In the Tlingit culture, animals talk.
One day some 30 years ago, a land otter told John Katzeek's father that it was going to take his son away. Instinctively, the father, a Tlingit elder, killed the otter.
Shortly thereafter, his son, John, was diagnosed with cancer. And while he survived and is now cancer-free, his father strongly believes that his son would have died had he not killed the otter, which in Tlingit culture is the bearer of bad news.
Today, John Katzeek tells that story and dozens of other Tlingit legends as he and his wife, Cheryl, offer guided tours to the Tlingit village of Klukwan, just outside Haines in Southeast Alaska. The Katzeeks believe incorporating personal stories into their tour helps visitors better understand the Tlingit culture, thereby perpetuating it.
The Katzeeks are owners of Keet Gooshi Tours ("keet gooshi" means killer whale in the Tlingit language) and by virtue of John's birth into the tribe, are the only people allowed to take visitors to Klukwan, a village of about 160 permanent residents.
The eight corner poles that support Klukwan's Killer Whale Fin House are carved in traditional Tlingit fashion, and the Katzeeks tell the legends depicted on them...
Later, visitors are escorted down the banks of the Chilkat River in the heart of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve to see the Katzeeks' family smokehouses, where salmon strips dry in the sun, Tlingit-style.
"We talk about the importance of living off the land," said Cheryl Katzeek.
The Katzeeks' tour is steeped in traditional Alaska Native legend and culture, and its goal is to show visitors the pride of Alaska's first residents. As many businesses offering cultural tours are owned by Alaska Native regional or village corporations, educating the public on Alaska's indigenous culture is practically part of the mission statement.
"Tourism is giving us an opportunity to share the knowledge learned by our (elders), and we ourselves become the teachers," said Camille Ferguson, economic development director for Sitka Tribal Tours in Sitka.
Ferguson's company offers bus and walking tours of Sitka. Walking tours are suited to different fitness levels and center around Sitka National Historical Park, home to more than a dozen towering totem poles lined around a scenic, ocean-view walking trail through the park. As the trail winds along the Indian River, guides tell visitors about the Tlingits' reliance on salmon as a resource and explain traditional fishing methods.
Guides take clients on hikes through the expansive Tongass National Forest, the world's largest temperate rain forest and the source for nearly all the resources the Tlingit people traditionally used. Native elders, historians and an herbalist train guides so they can point out medicinal or edible plants and explain their traditional use.
"An alder isn't just an alder. The tree is used for making spoons and the bark is used medicinally, not to mention wood chips for smoking fish," Ferguson said. "The Sitka spruce isn't just a spruce. The roots are used for making baskets… The pitch was used as salve for cuts and abrasions."
A tour of Saxman village near Ketchikan in Southeast Alaska provides another look at Tlingit culture through the eyes of its people. Saxman Native Village Tours feature a village experience where guests learn simple phrases like "hello" and "thank you" in Tlingit, watch artisans carve mammoth totem poles, experience the Cape Fox Dancers and have the opportunity to buy authentic Alaska Native arts at The Village Store.
Artists in the totem-carving shed take breaks from the intense labor of sculpting to answer guests' questions.
"The carving center is something I stand in awe of, not only because of the quality of the art but because we have this talent to share," said Rebecca Mix, general manager of Saxman Village Tours. Mix said anywhere from two to five carvers are on hand to speak to visitors seven days a week.
Mix said one of the greatest aspects of Saxman Village Tours is the impact that serving as a tour host has on the Tlingit youth of Saxman.
"Instead of being ashamed of their culture, they have people wanting to learn about their culture and paying good money to do it," Mix said. "If I had people applauding me seven or eight times a day, I'd feel great, too."
Far north of Tlingit cultural tours in Southeast Alaska, visitors can tour the Inupiat community of Kotzebue with Tour Arctic, another Alaska Native corporation-owned enterprise. Kotzebue is only home to around 3,000 people, mostly Alaska Native, 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
A day trip from Anchorage or Fairbanks with Tour Arctic includes airfare from the departure city, a visit to Culture Camp to listen to elders describe the process of smoking fish or making traditional garments, a guided city tour, a walk on the rolling, delicate tundra and a visit to the Museum of the Arctic. An overnight at Tour Arctic's Nullagvik Hotel in Kotzebue is an option, as is adding on a similar day tour in Nome, just south of Kotzebue on the Alaska Peninsula.
Fairbanks-based Trans Arctic Circle Treks offers an even more off-the-beaten path approach to cultural tourism. The company takes visitors up in twin-engine Navajos – the quintessential Alaska bush plane – for guided excursions to Fort Yukon and Anaktuvuk Pass, which are both authentic Alaska Native villages of just a few hundred people.
Local elders lead guests of Trans Arctic Circle Treks through the villages, and village life is explained in their own words. Travelers to Anaktuvuk Pass learn that the village is an in holding in the heart of the Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park, positioned to intersect the primordial migration route of caribou by the thousand.
Another company offering northern Alaska experiences that highlight Native culture is Northern Alaska Tour Company, which includes flying guests between Anchorage and Fairbanks to villages and towns in the arctic. Barrow, the northernmost town in the U.S., Kotzebue and Anaktuvuk Pass are destinations that feature a look at village life from the perspective of Native guides, along with a look at museums, culture camps, locally made crafts and Native ceremony.
For many Alaska Natives, displaying their culture through tourism is a matter of pride, and benefits the tribe or corporation far beyond the bottom line.
"It is the foresight of our elders who acknowledged the need to participate (in tourism) in order to hand down our 'living culture' before it is just history in a museum," Ferguson, of Sitka Tribal Tours, said. "I don't really look at it as just cultural tours. It's more like interactive cultural tourism."