Judson Brown, Tlingit Elder

In 1990, when the Polynesian Voyaging Society was faced with the problem of building a voyaging canoe out of traditional materials without any koa trees in the forests of Hawai‘i large or healthy enough for hulls, PVS founder and historian Herb Kane remembered a historical document that pointed to another source of trees: drift logs from the Pacific Northwest. He contacted his friend Judson Brown, a elder of the Tlingit nation of southeast Alaska, and introduced Judson to Nainoa Thompson, director of the Hawai‘iloa project.

(The following account of the meeting is from Sam Low’s “Sacred Forests”:

...Nainoa had driven into Honolulu to a restaurant called Fisherman's Wharf - a place with a maritime motif, a motley collection of binnacles, steering wheels and curved ship's ventilators - to have lunch with Herb Kane and a friend of his from Alaska. The meeting was inspired by an event that took place more than two centuries earlier when Captain George Vancouver visited the island of Maui. While there, he measured a large canoe and found it to be over 108 feet long. It was fabricated, as he later wrote in his ship's log, "of the finest pine." Vancouver knew that pine did not grow in Hawaii.

"Where did the wood come from?" he asked the chief who owned the canoe.

"It was a gift from the gods," the chief replied.

Pressing the matter, Vancouver learned that a pine log had drifted ashore. Hawaiians had never seen such wood before so they assumed it was a divine gift; but Vancouver had seen pines growing on the northwest coast of the great American continent, so he guessed it had drifted from there to Hawaii.

Reflecting back on this incident, Herb Kane thought of building Hawai'iloa of Alaskan spruce. So he called an old friend, Judson Brown, who was then the chairman of the SeaAlaska Foundation, an offshoot of the SeaAlaska Corporation that managed a huge area of forest won by Native Alaskans in one of the most successful land claims in American history.

When Nainoa arrived at Fisherman's Wharf the air was thick with cigarette smoke and lilting lunchtime conversation. Herb introduced him to Judson Brown.

"Judson was a large man," Nainoa remembers. "He had a deep strong voice and a kind smile. He was quiet but welcoming. His eyes had seen a lot. I didn't know anything about him. I Only knew that among his people he was a respected elder."

Judson Brown was born in 1905 in Kluckwan, a tiny village 40 miles up the Chilkat river from Haines, Alaska - the seaport terminus for a huge wilderness north of Juneau. Among his people, the eagle moiety of the killer whale clan of the Tlingit nation, Judson is known as Gushklane, which translates roughly as "Big Fin." During Judson's childhood, the early 1900s, there was little opportunity for formal schooling, until Congress finally passed an act to establish schools for the education of Native Alaskans. Judson was one of the first from his village to be sent away to such a school. There, he learned to read and write in English, to recite the pledge of allegiance and such other skills that Congress, in its wisdom, thought would help him make his way in the white man's world.

"Judson's history is fascinating," Nainoa explains. "He began working when he was a teenager for the betterment of his people. The abuse that went on in Alaska was like the abuse that went on over here. They rounded up children from different tribes and sent them away to school. The schools were like prisons. The children were taken from their families and that destroyed many families."

"Native Alaskans were not allowed to vote," Nainoa continues, "until congress was finally forced to give them the right. But there was a catch, to register you had to recite the pledge of allegiance in English and be able to sign your name. When they had the first election, no one in Kluckwan voted because no one could speak English. Judson was still in high school then but he knew how to speak and write English, so he went at night with a lantern to every household in the village and he taught the people how to mimic the pledge of allegiance and to make their signature. Within one year, someone from his tribe won the mayor's race. Judson was a teenager when he did that."

When Judson graduated from high school he joined with other native activists to sue the United States for claims to their land which eventually resulted in a settlement that returned millions of acres to Alaskan native peoples. The government considered the land to be virtually worthless - a distant wilderness with few roads to extract the resources of timber and fisheries that existed there. But in the early seventies, oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope. The best way to get the oil to the continental United States was a pipeline across the land. The wilderness had all of a sudden become extremely valuable.

"Judson was a member of the group that filed the first land claims suit," Nainoa recalls. "He was that kind of guy - very visionary."

During lunch, Herb and Nainoa explained the Hawai'iloa project to Judson. If they could not find koa trees in their forest, would Judson help them?

"He was very quiet and patient. He listened. After we explained the whole project he simply quietly said: 'we will give you the trees so you can build the canoe to carry your culture.' He understood fully what we were trying to do. It was about reviving our culture. He knew the trees would be the tools."

"The relationship between my people and all that is in the forest and the sea is one of interdependence," Judson told Nainoa. "The resources from the sea and forest have allowed our people to survive over all these centuries. Because of that relationship we treat everything in the forest and the sea as family. Giving you two trees is like giving you our children. So we will not cut the trees until you let us know exactly what you need and we will go into the woods and find the trees and then you must come and inspect them before we cut them."

"Judson's wisdom came from his kupunas," Nainoa explains. "It is their guiding values. It's the kind of wisdom we always seek in the older generation. What he told me was extremely powerful. I was in charge of building a canoe and that was my narrow focus, but around it were all these layers of values that I did not clearly see. I understood them, I felt them, but I did not articulate them clearly. I was too busy thinking of deadlines and logistics. Judson brought in a new set of values. Judson also clearly saw a bridge being constructed between his people and ours. He saw it from the very beginning."

"After talking with Judson, I knew we had a second source of trees," Nainoa continues, "but I didn't want to make that choice. I wanted to find the trees in our own forests because it would demonstrate that our ecosystem was still healthy. So we spent a year searching for the trees all over Hawaii. When we didn't find them I was depressed. I felt guilty. But I didn't completely understand these feelings. There were ten trillion other things that had to be done to keep the canoe project going. I didn't have the time to think out what was truly troubling me."

About a year after meeting Judson and a few days after coming out of the Kilauea forest, Nainoa called Judson Brown. The conversation was cordial but short. "We need the trees," said Nainoa. "Come to Alaska, they will be ready for you," was the reply.

[After realizing the importance of a healthy environment for a healthy culture and starting a reforestation in Hawai‘i, Nainoa accepted the gift of two giant spruce trees to build the new voyaging canoe. The logs were shipped to Hawai‘i, the canoe Hawai‘iloa was built and launched in 1993, and she voyaged to Tahiti and Nukuhiva in 1993.]

In the summer of 1995, having completed her voyage to Tahiti and back through the Marquesas, Hawaiiloa was shipped aboard a freighter. Landing in Seattle, she began a 900-mile voyage of thanksgiving up the coast and inland waterways of Alaska. Byron Mallot was often aboard and Ernie Hillman, captaining his fishing boat, escorted the canoe through Alaskan waters during her entire visit. In Haines, Alaska, Hawai'iloa's crew were greeted in a uniquely Alaskan ceremony - a potlatch.

Hawai‘iloa Sailing to Haines in the Icy Straits, Alaska. 1995

"We went to Haines and we were taken into a small building by a river, a simple and humble place with a wooden floor," Nainoa remembers. "We sat on the floor and the people gave us a potlatch. They heaped gifts before us. I was embarrassed. I saw an elderly lady sitting against the wall in the back of the room. There was a young boy with her, her grandson I supposed. Toward the end of the gift giving I saw her hand to him a small package. She seemed kind of embarrassed about the gift, almost ashamed. The young boy walked quietly up to the front of the room and put the package on the pile of gifts. It was composed of hundred dollar bills. I was shocked."

"I turned to Judson Brown and said, 'I don't know how to respond to this kindness.'"

"Our idea of wealth," he told me, "is not about accumulating but giving away. We have survived as a people for centuries by caring for our natural environment and by sharing with each other."

In 1997, Judson Brown passed away. He is buried in his native village of Klukwan where, over sixty years ago, by the light of a flickering kerosene lantern, he first began teaching his people about their rights. Judson had lived a life expressive of his Tlingit name, Gushklane - Big Fin - the one who has guided his people with wisdom and with a deep belief in the values of not only his ancestors, but the traditional values of all people.

"Judson Brown is still with us because the bridge between the people of Hawaii and the people of Alaska that he built is still strong," Nainoa says. "After Judson's death, his people carved two totem poles. They brought one to Hawaii with fifty people to celebrate the union between our people in the Bishop Museum's Hall of Discovery.

At the ceremony there was another elder, Alan Williams, who said: 'we are doing this as our contribution to keeping alive the bond between Hawaiians and Native Alaskans.'"

"They set up the other totem pole in Juneau, Alaska," Nainoa continues, "and that is the anchor for the bridge that Judson envisioned - one that will always connect our two people and our common values of preserving and sharing the wealth of our natural environment and our cultures."

Judson Brown Profile

Judson Brown (1912-1998) was born in Haines, Alaska, the son of James Wheeler Brown (K´ikaa, of the Kaagwaantaan) and Mary Spurgeon Brown (Kaasanak, of the Dakl´aweidi). He was a Tlingit Indian, an Eagle: Dakl´aweidi´; Kaagwaantaan yadi, Keet Gooshi Hit. His Tlingit names were Shaakakooni (Mountain Flicker) and Hinleiych (Yelling Sea Water), referring to the `woosh´ sound of the fast flip as the killer whale dives again after surfacing. Brown was also part Native Hawaiian and part Champagne Aishihik Native. After graduating from the Haines High School, Brown began a path that allowed him to work in many capacities, including as a law clerk, deputy marshal, two-term mayor of Haines, career fisherman, supervisor at the Pacific Maritime Association, Board of Director of the Sealaska Corporation, Board of Trustee of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, and board member of the Institute of Alaska Native Arts. He also participated in organizations and was a member of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indians Tribes of Alaska. He was a self-taught ethnographer and traveled extensively to Hawaii, Polynesia, and New Zealand for cultural exchange programs. He was active in Native Hawaiian and Champagne Aishihik affairs. Brown passed away in 1998.

Source: Nora and Richard Dauenhauer, Haa Kusteeyi, Our Culture (Juneau, Sealaska Heritage Foundation, 1994). From the Sealaska Heritage Institute Archives.