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What does it mean to lose your land, your language, and your heritage?

For Alaska Natives, these are existential threats.

On a trip to Southeast Alaska, I traveled to one village that is finding new ways to survive: Klukwan, ancestral home of the Tlingit tribe.

Nestled along the banks of the Chilkat River, Klukwan is quiet and tiny, home to about 90 people.

The Haines Highway runs through town, but on the day we visited, you could walk right down the middle of the two-lane road without worry of passing cars.

On a tour of the village, we pass by small homes and trailers: some abandoned, some with rusted old trucks out front, sinking into the soil.

“It’s a struggle,” says tribal president Kimberley Strong. “You see the buildings, some of ‘em are falling down and dilapidated. But we’re working at it. We’re working very hard at trying to keep the village alive.”

By doing that, they’re also trying to preserve the heritage of the Tlingit people, who have lived in Southeast Alaska for thousands of years.

Looking to the future, the tribe has great hopes for the new Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage Center, a soaring, light-filled space that opened in Klukwan last spring. It’s an $8 million investment in the tribe’s future, funded through grants, as well as state and federal money.

A Native Village In Alaska Where The Past Is Key To The Future

Photos: Elissa Nadworny/NPR