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Kandi McGilton

Kandi McGilton of Metlakatla is a weaver concerned with traditional art and language. In Sm’algyax, the language of the Tsimshian people, her name is Mangyepsa Gyipaayg, or Soars High.


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'I’m Taking You to the Graveyard.'

Kandi McGilton, a resident of Metlakatla, home of the only Tsimshian tribe living on United States soil, gripped the rubber Superman cover of her steering wheel as she announced the itinerary. She drove south, out of the perfectly gridded residential area of the 1,400-person community on Annette Island, just south of Ketchikan.

Most Metlakatla residents are descendants from the 823 Tsimshians that arrived in this area over the course of one month in 1887. Many were towed in canoes behind steamboats, leaving behind their ancestral land and the other 14 Tsimshian tribes around the region of Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

At the graveyard, McGilton explained that in Tsimshian culture, one’s name is not buried at death. It returns to the deceased’s matrilineal line until it’s bestowed on a family member or other individual who embodies the traits necessary to preserve the legacy of that name. Names can be an honor, or a burden. They come with expectation and responsibility. McGilton used the foundation of a house as an analogy.

“The more good deeds you do, you get another pillar to push up that house,” she said. “It’s a way to live beyond yourself.”

Likewise, deviousness or ill intentions can erode the pillars. Hosting a community potlatch is a way of elevating one’s name. In Sm’algyax, the language of the Tsimshian people, McGilton’s name is Mangyepsa Gyipaayg, or Soars High. “Everything I do, I put a hundred percent into it. I soar to do my best. It’s a name that not only describes me and my work ethic but it’s also a name that I have to live up to.”

McGilton is a weaver concerned with traditional art and language, part of a small group of young adults who are both establishing and reestablishing a culture that has been patiently waiting for the right time to emerge. To live in Metlakatla, B.C., (the community from which the Annette Island-bound Tsimshians departed 130 years ago), a requirement for residency was a pledge to refrain from traditional practices like dancing and potlatching, a refrain that persisted in the new settlement. Survival was somewhat contingent upon a degree of assimilation. McGilton’s language instructor remembers being told not to dance and to burn her regalia so that the devil spirit would leave her home. Today’s elders came of age in a modified Tsimshian culture, where the practices that McGilton and her peers are trying to rekindle were obscured. Their culture wasn’t lost, as much as it lacked an environment to blossom.

McGilton has assigned herself the task of honoring her Tsimshian ancestors from an era of cultural dormancy. That culture has started to breathe again.

The community’s first organized dancing didn’t occur until the 1970s. Today there are five different groups. Tsimshian art was introduced to school curriculum around the same time. The first potlatch and totem raising came in 1982.

McGilton is earnest in a collected, introspective way. She is Soars High. Her mind is busy trying to encourage the recent interest in revitalization. She is very grateful to the generation before her for igniting an interest in Tsimshian practices. But she feels contextualizing these actions is the purpose of the modern generation of this 15th tribe.

“Our question is ‘why?’ ” McGilton said. “Why are you (dancing) if you’re not telling your history, if you’re not going deeper into the meaning of what it means to put that (button) blanket on? To be as true to our history and as true to our cultural values as possible, it just doesn’t end in the Feast Hall. You should carry that with you everywhere you go, as long as you live.”

Through a Rasmuson Foundation grant, McGilton was able receive tutelage under the well-known mother-daughter weavers Delores and Holly Churchill, to replicate Tsimshian baskets and other pieces found in Canadian and American museums. This is significant because weaving was the only tradition officially allowed following the move from Metlakatla, B.C., to the new Metlakatla, Alaska. It had market value. It is the one craft endemic and unique to Annette Island — you can’t find it anywhere else. It’s a hybrid of Haida, Tlingit and Canadian Tsimshian styles.

McGilton is also on a language revitalization quest. She and one other friend meet every morning with Sarah Booth, one of six fluent Sm’algyax speakers. McGilton explained that the lessons are mutually beneficial: McGilton and the other student gain a greater sense of intimacy with their culture while Booth finds a sense of healing through her instruction.

“When we started working with her, she … hadn’t spoken to anyone in some time,” McGilton said. “Her color came back, her wit.”

There’s nothing extracurricular about McGilton’s pursuit of weaving or encouraging the use of Sm’algyax. These efforts are not hobbies, or intellectual endeavors that challenge the baseline of her life. Creating a collection of replicated woven art pieces and strategizing the language’s rhizomic spread is as essential as preserving the integrity of her Sm’algyax name.

Amanda T. K. Compton is a freelance writer and audio producer from Southcentral living in Juneau. She received an Individual Artist Award in 2014.

Image credits - All gallery images and artist portrait by Amanda T. K. Compton. Writer portrait courtesy of the writer.