Metlakatla, Alaska is a community of Tsimshian people who followed a missionary of the Anglican Church of England, Mr. William Duncan, to a new home in the United States from their previous home in British Columbia, Canada. The United States Congress granted recognition to the new community in 1891 by creating the Annette Islands Reserve, a federal Indian reservation. Today it is the only indian reservation in the State of Alaska.
All other native lands in Alaska are either held by Regional or Village Native American Corporations, or individual or family lands distributed under the allotment system.
Traditionally, Metlakatla, B.C., Canada (now referred to as Old Metlakatla) had been the collective winter village of the “Nine Tribes” of the lower Skeena River, which since 1834 have been mostly based at Lax Kw’alaams, B.C.
In 1862, the Anglican lay minister William Duncan established at Metlakatla a utopian Christian community, made up of about 350 Tsimshians from Lax Kw’alaams (a.k.a. Port Simpson) but with members of other Tsimshian tribes as well.
Almost immediately thereafter, a smallpox epidemic tore through Lax Kw’alaams but left Metlakatla relatively unscathed, which Duncan interpreted for his followers as a sign of God’s providence.
In 1887 a group of 826 Tsimshian people left their homes in British Columbia, Canada under Father Duncan’s leadership, and traveled in ocean-going canoes to the waters of the U.S., landing first at Fort Simpson, and eventually on to their new home on Annette Island. The US Congress established the new community as a federal indian reservation with the designation of Annette Reserve in 1891.
The primary community on Annette Island is Metlakatla, (sometimes referred to as New Metlakatla), located 15 miles south of Ketchikan, Alaska and 650 miles north of Seattle, Washington. It has a population of about 1,400.
Although the majority of its population is Tsimshian, Metlakatla is also home to many Tlingit, Haida, Aleut, Yupik and other Alaska Native individuals with diverse tribal affiliations. These others are allowed to become members of the Metlakatla Indian Community by virtue of a clause in Metlakatla’s charter that specifically allows such membership.
The Annette Reservation consists of 130 acres of land, plus 3,000 feet of the surrounding coastal waters. Annete Island has a fairly mild maritime climate for Alaska, with winter temperatures rarely dipping below freezing, and summer temperatures in the 70s. The island gets an average of 109 inches of precipitation annually, mostly in the form of rain. While rare snowfalls can reach a depth of about a foot, snow seldom remains on the ground for more than a week or two at a time.
Community services include power, sewer, trash pickup, water, telephone, internet and television. Metlakatla has a medical center, schools, police department, and volunteer fire department. There is a graded road on the island that has not been paved and ferry service to Ketchikan five days a week which includes car transport, but takes an hour and a half. Plans are in the works for a new ferry site that will reduce travel time to Ketchikan to 15 minutes, once the road is paved.
The island has two small boat harbors and a barge dock. There is also a float plane dock, with regular flights between Ketchikan and Metlakatla.
The main industries today are fishing (salmon, herring, cod, and halibut), a salmon hatchery, a fish packing plant, a water bottling plant, retail stores, tourism industries, and the Annette Island Packing Company, which has been tribally owned for 110 years.
In the ancient Tsimshian culture there were several individual tribes, each with its own chief and governing council. Within the tribes there exists a closer society–that of the four major clans. The clans are the Eagle, or Lachsgeek; the Raven, or Gunhada; the Wolf, or Lachgeebuu; and the Killer Whale, or Gisbuutwada.
Today, Metlakatla is an incorporated entity officially named “Metlakatla Indian Community.” It is governed by a 12-member tribal council, mayor, secretary, and treasurer. The council and executives are responsible for the welfare of Metlakatla’s people.
The language of the Metlakatla people is Sm’algyax. Sm’algyax language belongs to the Tsimshianic family and various dialects are spoken throughout the north coast of British Columbia and New Metlakatla, Alaska. As a result of residential schools as well as Metlakatla’s close proximity to Prince Rupert, very few members are fluent in Sm’algyax.
Many historians have documented the culture, traditions and stories of the Coast Tsimshian (Metlakatla and Lax Kw’alaams) in their shared traditional territories. Metlakatla members continue to enjoy their inherent rights and freedom to harvest traditional food, practice traditional ceremonies and honour their history and lineage.