Alaskan Tlingit Don Hoff Jr. (Aan Kadax Tseen) writes a searing editorial for the Ketchikan paper SitNews that blames Christianity for nearly “exterminating” Tlingit Culture.
“Look today at the divisions caused by religion amongst Tlingits in your villages. It is not just Tlingits, I see divisions amongst Haidas and Tsimshians people, and I will not speak for them. We have 141 years of history that shows the demise of our Tlingit Culture, caused by Non-Natives brainwashing and assimilation by Non-Natives that God is the way. Non-Native religion has single handedly exterminated Tlingit Culture as we knew it.”
Aan Kadax Tseen’s solution to this near-extermination? An abandonment of non-Native religions and churches.
“The conclusion I came up with is Tlingit People need to stop going to Non-Native churches and practice Non-Native religion. If it is fellowship that you as a Tlingit require then it is to hang out with your Native brothers and sisters of your Clan and Tribe. Your obligation is to your Tribe and not a Non-Native religion or church.”
This emotional call to reclaim the Tlingit religion and culture may find itself in an uphill struggle. While some among the younger generations seem keen to renew their ties with the past, many elders are fervent Christians and mistrust calls for spiritual renewal. This complexity has been voiced by many proponents of renewal, including anthropologist and Tlingit Rosita Worl.
“These tribes may have an additional burden: they may have to address potential conflicts generated among those who have assimilated western views and ways or who may have accepted the Christian faith and be adverse to the renewal of traditional religious practices. For example, witness the religious fervor in one of the Southeast Alaska communities last year that led to the burning of cultural objects and symbols. Elders and religious leaders will have the enormous task of reconciling these differences and tensions among their tribal members. They will be faced with the enormous task of educating their young and tribal members who do not understand the ancient religions and the significance of sacred objects.”
Calls for renewal raise serious questions about the intersections of religion and culture. How do you respect your elders while renewing a religion some of them now fear and distrust? How to deal with external Christian groups and missionaries who think you can remove an indigenous religion without irreparably harming the indigenous culture it is a part of? Tensions will no doubt rise as Tlingit Christians and Tlingit advocates for renewal approach these questions.