During the holiday season, KHNS is airing StoryCorps segments recorded by the Juneau Public Libraries with Haines and Klukwan residents. This interview features John Hagen, a Haines photographer, commercial fisherman and community education leader. He talked with Haines Library Education Coordinator Jessie Morgan.
“I feel like I’ve been living undercover as a Tlingit, even though I’m Aleut and Inupiaq,” Hagen said. “I do some work in Native education in the community and helping run cultural programming for Chilkoot Tribe, but I’m not Tlingit and I’m not Chilkoot. My whole life, growing up in Haines, everyone thinks I’m Tlingit, but I’m not.”
Hagen says that’s led to a sense of “cultural isolation.”
His mother’s family came to Haines from Ugashik, after many people in their village died from the Spanish flu, Hagen says.
“I have this double layer of isolation there, I’ve been grasping for that little bit of culture.”
Hagen visited Ugashik for the first time as an adult, to go fishing — a tradition for his family.
“It was just such an amazing place to be able to walk where my family has always been, on the same river and seeing the same sights. Looking across the river and not seeing mountains, it’s flat…which is just amazing after living next to mountains like we do in Haines. It’s just an intense thing.”
He says the cultural isolation he’s felt throughout his life is something he’s only recently been able to grasp, as he’s gone to school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico.
“I realized my story wasn’t unique. There are people across the nation who have grown up outside of their cultures.”
Hagen says he realized that it’s OK to self-identify as not being close to your culture.
“Having that cultural identity absent is as important as it being there.”
He also thinks it informs his art as a photographer.
“In some ways, my photography is searching, like soul-searching for home of sorts.”
Hagen says he’s coming to terms with his cultural identity.
“I’m still doing everything I can to learn about my Aleut and Inupiaq culture but I’m okay knowing that I’m coming from it the other way. And it’s not something I try and hide.”
The above audio interview was produced by KHNS’s Emily Files with the Juneau and Haines Public Libraries and StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives. More information at storycorps.org.