,” he says. “A lot of the locals are able to participate with small boats, especially when it’s in Unalaska Bay. Friends go out together, and yeah, maybe they don’t make a lot of money, but people enjoy it.”
He says while the fishery is closed, they’ll focus on getting state approvals for the pot study and finding out how much UNFA would have to pay for it.
The Anchorage Assembly passed a $467 million municipal budget for 2014 Tuesday evening. It’s about half a million dollars more than the one proposed by Mayor Dan Sullivan.
Anchorage libraries secured the $260,000 for better connectivity and supplies.
Other winners include community councils, the Anchorage Service Patrol, legal services, senior centers and community centers.
Losers include public transportation.
Assembly member Patrick Flynn, who represents Downtown Anchorage made a plea for the Assembly to support his amendment keeping bus fares at 2013 levels.
“It’s not just that costs are going up. It’s also that there’s more demand for service. And you know I represent an interesting district,” Flynn said. ”Half of it never uses the bus; half of it depends on the bus more than any other part of town and so I don’t do this to get votes.”
“I do this so that people can get to work and so that people can get home and take care of their kids and support their families.”
The assembly rejected Flynn’s amendment 8-3. It would have added $600,000 into the budget to maintain bus fares at current levels. Adult fares will go up to $2.00. Seniors fares and Anchor Rides will also go up.
The assembly also rejected funding for a homeless coordinator, among other things.
The Municipality’s Chief Financial Officer Lucinda Mahoney explains that reductions were made in another area to offset some of the cost of some of the amendments.
“All of the spending amendments total just over a million dollars,” Mahoney said. “And then Bill Star had an amendment related to property tax relief of $500,000 and this was essentially reducing a budget in another area. So there were budget increases of a million and then a budget decrease of $500,000 for a net increase of $516,000.”
The Assembly also approved a budget increase to help the financially struggling Anchorage School District by picking up the cost of police officers who work in the schools, but sources say it’s likely that Mayor Sullivan will veto the item. The Mayor has line item veto power which he may use within seven days.
The Mayor’s proposed budget would have increased property taxes by 2.7 percent. The Assembly’s amendments will increase property taxes by 3.4 percent.
The total budget is around $267,000. That’s still $1.4 million under the tax cap and several million dollars less than last year’s.
Contract bargaining between the Juneau School District and teachers resumed Monday evening, and as negotiators entered NEA-Alaska offices they were greeted with chants and signs calling for a fair contract.
This is the first negotiating session since early October. Teachers are working for the second year on a one-year contract that remains in effect until a new agreement is reached. They’re clearly frustrated by the lack of bargaining.
Despite blustery winds and temperatures in the low teens, about 20 teachers gathered outside the downtown Juneau office building where the session was held.
Juneau Education Association negotiators entered to cheers, while school district officials heard “settle our contract.”
Teachers started gathering after school as negotiating teams walked into a bargaining session.
Teachers received no salary increase in last year’s contract. They’re asking for no less than a cost of living increase in this year’s agreement.
The two sides met in arbitration in October. The arbitrator’s opinion is expected by the end of the year, but it’s only advisory.
School district officials maintain there is no money in the budget for a raise for teachers.
A young man was sentenced in Bethel Superior Court to 45 years in prison for murdering a Korean cab driver a few winters ago. Kyle Motgin pled guilty to murder in the second degree which dropped several other charges. He was 21 years old when he stabbed Young Suk Chong to death on January 31, 2012.
The victim, “Suzi”, as she was known by her friends, was a 54-year-old cab driver working the early morning shift. Wind chills were 55 below zero. Motgin had been drinking and called the Quyana Cab Company from a home in Bethel. The Kuskokwim River was frozen and he wanted a ride downriver 10 miles to the village of Napakiak. Instead of bringing money to pay for the ride, he brought a knife.
Judge Dwayne McConnell spoke at length at the sentencing.
“The kind of injuries that you inflicted are hard to imagine,” McConnell said.
McConnell reviewed the evidence. In Bethel they found glasses, a boot, and blood; inside the SUV cab car in Napakiak, it was another gruesome scene.
“It’s clear to me that she fought, she fought, she fought really hard to stay alive to try to stay alive and he did his best to make sure she didn’t for whatever reason,” McConnell said.
Motgin stabbed Chong too many times to count. He dragged her into the back of the cab and left her body there to freeze. She was found the next day.
In sentencing comments, District Attorney June Stein said Chong was working in Bethel to earn money for her family back home in California. Part of that family is her daughter Alisha McGinty who addressed the court in person.
“My mom is the rock of my family and my extended family. Not only only financially but emotionally,” McGingy said. “She always hosted out family gatherings, Christmas, any holiday, any Korean holiday, Thanksgiving. Celebrating our first Christmas without her last year, despite having almost every family member there. . .felt empty and cold.”
She expressed her grief that her mother missed her recent graduation from college. She says her mom overcame a lot in her life including extreme poverty and a bout with cancer which doctors told her would leave her six months to live.
“I’ve always thought that she was like a super hero and for her to go the way she did is so unbelievable unfair,” McGinty said.
Motgin also got emotional when he spoke and apologized to Chong’s family.
“It’s hard on me, it’s hard on my family, it’s hard on the victim’s family. I’m sorry,” Motgin said.
Through long pauses in his comments, Judge McConnell said there were a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the murder. He said they’re never going to know exactly why it happened but they do know who did it.
The judge talked at length about Motgin’s past criminal history. At the time of the murder he was on felony probation for assaulting an ex-girlfriend.
“You assault women. . .and you seem to like knives,” McConnell said.
McConnell says the fact that Motgin might have been drunk that night is no excuse.
“Alcohol lets you do things you want to do. It makes it easier to do things you want to do,” McConnell said. “That’s what alcohol does. It dis-inhibits you. It makes you more likely to do what you want to do. It’s why people get in trouble. It shows me that you’re such an angry person.”
Whether it was anger that Motgin felt that night and whether it can be resolved in the future is unknown but the sentence allows for the possibility of rehabilitation.
He was sentenced to 80 years with 35 suspended. That leaves him 45 years to serve with 10 years probation, which would put him up for parole when he’s about 50 years old. He also has to serve an additional 1 and a half years for violating his previous probation.
There is several probation conditions including one that prevents Motgin from ever taking a cab again.
Alaska’s transportation department has agreed to pay $332,000 for violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
The department also has agreed to close and sample 55 motor vehicle waste disposals well at state vehicle repair and maintenance facilities across Alaska by 2018 as part of the settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA says the wells are outdated and some posed a risk to groundwater used for drinking water.
The wells, according to an EPA release, were used to dispose of storm water, snowmelt and water used to wash vehicles.
Transportation department spokesman Jeremy Woodrow says efforts have been underway to decommission the wells for some time. The release says six have already been closed.
Woodrow says his department will need to request funding for closure-related costs.
A group opposed to the proposed Pebble Mine has secured enough signatures to get their initiative on the ballot.
On Tuesday, the Division of Elections counted 30,210 verified signatures for the Bristol Bay Forever initiative. It needed 30,169 signatures. According to the Division of Elections tally, the group also cleared a threshold requiring that those signatures come from districts spread across the state.
The initiative would require legislative approval for large-scale mining operations in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve for the purpose of protecting the area’s salmon fishery. While the initiative does not explicitly name Pebble Mine, it is targeted at the controversial project. Sponsors focused only on Bristol Bay to avoid affecting other mining projects in the state.
“[That way] you don’t have other entities saying, ‘Yeah, but it might affect me over here,’ ‘It might affect me over here!’” says Art Hackney, a political operative who represents the group. “This is just about this one fishery.”
The Legislature is already required to vote on oil and gas projects in the region.
Hackney says Bristol Bay Forever will face opposition from the mining industry during their campaign, but expects their enthusiasm to be dampened now that a major partner has left the project. Anglo American abandoned its stake in September, after investing $541 million in the operation over the past six years.
“It’s hard to say what the other side will come up with, but it doesn’t look like with Anglo [American] pulling out they’re going to have the money to do that,” says Hackney.
As of September 30, Bristol Bay Forever had $11,000 cash on hand. They’ve raised $100,000 this year, with much of that money going toward the signature collection effort.
The Pebble Partnership, which has mineral rights to the land, still hasn’t decided how they’re going to approach the initiative. Bristol Bay Forever sponsors are currently being sued by the Alaska Miners Association and the Council of Alaska Producers, and Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole says the company is waiting for the constitutionality of the initiative to be decided in that case. If the legal challenge fails, Pebble still doesn’t want the initiative to be turned into law.
“It’s not going to stop Pebble, and it’s just one more effort by the organized opposition to really try to politicize the permitting structure for a resource development project in the state,” says Heatwole. “The question Alaskans should be looking at is: ‘Okay, if it passes for Bristol Bay this go round, what region of the state is next?’”
The Division of Elections still needs to complete their signature count before the Bristol Bay Forever initiative can get the final go-ahead from the state. If it is approved, it will be the second proposition to make it on to the August 2014 primary ballot. A referendum to repeal the state’s new oil tax system got clearance earlier this year.
An agreement to allow tribal courts to have more law enforcement jurisdiction in rural Alaska may be right around the corner.
It was discussed extensively today on the public radio call-in show “Talk of Alaska,” by Attorney General Michael Geraghty and the Chairman of a congressionally-mandated commission that just released a report calling on Alaska to do more to bring law enforcement to the bush.
Another Fairbanks neighborhood lost power Tuesday morning after a tree fell on a transmission line. Electricity was restored in about 2 hours, but Golden Valley Electric spokeswoman Corrine Bradish says the tree is thought to have been weakened by last week’s wind storm, a problem she says that is expected to persist.
Senator Mark Begich is proposing a change to the Affordable Care Act that would make cheaper insurance options available.
The Expanded Consumer Choice Act would add a new tier of coverage to the range of plans available on the individual market starting in 2015.
Begich wants to call them copper plans. They would be less expensive and have higher deductibles than the bronze, silver, gold and platinum plans currently available.
Begich says he’s been talking with small business owners and individuals who want more affordable coverage options under the new law.
“What I keep hearing from people is make sure the choices are there but those core benefits aren’t taken away, preventive care and making sure people don’t get denied because of preexisting conditions and carrying your kid to the age of 26, very important pieces of the puzzle,” Begich said.
Some consumers would be able to use subsidies to pay for copper plans. The law currently allows people under age 30 to buy higher deductible, catastrophic plans but they aren’t eligible for subsidies.
Begich says having another option is especially important for a state like Alaska, where health care premiums are so high.
The Affordable Care Act requirements and benefits have generally made those premiums even more expensive. Begich says he doesn’t know how cheap the copper plans would be.
“It will definitely be less than the lowest cost bronze plan, there’s no question about that, how much less it’s hard to say yet until they design the detail of it,” Begich said. “But right now the law prevents that from happening so we want to fix that so it allows it to happen.”
Begich sent a letter outlining the idea to President Obama on Tuesday.
The Department of Interior announced Tuesday it paid Alaska $19 million over the previous year for oil and gas development on federal land in the state.
That’s a few million more than the 2012 disbursement but a fraction of the billions Alaska reaps each year from oil development on state–owned lands like Prudhoe Bay.
The government pays states a portion of the rents, royalties and bonuses it takes in from energy and mineral production.
The state with the biggest federal disbursement in the past year was Wyoming, at nearly $1 billion. The smallest payment – a mere $38 — went to North Carolina.
GCI and KTUU-TV have been negotiating a new deal to broadcast the NBC affiliate to rural communities. Without a deal, subscribers in those areas will have to settle for something else as talks continue.
A new report from the state shows a substantial decline in inhalant abuse across Alaska. But “huffing”, as it’s called, is still most prevalent among teens.
Residents braved chilly weather on Saturday for a home-cooked Filipino dinner — and a chance to support the local Fil-Am Association’s typhoon relief efforts.
The line spilled out the door at the Burma Road Chapel. While it was cold and drizzly outside, there were piles of hot adobo, rice and egg rolls to be had inside, all prepared and served by members of the Fil-Am Association.
Kathy Leu sat at a table in the chapel with a friend, eating pancit, a traditional noodle dish. She said they came hungry and were happy to donate.
“The Filipino food is always so good, but [we] definitely wanna support the cause,” Leu said.
The buffet line packed the chapel’s small space. Most people didn’t stick around to eat, and walked away with stacks of to-go boxes for their families at home.
But that was just fine with Fil-Am members helping out at the dinner, like Roel Villamor.
“It’s a small community, but it’s such a big heart. Everybody’s here,” Villamor said. ”It’s amazing.”
Fil-Am charged $12 a plate, but many people chose to give more. The group raised more than $20,000 at the event alone.
That’s not counting their other fundraising efforts. They’ve placed donation boxes around at grocery stores around town. And Fil-Am has formally asked Unalaska’s city council to consider making a contribution from their discretionary budget.
Former mayor and city council member Frank Kelty advocated for that donation at a city council meeting this month. He says Unalaska has a history of lending a hand after disasters, like September 11th. He says the typhoon hits close to home for Alaskans.
“Unalaska’s one of the largest Filipino communities in the state, and if they [the city council] so choose to assist, I think it’s a great thing to do, especially with the devastation we’ve seen in the central part of the Philippines,” Kelty said.
City council is expected to vote on a making a donation at their meeting next week.
Meanwhile, Fil-Am members will get together this week to talk about holding more fundraisers — and to decide what to do with the money they’ve raised so far. At meetings before the dinner, they said they wanted to find a relief organization that would reach typhoon victims as quickly as possible. Some members of Unalaska’s Filipino community still haven’t gotten in touch with family in the hardest-hit areas of the country.
The Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska no longer practice shamanism, but elements of it still exist in their culture today.
That’s according to Anthropologist and Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl, who spoke Monday as part of SHI’s Native American History Month Lecture Series.
Worl said shamanism used to be a major component of Tlingit life. She said every clan had a shaman before Russian and American colonization largely forced the Tlingit people to abandon their traditional religion.
“Shamanism is generally associated with hunting, fishing and gathering societies that often migrate with seasons to follow their food sources,” Worl said. “To bring food, health and protection from evil, shaman seek connections with animal powers through their rituals.”
The shaman’s responsibilities, she said, included maintaining the well-being of the clan; acting as a military advisor; assuring hunting and fishing success; predicting future events; and curing illnesses. To do that they performed rituals designed to ward off hostile and dangerous spirits, and call upon good spirits to support the clans’ welfare.
Tlingits believed that great shaman traveled in both the physical and spiritual world, and that spirits chose certain people to be shaman, she said.
“The majority of spirits with which the shaman makes his alliances are animals, animal spirits,” she said. “This reflects a widespread belief by cultures that practice shamanism that animals inhabited the world long before human beings and are essential to people because of the unique knowledge that animals possess.”
Worl said Tlingit clans last practiced traditional shamanism in the 1950s, but she said it still pervades the rituals and beliefs of Southeast Alaska Natives today. For instance, Tlingits – including the late-Reverend Dr. Walter Soboleff – still believe that all objects possess some sort of spiritual essence, she said.
“I’ve had meetings here in this room, where people like our spiritual leader, Dr. Soboleff, has pounded on the table and says, ‘Everything has a spirit! Even this table has a spirit!’” Worl said, pounding her own fist on the podium.
About 15 years ago at a clan conference organized by the heritage institute, Worl said several elders attributed modern social problems, such as alcoholism and suicide, to Tlingit societies being out of balance.
“In our society we have a number of practices to ensure both social and spiritual balance, and they were holding that we were out of spiritual and social balance, and this was the cause of the social illnesses that affect our society,” Worl says.
She said that discussion led to some of SHI’s most successful cultural programs.
Worl said the influence of shamanism on modern Tlingit life is perhaps most evident in the use of sacred objects and regalia in ceremonial acts, including memorial celebrations.
“When our ceremonial and sacred objects are brought out and the spirits are addressed or called upon in the same way as they were in earlier times,” she said.
Many Tlingit elders are reluctant to discuss shamanism, perhaps due to the punishment Native people endured at the hands of colonizers for practicing their religion, according to Worl.
She said it’s unlikely traditional shamanism will ever be completely revitalized, but some Tlingits are looking at ways to incorporate more of the old practices in modern ceremonies.