Before white settlers arrived, the Tlingits had already warred for centuries over this strategic trading location near the mouth of the Stikine River. The first Chief Shakes was a successful conqueror who enslaved his enemies, then handed down power through the female line, in the Tlingits tradition, for seven generations. Charlie Jones was recognized as Chief Shakes VII, the last of the line, at a potlatch in 1940, but the position had long since lost most of its status. (An excellent pamphlet, "Authentic History of Shakes Island and Clan," by E. L. Keithhahn, sells at the Nolan Center Museum.)
Chief Shakes Island, a tiny islet in the middle of the small-boat harbor, is the site of a Tlingits clan house and collection of totem poles constructed by Native workers, using traditional tools, in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s. This house is an exact, scaled-down copy of the house in which Chief Shakes VI lay in state in 1916. The inside of the clan house is fascinating, both in the sense it gives of the people's ways and for some extraordinary artifacts. Open hours are posted around town or on the site www.shakesisland.com. Admission is $5. Otherwise, you can pay a $25 minimum to have someone come down and show you around. Great-granddaughters of Chief Shakes VII open the house: Tis Peterman (tel. 907/874-3097), or, if you can't reach Tis, Carol Snoddy (tel. 907/874-3538). Even if you can't arrange to get in, visit the island to see the totem poles and the charming setting (and, with extra time, visit the grave of Chief Shakes V, on Case Ave., just across the harbor). You can often see an otter near the island's footbridge.
The carved house posts in the clan house are replicas of the mid-18th-century originals protected by the local museum. These are probably the oldest and certainly the best-preserved Tlingits house posts in existence, still bearing the original fish egg and mineral paints, and a gash where, during a potlatch, a chief hacked off an image that a visitor admired and gave it to him -- a gesture that demonstrated the extent of his wealth then, and still does.
The Nolan Center Museum, 296 Campbell Dr. (tel. 907/874-3770), is an impressive building, with galleries devoted to natural history, logging and fishing, and Native culture. The museum owns many important early Alaska Native pieces, and a lot of just plain old stuff telling the story of Wrangell, one of Alaska's most historic towns. Admission is $5 adults, $3 seniors, $2 children ages 6 to 12; family admission is $12. The museum is open May 1 to September 30 Monday through Saturday 10am to 5pm, the rest of the year Tuesday through Saturday 1 to 5pm, or by appointment. Don't miss the shop, which has an extraordinary collection of books on Alaska and authentic Native crafts for bargain prices.
The museum helped preserve an impressive set of petroglyphs that lie on the beach a mile north of town. The 50 carvings at Wrangell Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park probably represent the work of forgotten indigenous people predating the Tlingits and were made over a long period of time. The images, chipped into rocks, are of animals and geometric forms. Their purpose is lost to time. Walk north on Evergreen Avenue and follow the signs down to the beach (don't go within an hour of high tide). Replicas of the petroglyphs were carved so that visitors who want to take rubbings will not destroy the originals; also try not to step on them. The great pleasure here is simply to search for the carvings -- they're just lying out there, and it takes some looking -- and to wonder at their meaning and age.
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