A photo of the Duncan Memorial Church fire in 1949. (Photo courtesy of the Annette Island Reserve Historical Archive)

Alaska’s only reservation is fighting to reclaim how its story is told. Metlakatla residents hope that by filling the new Annette Island Reserve Historical Archive with pictures, videos and sounds, future generations will know where they came from — and the current generation will remember the past.

Right now, when someone writes about Metlakatla, they don’t always get to hear the story from the people who live there. Tribal Councilmember Keolani Booth said that’s because there’s not a central archive to store the tribe’s stories and memories.

“You know, when anyone writes about Metlakatla, or does anything … we’ve got one narrative — that’s from our narrative, and, and I think the fact that we don’t have that right now, it’s left up to interpretation by anyone who would want to write about Metlakatla,” Booth said.

Reggie Atkinson is a former Metlakatla mayor. He told KRBD there have been efforts to build archives in Metlakatla before, but they haven’t been digitized, and they aren’t organized.

“We do have a building right next to our council chambers and it’s (an) archive building,” he explained. “There’s archive boxes stacked in there, and actually, I don’t even know what’s in there. I went in there once.”

Atkinson said he’s heard that there are historical images of Metlakatla inside Duncan Church, and that relatives might have even more.

“There are people saying they have photos,” he said. “I know for a fact that a relative has eight millimeter movies from his father. His father was in the territorial guard unit here then. 

The Metlakatla Indian Community contracted Caitlin Steinberg, a researcher from Wisconsin, to come to the island and help develop the Annette Island Reserve Historical Archive. When it’s finished, Steinberg said the archive will hold pictures, videos, and interviews with local elders and families. 

“It’s been brewing for decades, it seems, in Metlakatla,” she said.

The effort will involve the whole community, largely led by youth: students will interview their parents, aunts, uncles and neighbors, learning more about their family’s history, as well as the history of Annette Island. 

“So there was already this hunger for this place for anyone to just go find their stories of their family in the community,” she said. “And it was born from talking about all these different ideas and all these, you know, hopes and wishes for how organizing Metlakatla’s history could benefit the people.”

Once the interviews are completed, Steinberg says they’ll be filed away along with a questionnaire, created by residents.

Steinberg says there will be a little of everything in the archive — from stories about the founding of Metlakatla to the history of residential schools and what life was like in World War II.

“And it’s also going to be fishing, hunting, gathering, you know, it’s going to be things about stories about the old cannery and you know, when there would be coffee meet ups at the old cannery as well as the fishing culture down at the docks,” she said.

The archive will be contained in a room at Metlakatla High School, and anyone will be able to record an interview for the collection. 

The work has already started taking shape. On a recent Friday afternoon, community elders gathered at Metlakatla High School for “coffee with elders.” 

The recording is a little hard to hear, but resident Henry G. Smith spoke about the value of the archive in this clip from the event sent to KRBD.

In the clip, Smith said, “It’s a good thing for the kids to learn … the history of where thier parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents came from, how Metlakatla came about. It’s good for them to know this stuff, to know the history of their ancestors.”

And Booth, the councilmember, hopes that knowledge will be preserved for future generations in Metlakatla. 

As a councilmember, Booth said if he wanted to look back at something a past member had done, in most cases, he’s out of luck. He doesn’t want that to happen to future generations. 

“And there are things that I’d love to speak to Henry Littlefield about, or Solomon Guthrie,” he said. “And they were councilmen, many, many years ago. And, you know, if they didn’t write it down, we don’t know. So I think it’s really going to help a lot in the continuity of serving the community, passing information, and, and preserving our culture.”

“You’ve got to know what you’ve done to move forward,” he added.

He hopes the archive will help preserve knowledge of times both good and bad, as well as traditional language.

It’s things that we need to know, and we feel we have the right to know about our people,” he said.

Booth says that Steinberg, the contracted archivist, plans to train a member of Metlakatla’s tribe to take over as lead historian, once the project is fully on its feet. 

Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.