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Common Ground

The view outside the float plane of the snow-covered peaks rising from the sea dotted with islands of thick rainforests is almost too much for the senses.Porpoises following the fishing boats more than 1,000 feet below us give a point of reference to a landscape of mountains that stretches across the horizon as far as the eye can see.From Ketchikan we hop from island to island along the Inland Passage, visiting as many Tribal village members as we can, listening to concerns about their sacred sites.The sun has been out for hours when we leave the beautiful village of Petersburg at 6 a.m. to visit an ancient fishing site uncovered by the low tide. Rocks form the shape of a heart with stubby remains of thousand-year-old posts lining the mouth of the weir that trapped salmon.While we’re looking at rock art in the form of petroglyphs pecked on rocks near the high tide line, a small buck in velvet passes close to us, unconcerned about our presence.Our team flies into Angoon in a single engine turboprop DeHavilland Otter smelling ripe from a recent cargo of stale salmon.Once again the elders share their stories that touch our hearts. After our meeting, an elder who sits on the tribal council takes us to artist Joann George’s house next to the coast with a view toward Sitka. She shouts down from her second-story studio window, “Come on up!” We admire the beauty of her work and the pictures she shows us of her Tlingit daughter. One day later, we fly over a glacier. Later that same day, we hike through the thick forest for miles gaining two thousand feet in elevation to have lunch on a rock ledge above the Mendenhall Glacier.Before we leave, the glacier “calves” a massive chunk of ice that falls away with a deep, booming sound as it crashes into the river. While we’re in Juneau the salmon start their run, and the limit goes from taking two salmon a day per person to 12. We sit next to the window of the Hangar restaurant on the wharf and eat our fill of fresh halibut.On sensory overload, our guide and team-member from Ketchikan asks if we are “full-body happy” yet. Our smiles are answer enough.But all of this almost indescribable beauty and our Alaskan experiences are not the most powerful impressions left on each of us.One powerful event stands out in our minds and hearts.It was the day we were invited into the carving house to watch two young Tlingit men carve a totem pole – wolf on the bottom, eagle on top – that affected us the most. The strong smell of western cedar shavings only accentuated the power of an ancient art being renewed before our eyes.They were proud carriers of their heritage, still alive after years of attempts by our dominant culture to wipe it out.Young people carrying traditional art into the future help keep their culture alive with hope.Bill Kight brings 25 years of experience with Indian tribes to the U.S. Forest Service national sacred sites policy development team, of which he is a member. The team is seeking input from Alaskan native people. Bill wrote this column from Sitka, Alaska.Bill Kight brings 25 years of experience with Indian tribes to the U.S. Forest Service national sacred sites policy development team, of which he is a member. The team is seeking input from Alaskan native people. Bill wrote this column from Sitka, Alaska.


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