One-of-a-kind photo collection documents 75 years of life in Angoon

An elder Alaska Native man in a red vest smiles while sitting at a table
Tlingit elder and Beaver Clan leader Cyril George. In addition to his work as a storyteller and a local and regional leader, George was also a prolific photographer. He took over 4,000 photos of life in Angoon and around the region. (Photo by Christy Eriksen/Sealaska Heritage)

Cyril George didn’t go many places without his camera.

George was a leader in the Beaver Clan of Angoon and was known for his contributions to local and regional politics. He was also known by those he was closest to as a photographer. When he died six years ago at the age of 92, he left behind a vast photo collection thought to be the largest ever made by someone who was Tlingit.

George’s family recently donated those photos, with the goal of making them available to the public.

Photo by Cyril George, provided by Sealaska Heritage

“Everywhere Cyril went in Angoon, and maybe other places, he always had a camera hanging over his neck,” former state senator and lifelong Angoon resident Albert Kookesh said. He said George took pictures at basketball games, local celebrations and weddings.

“Every Native event that I am familiar with, he was there. And very rarely without his cameras,” Kookesh said. “He always had them with him.”

George documented everyday life in the Admiralty Island village. In one black and white photo from his collection, three women wearing regalia pose near the shore. In another, a man disembarks from a boat.

Photo by Cyril George, provided by Sealaska Heritage

When George passed away in 2014, the Tlingit elder and founding Sealaska board member left behind a collection of over 4,000 photos. Last month, his family donated that collection to the Sealaska Heritage Institute. The nonprofit’s director of culture and history, Chuck Smythe, said George wanted the photos to be used and seen by many people.

“You know, it’s quite an amazing collection. Seventy-five years of photos, spanning the 1920s to the 1990s,” Smythe said.

Right now, the photos are sitting in boxes. They’ll have to be wrapped in plastic for a month before they can even enter the Institute’s archive. That’s to make sure they don’t bring any mold in with them. And people will have to wait until the archive opens again to view them. It’s currently closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo by Cyril George, provided by Sealaska Heritage

But eventually, Smythe said, they hope to digitize the collection and put it online to broaden its reach. And to collect caption information.

“We can’t wait too long because we want to make sure that any of the older people who would be able to reach back in their memory for the early photos are still with us,” he said.

Smythe said such extensive documentation of life in a traditional, tight-knit community — where many people live subsistence lifestyles — has great historical and cultural significance.

“You know, you can’t put a price on photos taken from somebody from within the culture and in this case, somebody from within the community as well. Because he sees things very differently than an outsider would,” he said, “and has that history and attachment to the land.”

Photo by Cyril George, provided by Sealaska Heritage

Kookesh, who considered George a mentor and close friend, says the collection has personal significance for him and his community. It will help bring back memories of people and events long forgotten. But he also sees the collection as important statewide, nationally and even internationally.

“I want people to see those pictures from Angoon, for people who live in Germany or who live in Anchorage,” he said. “They can see an Angoon from Cyril George’s eyes. They can see the history of what we had and how we grew and how we survived.”

Kookesh says he’s grateful to the family that the photos didn’t end up collecting dust in a forgotten drawer.

Photo by Cyril George, provided by Sealaska Heritage