Tlingit & Haida Central Council President Richard Peterson and James Hart at the recent tribal assembly. (Central Council Tlingit & Haida)

Tlingit & Haida Central Council President Richard Peterson and James Hart at the recent tribal assembly. (Central Council Tlingit & Haida)

Last month, a 27-year-old Haines resident was recognized for his leadership by the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes. James Hart received the ‘Emerging Leader’ award at the annual tribal assembly. Hart is a Tlingit & Haida Council delegate and a tribal council member at the Haines-based Chilkoot Indian Association.

“My English name is James Hart, my Tlingit name is Gooch Éesh. I am a Raven Frog from the Sun House in Wrangell.”

Hart’s involvement in tribal government began about five years ago, after he attended the National Congress of American Indians. He says he talked to people from around the country about issues that resonate locally.

“I’d say the biggest issue for everybody is sovereignty and figuring out how to use our sovereignty,” Hart said. “We have a government-to-government relationship with the federal government. And then we have to fight the state for other types of recognition. Sometimes I feel like we aren’t on the same playing field.”

But Hart says local tribes are becoming stronger, partly because of the cultural resurgence taking place among a younger generation. Hart says that started happening in Haines when he and other young people began apprenticing with master carver Wayne Price.

“He had a dugout that was roughed out and wasn’t finished. And that became the project that really started a movement.”

They carved a 28-foot red cedar dugout canoe.

“It really awakened myself and others,” Hart said.

The momentum spread to Hoonah, where Price and his apprentices made two 40-foot canoes. Hart says the massive project took about ten months.

“While we were there, it was a life-changing event,’ Hart said. “The whole community seemed to change with us as the dugouts progressed from start to finish. When we got there, there was a lot of people who had pride in their culture. But by the time we left it seemed like the community was on fire. The culture was just really alive.”

Hart is going to continue teaching traditional skills at three culture camps this summer, in Haines, Hoonah and Yakutat. The camps will focus on Tlingit language, subsistence skills and traditional art.

“Growing up my grandma never spoke to us [in Tlingit.] She went through lots of trauma and didn’t want her children to speak the language,” Hart said. “So it’s this next generation that’s starting to pick up where we left off.”

Hart has not only been involved in tribal government. He got an inside look at state government during this year’s legislative session as a public policy fellow for Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins.

“I thought this would be a good way to learn more about the state and how to get our voice in the state when I need to go there and speak on behalf of the tribe,” Hart said.

One thing he learned? If you want the ear of a legislator, make friends with their staff.

Going forward, Hart says there’s another area where he wants to get involved.

“One of the things I want to do is be on the borough assembly,” Hart said. “Sounds crazy but that’s something that I’ve targeted for a while, and I’ve got roots here that go back longer than I could count. The feelings I have for this valley are deep and they are real.”

Hart’s not sure whether he’ll put his name in the running for assembly this year or in the future. But he says it’s one more way he hopes to shape his community for the better.