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Exploring Ketchikan's First Nations Connections

Cara L
4 min read

All visitors can agree that Ketchikan is a stunning and breathtaking city. The surrounding area offers a wide variety of magical experiences for outdoor lovers to choose from. Downtown is a unique blend of modern bustle paired with wooden stairways and boardwalks. Lush rainforests encompass the area, and many out-of-town visitors can be found arriving at one of the six cruise ship ports. There are almost endless things to do in Ketchikan, the base for numerous Alaska cruise excursions!

However, the most impressive part of visiting Ketchikan is perhaps not its wide selection of adventures, but seeing how connected the city is to the First Nations of Alaska. Here is some of the history of the local First Nation communities to prepare you as you plan for your visit!

The Ketchikan Creek flows through the middle of town, and both the town and the creek derive their name from the Tlingit name of the creek, Kitschk-hin. Historians believe the meaning of name is “The River Belonging to the Kitschk” or “Thundering Wings of an Eagle.” With one of the most densely populated bald eagle populations in Alaska, it’s not hard to imagine why the latter name might be correct.

Who are the First Nations of the Ketchikan area?

The Ketchikan Community includes people of the Haida Nation, the Tlingit Nation and the Tshimsian Nation. As of 2010, 16.7% of Ketchikan‘s population was First Nations peoples. Just south of Ketchikan live another 10,000 members of the Tlingit tribe.

Tlingit Nation

The Tlingit are indigenous of Alaska, the Yukon, and British Columbia. Their rich culture holds an emphasis on family, kinship, and oratory traditions. Within their culture, generosity and graciousness symbolize aristocracy as much as wealth and success.

Haida Nation

The Haida territories span the Queen Charlotte Islands, the southern half of Prince of Wales Island and the southernmost Alaska Panhandle. The ancestral tribe language is classified as one of the Na-Dene languages. Na-Dene is a language family that includes Athabaskan, Eyak, and Tlingit.

The Haida society is known for their production of art, including ornate jewelry and Chillkat weaving. This traditional form of weaving creates ceremonial blankets often featuring bold colors and intricate designs. Their most well-known artistic creations are the Haida Totem poles.

Tsimshian Nation

Tsimshian means “Inside the Skeena River,” in reference to the location of the nation’s territories. The community covered British Columbia and the Alaskan Terrace, down to the southernmost corner of Alaska, Annette Island.

Tshimsian communities thrived on salmon and lived in permanent towns made up of cedar longhouses, large enough to house extended families. Art of the Tsimshian nation includes Chilkat weaving and cedar carved goods such as tools, armor and canoe skins.

Ketchikan First Nations Locations

The First Nations are active members of the Ketchikan community. There are some wonderful opportunities to visit and experience the culture of each of the nations. Here are just a few you may want to check out while you’re looking into Ketchikan activities.

Saxman Native Village

The Saxman Native Village is not only one of the top Ketchikan totem pole parks but also the largest collection of standing totem poles in the world. There are 25 totems here and each hand-carved pole tells a story of legends and people who lived long ago.

One of the most gratifying things to do in Ketchikan, the Village offers self or guided tours of the poles and also features Native dancing exhibitions and an on-site clan house. Native carvers using traditional tools and techniques can be viewed in action throughout carving sheds on the property.

Totem Bight State Historic Park

In 1938, the U.S. Forest Service began an effort to salvage the totem poles and abandoned villages of the First Nations in this area. Clans had been forced to abandon the area in an effort to find work in the decades prior to this. This restoration effort eventually became what is now Totem Bight State Historic Park.

The park has 15 totem poles and a traditional community clan house. The home exhibited at the center, which can be seen on Alaska excursions like the Totem Bight tour, is a great representation of the typical village house in the early 19th century.

Totem Heritage Center

This museum, operated by the City of Ketchikan and one of the most historically exciting activities, exhibits some of the most important persevered artifacts of the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian Nations. The collection, which shouldn’t be missed, includes the works of world-famous Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson and Haida weaver Delores Churchhill.

The city museum not only teaches history but works to promote the traditional crafts and cultures of all 3 indigenous tribes. The center regularly hosts nationally praised art programs and other educational activities.

Potlatch Park

Built on the fishing grounds of the Tlingit Nation, the Potlatch Park features some of the most cherished First Nations art in the world. Antique cars, firearms and a peek inside Alaska’s totem pole trading tradition awaits visitors of the park. The real treat comes from viewing the dioramas of Native Alaskans’ homes of the 1800s.

The Ketchikan Indian Community

The Ketchikan Indian Community is a non-profit organization located in Ketchikan. The KIC offers services to First Nations communities that include: health care, employment training, higher education and cultural community involvement. In August of 2015, the KIC dedicated a new totem pole at the Vigor Industrial shipyard. The newest hand-carved pole is 12 ft high and features men, women, a raven and an eagle.

When planning your travels to Ketchikan and researching Alaska excursions, make sure to take time to learn about the First Nations of the area and enjoy the rich cultural experience the city has to offer. The history of the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian people is easily found among the many sites and the tribes have created a warm and inviting environment to help guests and residents alike learn more about their culture.

Learn more about how you can contribute to the conservation of the communities in Alaska with our post on Giving Back to Protect the Last Frontier!

Cara L
Alaska Travel Specialist
Cara, our resident Marketing Coordinator, shares her passion for Alaska through our blogs and social media. She travels the Inside Passage each summer to explore new tours and hidden gems.

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