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It was an important moment to me when Louie Gong (Nooksack) asked if I (Tlingit) would be interested in helping him design a paddle earring and necklace. We are both from ocean-going peoples. Canoe journeys are a big part of coastal cultures. I have been going on canoe journeys since I was a teenager and when Covid-19 came, it made it unsafe to gather the way we always had before. Over the summer of 2020 when I couldn’t go on journeys, two of my mentors, Sven Haakanson, Ph.D. (Sugpiaq) and Nahaan (Tlingit), taught me how to carve, and I started bringing my axáa (paddle) to work and would carve on it there and show my team. Having my axáa there with me was a reminder to keep going during the chaos of the pandemic. I think Louie really appreciated that, and he wanted to create something that symbolized the significance of tribal journeys to coastal communities.
Stephanie holding the canoe paddle she carved and wearing the earrings she helped design
Whenever I am in the yaakw (canoe) with my canoe family and we first dip our paddles into the water, we pause for a moment, lay our paddles across the water and allow a moment for them to greet the water again; it’s like we are waking our paddles up. And then we begin our pull together and we’ll sing so we can go on our journeys with strength, unity, protection, and good medicine.
Stephanie carving her paddle in 2020
Whenever I am in the yaakw I am overwhelmed with this feeling of home, my body just knows what to do to and it feels like I just need every stroke. I am reminded that I need my culture. I need my people. I need the love that comes with sharing meals together and looking out for one another—and encouraging one another, especially during hard times. The yaakw isn’t just a mode of transportation, it's a place of healing. When you’re moving through an internal struggle on the canoe, you are never alone. Your ancestors are with you. If you begin to feel weak, your people will keep pulling for you. And you’ll do the same for someone else. We are all in this together.
Stephanie wearing her necklace seen through her paddle's triangle
The Tlingit Paddle Design
The Silver Paddle Earrings and Necklace symbolize that we need our way of life and we need our community. They're a reminder that our way of life needs us too. The design is based on a Tlingit axáa, one that I carved over this past summer. The original axáa was carved out of red cedar and features a triangle cutout at the handle, which distinguishes it as a Tlingit paddle. The triangle at the handle follows the flow of Northwest coast formline, but functionally it is meant to improve the vision of the puller. It allows for all the pullers in the yaakw to see ahead and pull in unison, and therefore makes for a stronger canoe. In the Silver Paddle Earrings and Necklace, we incorporated the triangle and made it into the actual loop for the earring hook.
Silver Paddle Earrings on Stephanie's paddle
Sxaalgén, whose English name is Stephanie Masterman, is from the Tlingit tribe of Southeast Alaska. Sxaalgén is from the Wooshkeetaan (Eagle/Shark) clan from the village of Hoonah, a child of German, English, Irish, and Navajo ancestors, and is a grandchild of the T’akdeintaan (Raven/black-legged Kittywake) also from Xunaa Káawu (Hoonah). She was born and raised in Washington State and is a student in American Indian Studies and Arctic Studies at the University of Washington. Sxaalgén has served in the Emerging Leader and Youth Ambassador leadership roles for her tribe, and continues to be heavily involved in advocacy for MMIW and environmental justice for her community. She is Eighth Generation’s Retail and Special Projects Manager and has been a member of the team for six years.