Access to Haines, Alaska’s only radio station is up twenty-eight steps to the second floor, which becomes an issue on the night we haul up Horace Marks in his wheelchair. Palsied and hardly able to whisper, it is essential that the elder participate in this explication of a clan’s treasured heritage. A five-hour ferry ride up from Juneau with three nephews validates his role as memory-keeper. Six men form a single muscular force, twelve hands gripping the chair in which the eighty-year-old Tlingit patriarch floats up, up the twisting staircase to another evening’s production session at public radio KHNS.
Thanks to a small community radio grant, carpenter, and radio enthusiast Gordon Sandy assembled a band of locals to produce a two-part program called “Yeil Kooklak: Raven Stories,” featuring Tlingit elders retelling their cultural origins. The program merged stories with traditional songs, nature sounds, and synthesizer. For several nights, production and talent crews camped out at the station sharing coffee, pilot bread, and sockeye salmon. Mostly listening. To words whose meanings are known to a few hundred speakers. Voices weighed by lifetimes. Sealskin drum. Heroic songs. Lingering pauses. Laughter when you least expect it.
Listening again to the tapes in my car on a recent drive up Lutak Inlet north of Haines underscores for me the intimacy of broadcasting. Elders’ words stir memories of Tlingit tradition-bearers: Horace Marks, Austin Hammond, George and Matilda Lewis, Richard and Mary King, Lillian Hammond, Maria Miller, Pete and Rachel Johnson. All gone now, but to hear them again is to sense the power of their convictions.
Their voices remind me how local Tlingit elders came to use the station as a means of educating listeners about traditional ways, but also as a communication hub. Once a week for nearly three years, Maria Miller and Rachel Johnson took the stairs—often arm in arm—up to the studios to produce “Tlingit Words and Songs.” The fifteen- minute programs featured the women trying to teach me (white guy host) the language, often with comical results. Rachel would ask me to repeat a phrase until she’d cut in with the knowing rise and fall of “Aaaaah.” Pause. “Now you’re talking like an Indian.” Niece and auntie crack up.
Each program ended with a song introduced, sung, and drummed by Rachel. Welcome songs, mourning songs, trade songs on the air every Tuesday morning. The phones rang all week with relatives asking for Maria or Rachel.
Driving past the estuary where the Chilkoot River empties into Lutak Inlet, Austin Hammond’s voice pours from my dashboard. In the husk and lilt of the elder’s voice I hear the choral susurration of the river that runs through generations. His traditional village, L’koot Kwan, meets the river on the first bend from the lake.
Listen. If you stand on the grassy shore you’ll hear stories in the passing water. You can hear the river’s stories, too, in the radio production of that era. When Hammond spearheaded a culture camp in 1983, the clan leader invited KHNS producers to the annual summer encampment at the village site. The assemblage of elders telling their stories around a firepit proved a rich resource for years of broadcast features. And always, in the background, was the voice of moving water.
In the thick of “Yeil Kooklak” production we are once again talking and snacking between sessions when one of the radio guys asks why, when some Alaska Natives are known to be reticent in public circles, is the Sockeye clan so vocal? Rachel Johnson clucks and turns to Horace. “My auntie told me that we talk so much because we have to be heard over the river. Eh, Horace?”
The old man’s face brightens and a forefinger goes into the air. “That’s right!” he says, his loudest words of the night.
It’s a wrap. Once again, men’s shoulders hunch together and lift the man in the wheelchair. We tenderly shuffle Horace back down the stairs. With soft rasps he speaks Tlingit to a nephew who turns to me. “Uncle says thanks. Just one thing. He wants to know—when will we do this again? He wants to play radio some more.”