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teslin/the george johnson museum

I woke to thick, murky, grey, smoke; Teslin Lake barely visible, the mountains vanished, hazy orange pink light filtered through smoke. I set off down the Alaska Highway again with a wet rag over my nose and mouth. Soon I pass a cultural centre and stop to check it out. Impressive totem carvings watch over the entrance but I don’t pay the $5 fee to enter the centre.

Totem poles watching over the cultural centre.

Totem poles watching over the cultural centre.

Detail of totem pole - a beaver?

Detail of totem pole - a beaver?

Detail of totem pole.

Detail of totem pole.

Detail of totem pole.

Detail of totem pole.

Before long I arrive at Teslin, a small community, and pass a number of buildings pertaining to the management of the Tlingit of Teslin’s business. I am curious to find out more but I have no reason to visit and so don’t know how to enter without intruding.

However, I soon pass another museum, the George Johnson museum, and decide to check it out. The museum is well set out, with a small collection of Tlingit craftwork – beadwork, button blankets, gopher blankets, decorative dog coats. There is also lots of information about local wildlife and the relationship the Tlingit people had with different animals.

Beaded jacket with salmon motif.

Beaded jacket with salmon motif.

Blanket made from hundreds of gopher skins.

Blanket made from hundreds of gopher skins.

A car has pride of place in the musuem, George Johnson’s car – a sleek black 1929 classic, but I take little notice.

Eventually, a film playing in a small side room attracts my attention. The film, Picturing a People, George Johnson, Tlingit Photographer directed by Carol Geddes, a local film maker, is a montage of still back and white photos, interviews and acted scenarios that illustrate the life of George Johnson – a trapper from the community of Teslin in the early 20th centuary.

George Johnson was clearly an exceptional man; an early adopter of technology, a self-taught photographer who documented the everyday life of his community with a fine, sensitive eye. He bought the car, the same one that is now displayed in the museum, to the community undeterred by the fact that there were no roads. He simply organised the community to build one, a three mile stretch of road that was eventually incorporated into the current Alaska-Canada Highway. In winter, he would drive on the frozen lake.

Pragmatically, he used the vehicle for hunting, painting it white in winter and a dark colour in summer. He also set up an informal taxi service for the local community. He managed to keep the car running in winter without the benefit of anti-freeze by draining the radiator and keeping the liquid warm over the stove until he wanted to use the vehicle.

The film goes on to detail the impact of the building of the Alaska Highway, by the US government, during the World War II, on the Teslin community. The community was decimated by diseases to which they were exposed by the huge influx of US soldiers who worked and the road and to which they had no natural immunity. Later, the children in the community were removed from their families and placed in residential schools and alcoholism became a major social problem.

The film is a truely excellent insight into the local community and the challenges that it has faced and is well worth seeing. I’m very glad that I took the time to.

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