Metlakatla, Alaska is on Annette Island in the Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska, 17 miles south of Ketchikan. The community of Metlakatla (officially named Metlakatla Indian Community, referred to as "MIC") is populated mostly by members of the Tsimshian Tribe, originally of British Columbia, Canada. In 1887, a group of Tsimshians migrated from British Colombia under the leadership of Anglican missionary William Duncan. Mr. Duncan left a decent lifetime job in a leather tannery in England to be appointed by the Church Missionary Society as the Lay Missionary to the Tsimshian people on the West Coast of British Columbia.
(From: A History of Metlakatla Indian Community)
In the beginning of the community, there was much activity, clearing land and building housing for the nearly 1,000 people who were to make Metlakatla their permanent home. To create an entire town that included a water supply (from Purple Mountain), sewers, roads, waste disposal, power, businesses, and industry to support the economy is almost unimaginable, but that is what the people of Metlakatla did, with Mr. Duncan’s guidance and expertise. The people of Metlakatla, were, of necessity, very hardworking in getting the community up and running and functional. The first winter here was very rough. Some people regretted having left their comfortable homes in B.C., their families, relatives, and lifetime friends to come to an unknown land in another country, with very little to sustain them in the future. It was said that many people were heard crying during the cold and difficult first year in the new land, and some even left and moved elsewhere where life didn’t seem so hard. However, the people who stayed were of a very strong character, determined to make a new life, to become a new people, and to create their own surroundings to the liking. Those are the people we are descended from: hardy, courageous, and strong.
SOCIAL & POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Metlakatla is governed by a Tribal Council, composed of 12 Councilmembers and its 3 executives (Mayor, Secretary, and Treasurer) and the City Manager, whose position is filled by the Mayor, and the Magistrates. The council is supported by several committees which meet monthly and give the Council direction on what important issues need to be resolved at the time. Some of the committees are Law and Order (responsible for creating, researching and interpreting the laws of Metlakatla under the Constitution of the United States); Health, Education and Welfare, Planning, Finance, Natural Resources, and the Lot Committee. Each of the committees are charged with working through problems posed by members of the community or other needs that become apparent or self-evident. Committee members then present their findings to the Council at the Council’s monthly meeting. The Council will vote on Committees’ recommendations and action will then take place.
Metlakatla is the only Reservation in the State of Alaska, therefore its revenue base is not from taxes, but from federal and State of Alaska grants. The government is a curious blend of "Old Tribal Council" and U.S. Constitutional Democracy. At times, it is difficult to say which is in effect; nonetheless, the community has survived successfully.
Metlakatla has suffered the loss of two major industries - the timber industry, that failed after the U.S. Government imposed strict regulations making it impossible for the Forest Service to set aside adequate timber for commercial use, and the cannery, which suffered immeasurable losses due to a lowered demand for fresh salmon necessitating the sale of it's Canning Division. Despite these losses, the community still survives with federal and state grants. These grants fund many of MIC's major Programs. In addition, MIC has several companies whose revenues are used for its upkeep. Some of these are Metlakatla Power & Light, Annette Island Packing Co. Cold Storage and most recently Metlakatla Casino, which boasts dozens of brand new electronic Bingo and slot machines tied in to a national gaming system that makes huge payouts possible.
In the future, the community will look to ventures partnering with outside corporations and other options such as the sale of excess electricity coming from a possible new hydro plant located along the new Walden Pt. Road. A Tribal Utility Authority currently is in the process of being created in order to bring stability into community energy needs while maintaining reliable service to MIC residents and businesses at reasonable costs. This new Utility Authority will also explore ways the community can utilize alternative power sources such as solar, wind, and tidal energy to supplement current sources. There are so many possibilities available that it is easy to envision a completely independent and thriving community wherein alternative sources are so plentiful and work so well that we could very well have free energy in the future. Although these activities are very slow to be realized, there is hope for the economic health of the Metlakatla Indian Community.
In 2008, MIC hired a project manager to gather data from members of the community with respect to impacts brought on by the opening of the new Walden Pt. Road. With the opening of the road have come both benefits and disadvantages, but also many opportunities for new business, both for MIC and for individual entrepreneurs (Walden Pt. Road, 2008: Benefits and Disadvantages). Some of these benefits have been realized but progress is slow, especially with respect to financing the many projects the community needs in order to fit the high standards once expected from its inhabitants.
MIC has a Police Department (MPD) with several full-time officers. The MPD operates under the Police Commissioner (the Mayor of MIC) and handles misdemeanor criminal activity. It refers felony offenders to State of Alaska courts in Ketchikan, Alaska. Felons are prosecuted there and if found guilty are incarcerated elsewhere in the state.
MIC also has a Tribal Court operating under a Chief Magistrate and one full-time assistant magistrate. The Tribal Court handles all misdemeanor cases, civil trials, and certain family and probate issues.
MIC's Volunteer Fire Department, MVFD, boasts up-to-date equipment and vehicles - a couple of fire engines, an ambulance, and brand new fast boat for medivacing patients to Ketchikan. The boat, names the M/V “Triton,” has proven very fast and stout even in winter months when waters are treacherous from the storms. In medical emergencies, our response teams are very well-trained and response time is second to one.
The school system is under the Annette Island School District and is operated by the State of Alaska. It consists of K-12 classes that offer curricula similar to those of other State schools. In addition, various granting agencies contribute to ensure that many traditional skills are also taught, such as coastal artwork, beading, and native dance. Metlakatla recently received Heavy Impact Aid monies from the Federal Government. U.S. Law was amended to include Metlakatla because of it's special Federal Trust status and will ensure that Metlakatla receives over $1 million in Heavy Impact funds in perpetuity. With the help of the HIA funds, AISD has been able to reinstate many sports and other elective programs that were discontinued because of a lack of funds.
The community members of Metlakatla are very involved in children’s school lives and arduously support academics and sports, in which the children excel. Children are heavily involved in the Sport of Choice: Basketball and their parents and grandparents can be seen in attendance at every game, cheering them on. In the Metlakatla school, children are very fortunate to be able to travel to other communities, usually by the Alaska State Ferry system or by plane. Of course travel by boat or plane is necessary because all Southeast Alaska communities are on islands, but still, it’s fun and exciting for them to be able to go to far away places and visit friends and relative in distant communities.
Languages & Cultural Activities
Currently, the language of the Tsimshian, "Shim-al-Gyack" is spoken by only a handful of the oldest people in Metlakatla. However, there are groups of individuals who are interested in teaching the language primarily to the younger generation, who have not had the benefit of being exposed to the language during their upbringing, as much of the older generation did. Thus far efforts to teach children have not been realized and the language still is not spoken on a daily basis among the population in general.
In other areas of the Tsimshian culture, there is some teaching in the schools, of beadwork, formline design, and basketry, which ultimately translates into the creation of traditional garments primarily for dancing in one of the several dance groups in Metlakatla. Carving is taught by a teacher whose specialty is formline design and the creation of wooden masks, bowls, Bentwood boxes, totem poles and other artwork that eventually finds its way to a buyer or, in the case of totem poles, as a showpiece of the clan that the owner belongs to.
There are four clans of the Tsimshian people of Metlakatla. They are: Killerwhale, Raven, Eagle, and Wolf. Most designs incorporate clan animals and the results of the artwork are stunningly diverse according to the individual artist’ interpretation of traditional formline design. Formline design among the three major tribes of Southeast Alaska including the Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlingit are very much the same and utilize nearly identical element of design for the artwork. Because the tribes are all a part of the Pacific Coastal people, all of their work is very similar to each other. Other tribes’ artwork, such as the Salish, the Bella Coola, and others, differ starkly in artistic rendition, but the artwork of the three tribes mentioned above is striking in its similarity.
There seems to be little to no effort to teach other styles of art and music such as watercolor or oil painting, ballet, tap dance, or classical music, that are non-native, however, so that area, unfortunately, remains a deficit to the children of Metlakatla. Currently, a few individuals are exploring possibilities of introducing alternative arts to Metlakatla children so that they might have the benefit of varied and diverse cultural arts.
MIC has a fantastic medical facility for its members, the Annette Island Service Unit (AISU). AISU boasts a complete medical clinic, full-fledged pharmacy and state of the art medical equipment as well as a complete emergency unit and even a small, temporary morgue. The clinic’s permanent medical and dental staff consists of physician’s assistants, pharmacists, certified pharmacy assistants, and numerous other medical technicians. Patients who are unable to be treated at the Metlakatla clinic are referred to SEARHC (Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium) in Mt. Edgecumbe or to Anchorage Native Medical Center.
The lovely state of the art medical building that houses all of the medical and administrative staff, is a masterpiece in design, with stained glass windows, beautiful beams and local indigenous woods used for trim. The lobby features displays of local artists’ work including basketry, carvings, and regalia; there is also a photographic display of the work of one of the first and only native photographers in the early 20th Century, Benjamin A. Haldane. In the exam rooms, one can find the current photographic work of a local photographer whose photographs of Metlakatla’s natural surroundings are breathtaking.
The AISU also has staff quarters for visiting doctors, assistants and technicians. Under the direction of its current director, AISU has expanded its physical confines by the inclusion of the “Lepquinum Wellness Center” a separate coordinated swimming facility that also is used for physical therapy exercises and team swimming. Adjacent to the swimming pool is a full-service gym that houses many up to date machines that anyone can use for fitness and wellness.
As if all of that weren’t sufficiently excellent, AISU is also a teaching clinic for students from the University of Washington and other Institutes of higher education who come to Metlakatla to gain on the job training experience. The AISU Director has a philosophy of continued education for any one of the staff who wishes to further his or her education in a particular field. In general, the AISU has come from a tiny understaffed clinic to a 21st Century medical super-facility that is the pride of Metlakatla and envied by many communities in Southeast Alaska.
Although Metlakatla is somewhat isolated due to the fact that it is on an island it does offer many of the amenities found in any small town in the U.S. Some of these are as follows:
Full-service grocery store (Leask's Market)
Fast food and convenience Store (Mini Mart)
Gift shops at the Artists Village
Casino and Smoke Shop
A hotel, other bed and breakfast or lodging businesses and rentals
Gas Station and Tire Repair Service
U.S. Postal Service (we have a Post Office)
Senior Services ( includes daily lunches meal delivery to shut-ins and bus service to elders)
A few snack and coffee shacks
Membership in the Metlakatla Indian Community
Membership in the Metlakatla Indian Community is limited to Members of the Tsimshian Tribe or other Alaska Natives 18 years of age or older who have resided in Metlakatla for at least one year. Membership is determined by application to the Council. Once membership is established, there are certain rules members must follow in order to retain their membership. Non-natives cannot become members but are allowed to live in Metlakatla if they obtain employment, business or residence permits or are married to a member of MIC or have children who are Native. Many Teachers and Medical Care Providers fall under the employment permit category.
In the 1970's, a handful of Metlakatlans began realizing the importance of certain cultural activities that were lacking in community life as a valuable expression of the “heart and spirit” of the Tsimshian people. These individuals had enough of a vision to realize that embracing their own culture did not necessarily mean rejecting their new adopted American culture. They were wise enough to know that they could indeed have the “best of both worlds”. Because of their vision the community underwent a revival of cultural activities which continues to this day. Due to the persistence and dedication of this handful of people, the artwork and carving, traditional dance and song, regalia making and basketry thrive today in Metlakatla, Alaska. Metlakatla, in fact, is the home of several world class Artists whose art work is showcased in galleries around the world.
Articles About Metlakatla
& Tsimshian Culture
by Lindarae Shearer
A History of Metlakatla Indian Community, 14 pages, revised April, 2009
A Tribute to My Mother, 3 pages, October, 2002
About Cedar Bark Baskets and Weaving, 1 page, March, 2003
Gathering the Cedar Bark (Basket Weaving, Page 2), 1 page, March, 2003