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Traditional art on Tlingit canoe Sitka AlaskaI never expected to dance with a woman whose day job is subsistence hunting in Alaska’s Tongass Forest, but I came close on a holiday in Sitka.

Vibrant cultural traditions abound here, starting with Tlingit clans for 50 centuries. Pronounced klink-it, these native people organize themselves as Eagles or Ravens with 27 sub-groups under each major clan – always did, still do.

Russia ran the town for 63 years and the influences linger. So do brown bear and black-tailed deer, eagles and owls, salmon and deep-sea halibut, plus oh so many humpback whales – abundant and easy to see, plus swooping and gliding bald eagles.

Abundant Art in Sitka, Alaska

Sitka’s art is mightily influenced by the mostly black and red distinctive designs of Tlingit painters, stitchers, mask-makers, woodcarvers and dancers, wrapped up in vast views of mountains and sea, forest and harbor, Sitka spruce trees and western hemlocks.

This is a beautiful town for all those reasons, plus Russian Orthodox architecture, ancient Native art forms, busy harbor and old, old mountains. Mt. Edgecumbe, for instance, erupted 8,000 years ago.

Naa Kahidi dancers Sitka AlaskaFind Russian dancing in Harrigan Centennial Hall near the cruise ship port and head to the Sheet’Ka Kwaan Kahidi Community Center for Native dancing.

Families Share Stories in Dance

The Naa Kahidi Dancers tell the story of how Raven created dance. This Raven was quite a bird — I heard he was the one who sent light to the world.

Clan stories are shared only with permission of the elders, thus considered most special.

“The stories open a container of wisdom,” says Kathy Kitka, my Tribal Tour guide one busy afternoon. The same permission needed to share the knowledge of totem poles.

Totem Poles MatterTotem Sitka National Historic Park Alaska

Eighteen totem poles can be seen on a two-mile loop walk at Sitka National Historic Park. Tour guides say only the carvers can truly interpret their meanings.

The trail with all the totems in this National Park Service temperate rainforest is wide and well-groomed, passing streams where salmon return to their birthplace.

Walk 15 minutes or so and cross cultures again in the Sheldon Jackson State Museum and the Russian Bishop’s House. It was my first time seeing an Eskimo whaling suit. Fifty masks from King Island, behind glass, made me yearn for an invitation to ancient ceremonies when they would have been used.

Arrive on a BoatSitka Alaska sunset

The city of Sitka, Alaska, is walkable. The population barely touches 9,000, and hotels are located in the city center, near the busy fishing harbor — where my 32-passenger small ship the Island Spirit left me off, and also near a separate harbor where the cruise ships dock.

The Russian Bishop’s House on Lincoln Street is in that walk. The Bishop’s not there, but find original fine furnishings from the Russian imperial government. The house was completed in 1843.

Worship happens here, too, with 3:00 p.m. services on Tuesday and Thursday led by the priest at the downtown St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church.Russian Bishop’s House Sitka Alaska

The experience connected me to much about early and modern Sitka. Language was one of Bishop Innocent’s skills and he learned the Tlingit language — no small feat since 27 sounds in this language do not exist in any other.

It also helped me appreciate St. Michael’s Cathedral in downtown as more than a repository of exquisite icons and religious items. This represents a coming together of enormously different cultures it seemed, and Tlingit people worship here today.