Kelsey Breseman
5 min readJun 8, 2024

"I wanted to ask," my mother queries tentatively, "Why you invest so much into your Tlingit heritage, when you also have so many other heritages."

I have an answer, or several, right away, but better answers after I think about it for a couple of days.

I understand what she means. If my identity is a series of fractions that add up to one, I'm more German than anything else. I'm Irish, and Norwegian, and Danish, and Tlingit too. My "full blood" Tlingit ancestry is sufficiently distant that I've been asking around for years to figure out what clan and house I should belong to.

But I could just say I'm mostly American: my mother has been an American citizen her whole life, and my dad was born into a territory that then became a state. I'm not culturally Irish or German based on my blood quantum, and my American identity adds to more than one: immigrant, indigenous, and native-born all layered together. Inseparable.

Meanwhile, citizenship is a political, not a cultural identity. I have two: Tlingit, and American. Now that I've married an Australian, our kids will have all three— me too, maybe, someday.

I take citizenship very seriously— as both rights and responsibilities. As an American, my citizenship is an active process of political participation, from revising bill initiative language, to organizing movement work, to corralling data in pursuit of stronger adherence to EPA principles. Work on niche topics or local areas tends to be more rewarding, I've found: progress is more visible, and the process is more human-to-human.

Tlingit citizenship, then, is a massive responsibility. There are only about 30,000 of us: smaller than plenty of cities. You can have impact at that scale. And it's a nation you cannot immigrate to: either you are born eligible for tribal membership, or you are not. (This is a modern political truth. Traditionally, Tlingits had ceremonies of adoption for new tribal members.)

In that context, I feel it's important to understand our issues: endangered languages, federal blood quantum rules that don't match the tribe's definition of indigeneity, the impact of sport and commercial fishing on subsistence fishing and who is involved with each.

In fact, I know substantially more German, Irish, and Norse mythology than Tlingit, and speak more German and Norwegian than Tlingit, too. You are unlikely to find books of our stories outside the picture book section of a Pacific Northwest library, and we're definitely not on Duolingo.

My Spanish and Mandarin are much better, because it was easy to take classes. But my Tlingit is more important, because the numbers of people who speak even a little of it are so low. This language, by sound and structure, is a storytelling language, a guttural language, a language built around many verbs and few nouns. What can you infer from just that little knowledge?

I'd like to speak the language better, but my close relatives don't know it. They do know how to sew sea otter hides, but it's a felony for me to learn it from them. Never mind the sea otters eating down the crab population because the people allowed to hunt them are getting old, and the fact that this hunting has been a part of the ecosystem since time immemorial.

It's not an accident. Federal disqualification by blood quantum is a slow, political version of the prior policy of genocide. Our dances and potlaches were crimes for decades. Children from my tribe were kidnapped to missionary schools and beaten for speaking their language. You don't have to look far to learn this history, but you do have to choose to learn it. Dying out is not natural to my culture.

And— we aren't. For the first time in decades, there is a larger generation speaking Tlingit natively than in the generation prior. We have lawyers fighting at the federal level on land rights, fishing rights, blood quantum, and more. Last summer I was part of my tribal corporation's largest-ever class of interns.

If you come to Juneau, you will see my tribe's and other Alaska Native tribal corporations steadily buying buildings and land downtown: there are new-carved totem poles on the waterfront walk. We're putting in a multistory maker space next to our museum, down the block from our arts campus with its carving supplies. At a Juneau bar last summer, the emcee at a Pride event casually spoke mixed Tlingit and English between the acts.

My parents, half sister, and I are in Juneau this week for Celebration: a four-day biennial festival hosted by the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes. There are two parties of canoe paddlers who have arrived by traditional dugout from our far-flung communities. They are greeted with ceremony and dancing by the Áak’w Kwaan, the Tlingit people native to this particular land. In the plaza downtown, local high school teams demonstrate traditional sports like high, kicking jumps at a sealskin ball.

Downtown is flooded, as usual, with tourists off the cruise ships— but just now, it's equally flooded with button blankets and vests, woven cedar hats, painted paddles. I spot Raven, Eagle, Wolf, Killer Whale designs, but also more modern choices: pink in addition to red and black, penguins and butterflies and all these little choices that suit modern natives' evolving sensibilities.

I am aware of my light-colored skin, hair, eyes. I buy a nose ring to make it more visually apparent that I belong; until now, I've been using big earrings to this end. When I'm operating as an indigenous person in a non-indigenous context, I usually use some Tlingit words to "prove" my legitimacy. My fellow tribal members have never made me feel lesser based on my mixed identity, but I feel it anyway, in myself and in the eyes of non-natives sometimes.

It's not simple, and it's never going to be. But it's beautiful to see, in the toddler regalia review, a little girl who divests her button blanket to reveal her Plains Indian outfit underneath. In the fashion show, the models' range of mixed ethnicities was as varied as the clothing designers' imaginations, and all were native.

I met a cousin this week, and she had the knowledge I’ve been looking for: I’m Kaagwaantaan, Wolf Clan. I called my brother: a maternal uncle is an important position in Tlingit culture. We’re Eagle moiety, people of Hoonah, Wolf Clan, Brown Bear’s Nest House. It’s enough information (we hope) to ask him to find names for my unborn child. I don’t have one, but my baby will.

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Blanket toss, part of the traditional sports demonstration
Jacket design in the "Everyday Indigenous" fashion show
Kids in the parade of dance groups