Klawock hopes for an economic boost as it welcomes cruise ships for the first time

a cruise ship
Tourists being ferried from the Seabourn Odyssey to the Port of Klawock during its May 6, 2024 grand opening. (Jack Darrell/KRBD)

Alaska’s newest port, until a few months ago, was full of piles of milled timber in knee-deep mud. 

On its opening day earlier this month, local kids and adults in traditional hats and robes danced on the concrete dock below a banner that read “Welcome to Port Klawock.”

After the first dance on May 6, a local teacher named Eva Roan addressed the crowd of visitors who had just walked off of a sleek, white cruise ship. They’re the first cruise ship tourists to set foot in the community on Prince of Wales Island, roughly 60 miles west of Ketchikan.

“You’re in the territory of the Tlingít people,” she told the tourists, the abalone shells at the end of her dance apron clacking lightly. “Before migration, this whole island and islands around it were Tlingít Aaní. And a lot of the people in this dance group, they’re all part of the original clans from this area.”

Klawock’s dancers perform for cruise tourists at Port Klawock’s grand opening. (Jack Darrell/KRBD)

The crowd watching and taking pictures were from a ship called the Seabourn Odyssey. Roan taught them a word in Lingít, the language of the Tlingit people. 

“Gunalchéesh,” she said slowly, the word for thank you.

“Gunalchéesh,” the crowd repeated.

The ceremony was the result of 18 months of planning by tribal leaders. Don Nickerson is the mayor of Klawock and president of Klawock Heenya, the local Alaska Native corporation. 

For years, he has watched the salmon and logging industries leave the area and is hoping to revive the town’s flagging economy with tourism. He said seeing their kids dance like this and be proud of their culture was something special.

“You know, we looked at the economy in our community. And then we realized, we have so much culture here. Not only on our land, but with our artisans or artifacts, and the stories that come with Klawock,” he said.

Padget Kaiser from St. Helena, California, the first cruise ship passenger to set foot in Klawock, is greeted by representatives of Port Klawock. (Courtesy of Jennifer Black)
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The captain of the Seabourn Odyssey, Krasimir Radev. (Jack Darrell/KRBD)

Nickerson loves Klawock. He said he’s lived here his whole life and wants the village’s kids and grandkids to be able to do the same. Klawock is modeling their new tourism economy on another Southeast Village: Hoonah. 

“Guests are looking for more unique experiences, and where else to get those than in our Native rural communities?” asked Russell Dick.

Dick is the CEO of Huna Totem Corporation, the Native corporation for Hoonah and Glacier Bay.

“Twenty years ago, we were in the same situation as Klawock is today,” he said.

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Patrick Duke of Doyon Limited and Russell Dick of Huna Totem pose in front of the Seabourn Odyssey. (Jack Darrell/KRBD)

Dick was at the helm in the early 2000s when Huna Totem unveiled Icy Strait Point, a tourist destination near Hoonah they built from the ground up. It now brings in megaships from all over the world and accounts for more than half the economy of Hoonah.

“When you look at Icy Strait Point, you see the values of the community imprinted on Icy Strait Point, you don’t see the community of Hoonah becoming a tourism community,” Dick said. “We’ve created some separation in that fabric that exists in Hoonah. It exists at Icy Strait Point because we’ve been able to build it that way.”

Port Klawock is owned by Dick’s Huna Totem Corporation and Doyon Limited, the Native corporation for Interior Alaska. They are operating under the name Na-Dena`. 

Dick was actually the person who contacted Nickerson and Mary Edenshaw, the CEO of Klawock Heenya, about building the Port of Klawock. He envisions it as the next Icy Strait Point.

“Yes this is just day one,” Dick said. “But imagine five years down the road of what we can build in a place like Klawock and Prince of Wales Island. It can be absolutely stunning and amazing.”

After the speeches, Klawock Heenya, Doyon Limited, and Huna Totem exchanged commemorative plaques with captain Krasimir Radev of the Seabourn Odyssey, a fit, smiling Bulgarian man. Then the mayor cut the big red ribbon with a pair of cartoonishly large scissors. 

a ribbon-cutting
Klawock Heenya’s President, Don Nickerson, and CEO, Mary Edenshaw, cut the red ribbon at Port Klawock, flanked by other Klawock Heenya board members. (Jack Darrell/KRBD)

Aaron Isaacs, a village elder, was front and center for the ceremony. He said the Klawock he knew as a kid was different. It wasn’t an easy place to grow up.

“Everything was tough life,” Isaacs remembered. “There was a lot of things we didn’t have.”

But he felt hopeful for the future.

“I am so proud of what they’re doing — the village corporation, the Board of Directors. I’m very proud of what they’re doing. Just amazing,” Isaacs said. “When you read the history of (the) Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, it shows how the Native people just went on and became self-prominent. There’s a lot of people that are against that.”

The Seabourn Odyssey was on an 80-day journey from Sydney, Australia. With the ribbon cutting done, the passengers lined up to board tour buses. One advertised “Taste of Klawock,” a food tour along a river where visitors would eat halibut and oysters. 

Not everyone had such a good day though. Stacey Skan owns a coffee shop called Real Tradish on Klawock’s main drag. She calls it an “unapologetic Indigenous space.”

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Stacey Skan in Real Tradish, her coffee shop and art space. (Jack Darrell/KRBD)

She hoped the Odyssey would bring customers. Only two showed up. 

“I just think there’s a real lack of collaboration between businesses, city and tribal entities,” she said while wiping down tables before closing. 

Still, she was hopeful.

“Really, I thought it can always be a positive thing. I don’t really have a bad opinion. It’s just, I think our city could do more,” Skan said.

As the sun began to set, the cruise ship was gone. Na Dena’ and Klawock Heenya are hoping to slowly ramp up their operations at Port Klawock.

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