Tlingit Elder Clarence Jackson Dies

Clarence Jackson. Photo courtesy Sealaska Corporation.
Clarence Jackson. Photo courtesy Sealaska Corporation.

Tlingit elder and original Sealaska Native Corporation board member Clarence Jackson passed away Thursday at the age of 78.

He’s being remembered for his contributions to the Native land claims movement, and for being an ambassador for Tlingit culture in both the business world and his personal life.

Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl says Jackson relished comforting people in times of need. He served as master of ceremonies at the memorial service for the late Reverend Dr. Walter Soboleff in 2011.

“He became like our ambassador from Sealaska, where he would attend all of the funerals, all the memorials,” Worl said. “He was there to comfort clans and the family of those who had lost someone.”

Jackson was born in Kake in 1934. He lived there most of his life, attending Sheldon Jackson High School in Sitka, before moving back to the village, where he was a fisherman and operated a small store.

Worl says he was a great fisherman, who loved boats.

“We always say, it is as if the spirits of the animals know him and they give themselves to those kind of people who have those good spirits,” she said. “So, yes, he was a great fisherman.”

In the 1960s, Jackson was involved in the Alaska Native claims movement as a delegate to the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians. He served as Central Council president from 1972 through 1976.

Also in 1972, Jackson signed the articles of incorporation for Sealaska, the regional Native Corporation for Southeast, created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. He was the only board member to serve continuously from the time Sealaska was founded.

Current board chair Albert Kookesh first met Jackson when he joined the board in 1975. He says they quickly became friends.

“We’re both from villages right next to each other. He’s from Kake and I’m from Angoon,” said Kookesh. “He knew my father and he knew Walter Soboleff, my uncle. So I got immediately scooped up into his little circle.”

Kookesh says Jackson was a champion of village life and traditional culture on the board, something he attributed to being raised by his Tlingit speaking grandparents.

Kookesh says his ability to speak both Tlingit and English fluently made Jackson a valuable asset to the company.

“His Tlingit background, and his Tlingit stories, and his Tlingit upbringing gave him a really good sense of oration,” Kookesh said. “Very, very articulate. Not somebody who went to college, not somebody who went to law school, not somebody who went to graduate school. But somebody who went to the upper learnings of the Tlingit culture.”

When the corporation established the nonprofit Sealaska Heritage Institute in 1980, Jackson became one of its trustees and served as chair of the Council of Traditional Scholars.

Worl says the council was instrumental in identifying the core cultural values that guide the institute to this day.

“Clarence would remind us always, this is what makes us Native people, it’s our cultural values,” Worl said.

Jackson talked about the importance of preserving those values at Celebration 2012, the biennial cultural and educational event sponsored by the Heritage Institute.

“We’re strengthening our culture,” Jackson said. “We might hear a new song here and there this Celebration. But it’s a shoring up time to not be doing anything just for show. But to show the young people, this is the way it is.”

Jackson spent much of the past two months in Seattle receiving cancer treatment. He recently returned to Alaska, and died surrounded by friends and family on Thursday.

A service will be held at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall (former ANB Hall) in Juneau on Saturday at 5 p.m.

A video of Clarence Jackson from Celebration 2012:

Clarence Jackson’s last address at Celebration. from Kathy Dye on Vimeo.

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Casey Kelly is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.