A picnic area at Skater’s Lake trail in Metlakatla. (Photo courtesy of Raeme Janes).

Metlakatla’s tribe is using a cultural tourism grant to spread the traditional Tsimshian language around the island’s trails. The $50,000 will be used to educate locals and visitors about traditional plants.

The Yellow Hill and Skater’s Lake trails in Metlakatla, Alaska’s only federal reservation, tempt locals and visitors alike to get outdoors. That’s why the local tribe thinks they’re the perfect spots to teach about traditional plants in the Tsimshian language.

Metlakatla’s tribe received a $50,000 NATIVE Act Grant through the Forest Service and the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association. 

Raeme Janes is Metlakatla’s tourism director. She coordinated the grant, which went out to six tribes around the country this year.

“And I said, ‘What the heck’ and I decided to apply for the grant,” Janes said.

The grant winners were announced in January. Now, a two-year clock has started to complete a project with the money. In Metlakatla, that means placards at local trails that show traditional plants, their uses, and what they’re called in the Tsimshian language. 

“The nice thing about it is it will have our traditional Tsimshian cultural uses for it,” she said. “So whether it was a food source, or whether it was a medicinal source, how we would harvest it, the Sm’algyax name for it.”

Metlakatla gets some tourist traffic — Allen Marine Tours takes small groups from Ketchikan over to Annette Island in a catamaran. And small cruise ships occasionally stop there too. The grant will also go toward building a covered seating area for guests coming off tour boats coming from Metlakatla’s popular “bonfire tour.”

Janes said the new placards in particular will help visitors understand Metlakatla’s culture in a deeper way.

“It gives them the opportunity to take a picture of the placard and then they could go home and talk about it,” Janes explained. “It’ll help keep our traditional ties alive because the more people talk about it, you know things spread by the word of mouth and the stronger our culture will grow.”

Yellow Hill in Metlakatla (photo courtesy of Raeme Janes).

And for the year-round residents, the grant means replacing the well-loved boardwalk on Skater’s Lake trail, and making it easier for the next generation to learn the language. 

Janes said everyone will benefit — especially the youngest community members who use the trails to learn harvesting.

“Part of my goal was aiming to help with that — is these kids will have the signs and they’ll be able to read more about it and it will kind of stick with them a little bit better than us just talking about it,” she said.

Metlakatla’s mayor, Albert Smith, agreed that the grant will benefit the town. 

“Having a safe, healthy place to go hike around is also going to be a big benefit to the community,” he said.

Metlakatla Indian Community was the only tribe in Alaska to receive a NATIVE Act Grant this cycle. Other recipients were in Washington, New Mexico, Oklahoma and California.

Editor’s note: this story has been updated to correctly spell Raeme Janes’ last name.

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.