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Meetings in Hoonah

“Are you all from Inian Islands Institute?”  A tall, smiling man approached and extended his hand.  “I’m Jeff Skaflestad.”

“Jeff!” my companions exclaimed, shunning his handshake for a hug.  We had just touched down in Hoonah, the nearest native village of the Tlingit people, who have lived in what would come to be called Southeast Alaska for thousands of years.  Our charter flight from Gustavus only took about 20 minutes, flying across Icy Strait from the mainland to Chichagof Island.

Translated as In the Lee of the North Wind, Hoonah was where the Huna Tlingit people settled when a great glacier advanced, evicting them from their homeland of Glacier Bay many generations ago.

We at Inian Islands Institute all agreed that a visit to Hoonah was long overdue.  The Inian Islands, strategically perched within the rich ocean passes connecting the North Pacific with Alaska’s Inside Passage, have deep human history.  The property that many of us know fondly as the Hobbit Hole was a major Tlingit summer camp for generations.  A short walk from the houses reveals a mysterious headstone, as well as two terraces likely to represent a significant archaeological site.  We would never succeed in creating a field school in this place without the guidance and involvement of the people who traditionally owned this land.

Jeff carving totem

Jeff working on a totem which now stands in Hoonah. Totems are carved from single cedar logs and contain a story, readily understood by those who are familiar.

So here we were: Zach Brown, the director, Tania Lewis, our board president, and Jessica Lindmark, our board secretary, finally meeting Jeff Skaflestad – our newest board member who would guide us through the coming days.  A Norwegian-Tlingit carver, Jeff runs an art studio with his wife and fellow artist Lisa. He was born-and-raised in Hoonah and had recently retired from over two decades teaching science in Hoonah schools.  Recognizing the region’s great potential for research and education, he had even worked to create his own field education and research center nearby, an idea which reached the stage of blueprints, but never fruition due to the capricious winds of funding and politics.  Adding it all up, Jeff was the perfect member for our team.

With our greetings said and done, the Inian entourage walked to Jeff’s truck.  A powerful fragrance met us, as I saw stacks of what we whites call “devil’s club,” a beautiful but nefarious spine-covered shrub, said to have unmatched medicinal powers.  Some of the stalks were the biggest I’d ever seen, as thick as my thigh.  “We use it to make salves,” was Jeff’s laconic explanation.  It would prove an apt introduction to Jeff and Lisa’s way of life; over the coming days, we would experience many more of Jeff and Lisa’s creations – some of them practical, all of them beautiful – from exquisitely painted skin drums to natural lip balm to seal skin mittens.  He turned the key, and off we went into the village.

Some of Lisa's artwork. From left to right: seal skin mittens, otter skin hat, "octopus" bag. Behind, a button blanket displays a porpoise, a crest of the Chookaneidi Tlingit.

Some of Lisa’s artwork. From left to right: seal skin mittens, otter skin hat, “octopus” bag. Behind, a button blanket displays a porpoise, a crest of the Chookaneidi Tlingit.

The first meeting Jeff had scheduled for us was with Hoonah City Schools.  We sat awaiting the principal, who turned out to be an irresistibly energetic and affable balding black man in a bright pink dress shirt and tie.  When he arrived he was so animated he seemed to dance into the room.  “We love what you’re doing out there on the islands,” he began, “and we want in!”  The conversation never slowed down from there, and we knew we’d built a partner and an ally.


The Hawkt’ Tooch warrior: An Inian Island story of the Chookaneidi people.

The next morning was our meeting with the Hoonah Indian Association, the representatives of the tribe.  This being my first official meeting about Inian Islands Institute with the Tlingit people, I found myself nervous.  How do you describe what a magical place the Inian Islands are to a people whose ancestors used these islands for generations?  How do you describe a vision of fostering community to a people who were evicted from those islands by white settlers?  How do you present your vision of sustainability through local resources to people who lived sustainably on the land for thousands of years?

But my trepidation proved unfounded.  In a conversation I will never forget, we talked over the exciting possibilities – from the Hoonah elders visiting the islands this summer and giving the place a Tlingit name, to cultural camps and the integration of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) into our scientific work.  

Our last big meeting was with the U.S. Forest Service.  The Inian Islands fall within the Hoonah Ranger District of the Tongass National Forest – the country’s largest national forest by far, and the world’s greatest stronghold of old-growth temperate rainforest.  The 5-acre Hobbit Hole property is ensconced within Wilderness Land owned by the U.S. Federal Government. What juxtaposition! – speaking in the morning with the people who traditionally owned these lands, and in the afternoon with the organization which owns them now, in a very different sense of the word.  Creating Inian Islands Institute means navigating these vast cultural differences as best we can.  We have much to learn from the different worldviews surrounding the Inian Islands – and even if sometimes we make mistakes, seeing this place through different eyes has great educational power for our students and ourselves.  

We want to thank Hoonah City Schools, the Hoonah Indian Association, the U.S. Forest Service, and everyone else who took the time to meet with us in Hoonah.  And a special thanks to Jeff Skaflestad – we are humbled by your efforts and your generosity – we are thrilled to have you as a member of the Inian team.

Aerial Photo of Hoonah by Joseph is licensed under CC by 2.0. Other photos in this post courtesy of Inian Board Member, Jeff Skaflestad and Lisa Skaflestad. Their incredible Tlingit artwork and medicinal salves are available through
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