Growing up Native is/was different for each of us. Some grew up in the village
where they had access to firsthand teachings from elders that remember the oral history of our People and legends. Others were moved and raised in big cities like Seattle, Chicago, and Los Angeles with almost no connection to tradition or community(Common-Unity). Me? I grew up in a town of about 10,000 People, Ketchikan Alaska. Short ferry rides to the villages on islands to the west and north that we never took. I feel like we were right in the middle there. In Ketchikan, during the 1970's our tradition and heritage was in museums and tourist shops and sites. I don't remember ever seeing our art and heritage in ours or other relatives homes. I never heard smalyack or tlingit speakers. We knew we were native but we were not allowed to Be native. Even better, with me being lightskinned, the joke was that I was the 'white-sheep' of the family. Or, for those of You that remember the 70's, 'Play the funky music white boy' and 'Dirty white boy' were sung for me.
It was the stereo typical drunk and disorderly arrest on Friday night and then released on Monday morning for much of the family so when my Mom moved my sister Karie and I to Anchorage in '73 I grew up thinking I had been saved from that reality. But, what I didn't understand was how the disconnection from traditional teachings and values was part of the generational trauma that meant so many would to try and drown themselves in the bottle, pipe, or needle.
Ketchikan is a small South East Alaska town around a 100 miles from coastal British Columbia. Which leads to how my Tsimshian ancestors ended up on Annette Island about 20 miles southwest of Ketchikan. In 1887 a missionary named William Duncan moved more than 800 Tsimshians on a canoe journey from old Metlakatla BC to the new village Metlakatla about 75 miles Northwest, in Tlingit territory. He had asked the US government to give asylum to the People due to doctrine differences with the church and Canadian leadership. I knew no thing about any of this until much later in my life and I can only say that generational trauma is real. The church and residential boarding schools used trauma based mind control to kill the indian but save the man. We'll have time to talk more about that part of the story when we get to the Red Road and recovery.
In the 1920's my great grandfather, Manuel Vera, came up the coast as a commercial fisherman from Southern California. He was born in Santa Rosalia on the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. He loved the Southeast Alaska and its People so much that he decided he was going to move there and find a beautiful Tsimshian woman to marry. Martha Hewson became Martha Vera and together in 1928 they had my Grandmother Erlinda Maria Vera.
My Mother, Teresa, would share about being a child of Ketchikan in the 50s: Grandpa Manuel would give each the kids a dime and send them to the Saturday matinee. A double feature at Mrs Dagler's Coliseum movie theater, popcorn, candy and a beverage for a dime. Crazy that it became a ten dollar bill for us kids to do the same in the 70s. I remember also her sharing how grandpa would give each the kids a piece of bread at dinner to wipe their plate with so that Grandma wouldn't have to wash the dishes, LOL. must have made washing them easier anyhow.
Grandma Erlinda and her sisters each had a dozen or so kids. Her first husband was Jack Dempsy Williams, a Tlingit from a small village on Prince of Wales Island called Klawock. The earliest story I remember about Grandpa Jack was that he was in jail when I was born and that when cousin Sandy brought me in as a newborn to see him he said, 'Oh, she had a white boy.' Well that along with the fact that he had been an abusive pedophile were probly why I was told he was dead and another part of why we moved to Anchorage. I was in my late teens when I learned that he was actually alive. And in my 50s when I learned the extent of his crimes.
My Mother was Jack and Erlinda's oldest, and I the oldest grandchild. My
youngest aunt, Janet, is a few months younger than me and my youngest
Uncle, Gordon, was a year older. Grandma had said she would stop having babies when her babies started having babies. I do appreciate that it kind of gave us an instant posse: Me and my sister, auntie Janet, uncle Gordon, auntie Linda, uncle Stanley and my namesake uncle Mike, cousins Guy Guy, Hoku, and Lisa Tavares, John Guthrie. All us kids just a few years apart meant that there was always someone to have your back, run through the woods behind Creek Street and practice figure four leg locks and sleeper holds on sat-sun afternoons. But besides hooligan dinners and fishhead soup, Blue, Huckle, and thimble berries the old tribal ways and teachings were few and far between.
After the US government enacted the North American Religious Freedom Act in 1978 it became legal for the natives and their communities to practice traditional ceremonies and share teachings. Of course by this time I was 11 and had spent my elementary school years learning to be a good citizen at Northern Lights Elementary. A back to basics ABC school where we even learned to march as a way of honoring Principal Zanki who was a Marine. Mom's 2nd husband and my sister and my adopted Father passed from cancer in 1978 so we went back to Ketchikan where I attended Schoenbar Junior High school. In 7th grade we had a Tsimshian art instructor named Doug Hudson who shared some basic formline, woodcarving, and soapstone sculpting. I do wish I had had the drive to continue these studies but the next year he moved back to Metlakatla and we went back to Anchorage. Also, while in the 7th grade I worked for the city museum. The majority of their displays were of fishing, logging, hunting colonizer history but they did have some beautiful formline prints for the tourists to buy. We moved back and forth between Ketchikan and Anchorage until I graduated from East Anchorage High School in 1986. Should have been '85 but it took me 4 times taking US government to graduate. I guess even then I knew it was all lies.
In Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, there was a push to promote native kids in education so they put me in a class that had other natives from tribes around Alaska. Through this, I think it was, I got to be a guest on Herb Shaindlin's talk radio program featuring good minority kids to show that we weren't all bad. I got more training on how to be a good
citizen/worker through the Cook Inlet Native Association and started a life long career in the newspaper industry. My standardized placement tests said I would make good photojournalist so I went to work for a weekly native focused newspaper that was distributed to all the tribes across the state. There, Bill Hess taught me about photography and working in the darkroom. As it was a small company and a weekly, I was able to learn the other parts of running a news publication. From paste-up production, distribution, and even writing. I also took a job at the Anchorage Daily News as an assistant in the darkroom but by this time I was a rebellious skate-punk and in the process of failing US Government for the third time. We can talk about the punk rock stuff another time but suffice it to say that it wasn't until about 30 years later that I got the drive to start remembering what was never to be forgotten.