The Wrangell Cooperative Association cut the ribbon on its cultural center and carving shed Saturday, completing the second phase of the tribe’s three-part Native cultural revival plan. The center will serve as a place for recreating eight sacred totem poles and for teaching Native arts.
Dancers started the dedication of the Wrangell Cooperative Association Cultural Center with a performance in front of the new building’s gleaming cedar façade. A crowd gathered in the street for the grand opening of what is also known as the carving facility.
Wrangell Tribal Council Vice President Richard Oliver said it is a place for local artists, carvers and entrepreneurs to develop their skills and trade.
“Our mission is to foster the spiritual, mental, physical and social development of our tribe,” Oliver said. “And it is also to help build a strong, unified and self-reliant membership.”
It is the second part of a three-phase plan to revive the Wrangell tribe’s assets. The first part was completed when the Chief Shakes Tribal House was rebuilt in 2013. The next step for the association is to carve replicas of eight totem poles that used to stand near the tribal house on Shakes Island. The cultural center is where carvers will work on that project.
Virginia Oliver introduced Tlingit elder Marge Byrd.
“Cedar Rope Mother is going to help us bless the building right now. She is the one that had been holding the culture here in Wrangell for us,” Oliver said. “And she was holding on with a cedar rope, holding us all together so we could come here today so that you could be a witness to this.”
Together, they led a cedar bough ceremony to purify the new building. A long line of tribal members and spectators slowly circled the outside of the building, singing and brushing the walls with fragrant cedar boughs. When everyone circled the building, Byrd, Cedar Rope Mother, spoke.
“It’s like we always hear. We’ve been here for a long time. And we’ll always be here, as long as you hear our drum,” Byrd said. “We’re here, and we’re going forward. We have our new facility. We have our new Shakes house, and some other things going on ahead to keep our culture alive for our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.”
Oliver explained cedar is a cleansing and purifying medicine of the Tlingit people. She said it is wonderful to see these ceremonies being revived in Wrangell.
“It’s powerful to me. I’m so glad that this is finally happening,” Oliver said. “And now we’re looking forward to the re-carving of our totem poles and putting up those totem poles and putting the other ones to rest.”
Sealaska board member Richard Rinehart Jr., who is from Wrangell, said he wanted to convey the regional Native corporation’s appreciation for the cultural revival that has taken place in the local Native community.
“It’s obvious, and everybody can see it,” Rinehart Jr. said. “Where for a number of years things seemed silent. Our old ANB hall had fallen into disrepair. Our totem poles were falling down. The totem poles are still down, but thanks to Rasmuson and a number of the other contributors, these things are all coming back to life.”
The Rasumson Foundation supports Alaskan nonprofits, and it helped fund construction of the cultural center and the Chief Shakes Tribal House.
Rinehart Jr. also mentioned the role this cultural revival plays in the effort to push landless legislation through Congress to make the Wrangell tribe a federally recognized Native village.
Construction of the carving facility was completed last fall, led by Project Manager Todd White. It has already housed a major carving project and Native arts classes. Artists also use the building to sell their goods to tourists.
Tribal Administrator Aaron Angerman said it has been more than 10 years since they started planning the cultural restoration.
“It’s great to see that we’re this far and knowing that we’re going to be carving these totems very soon. And we made it this far from next to nothing,” Angerman said. “And I’m really confident these things will pay dividends to members of this community for decades and decades to come.”
After a series of speeches, it was time to cut the big blue ribbon tied across the front doors.
Kris Norosz of the Rasmuson Foundation held the ribbon down so Marge Byrd could cut it, and they welcomed everyone inside.