Local News

Mother-son team develop Tlingit-culture tablet app

A mother-son duo in Klawock has developed a new iPad app that shares part of their Alaska Native culture. Simon Roberts based the app on his mother’s 2002 book, “Legends in Wood: Stories of the Totems.”

In 1995, Pamela Rae Huteson woke up to the sound of chainsaws. She looked outside, and saw crews removing old poles from the Klawock Totem Park. She ran outside to take photos before the old poles were all taken down.

“I was saddened, because I really didn’t know a lot of the stories on the totems, and at that time, I didn’t know what they were going to be doing with them,” she said.

To document the poles, Huteson started drawing them, and then used the rest of the space on the page to interpret the artwork.

“I started to write down, well, ‘If I was to write a poem about this totem, what would I write?’ And when I came to the bottom of the page, I stopped and I went on to the next totem,” she said.

She later met a publisher, who was interested in printing her poems in a book. But, to use the totems’ stories, she needed to get permission. She started with the Klawock Heenya  Corporation, and they told her to go to the City of Klawock.

“They said to go to the elders, so I went to the Klawock Tlingit Nation Council of Elders, Byron Skinna, and asked if I could publish these poems, stories,” she said. “He asked if I knew them and I started to tell him the stories that I had learned, and then he said that I could.”

Since that first book in 2002, Huteson has launched more projects based on Southeast Native culture – coloring books, historic books, reference books, a radio station, and now, an app. Those last two projects were in collaboration with her son, Simon Roberts.

Roberts said he’s wanted to get into app development for a couple years now. He decided to start that venture with his mom’s book.

“Her book was well put together. The only requirement we had to go above and beyond her publisher was to not use his pictures,” he said. “So we retook the pictures in the Klawock Totem Park and some scenery pictures. We worked with some local photographers, Fred Olsen in Kasaan, and here in Klawock, Henry Williamson.”

The app includes the illustrated poems, a short video of ravens on top of one of the poles, a map of Prince of Wales Island, images from other totems in Southeast Alaska, and a reading.

“We offer in the beginning of the book, just one of the stories, we have a dramatized audio book for ‘The Perfect Tree’ – certain parts we need to hear the tree, birds, the wind, people in the background, to make it feel like you’re right there in the story,” Roberts said.

Huteson said the app will be updated with additional audio readings of poems, as they are produced. She and Roberts also want to create a similar app for the iPhone, but the idea initially fit better with the iPad, because of the tablet’s larger screen.

Roberts is working on more apps, including a free one that will be ready soon.

“My second program is actually a travel guide to Klawock,” he said. “A large portion of that is telling the exact, verbatim stories of the Klawock Totem Park. We’ll be making that app free. So that we’re giving the culture and heritage back to the people.”

That app is meant for tourists, but also for younger Alaska Natives who want to know more about their own culture.

A third app is in development. It’s a language app that Roberts said will be based on established language-teaching tools.

Roberts hopes to work with various Native organizations to develop different language apps, covering many Native languages and dialects within each language, as well as how-to apps for carving or weaving. He says smartphones could be a modern way to preserve traditional cultures.

”If you look outside your window right now, in your office or even at your local grocery store, how many people are looking in the palm of their hands?” he said. “Why learn a language in the classroom when you can learn it waiting for a meeting, or waiting for the bus, or when you’re sitting on your flight going up to Juneau? You’d have your language with you in the palm of your hand, basically.”

The first app, called Totem Stories, is available now through Apple iPad. Roberts said the free travel-guide app should be done in a couple of weeks, but then it takes a while for the Apple approval process. The language app, well, that’s still got a ways to go.

Oh, and those totem poles that were taken down in 1995? Those were second-generation poles, carved in the 1930s to replicate original poles from the area. Over the past decade, the 1930s poles have been replaced with newly carved totems. The last of the third-generation poles will be raised in a ceremony this summer.

Pamela Rae Huteson’s books are available locally at Crazy Wolf Studio.

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