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After dry spell, Alaska's only Indian reservation welcomes back cruise ship tourists

Alex DeMarban
The village of Metlakatla resettled from a British Columbia city of the same name in the 19th century after a breakaway missionary with the Anglican Church canoed with 800 Tsimshians to Annette Island, about 70 miles to the northwest, to establish a utopian Christian community. Photo courtesy of Metlakatla Indian Community

A village that fled Canada more than a century ago has been rediscovered at the edge of Alaska -- by tourists looking for an offbeat adventure. They're finding it in Metlakatla, the nation's only Tsimshian village and one that's suddenly on the map for at least two tour companies in Southeast Alaska, tour organizers said. 

The community of 1,600 -- the only Indian reservation in Alaska -- has seen little tourism since Cruise West went belly-up three years ago, putting an end to the regular visits from shiploads of tourists.

Now, tour company Allen Marine, in an agreement with Disney Cruise Line, has picked up some of the slack. Allen Marine plans to move ahead with a summer program that shuttles tourists into the village on catamarans.

It means Metlakatla will land but a tiny slice of the 1 million passengers that disembark at Ketchikan this summer, receiving less than 200 visitors a month.

Still, it's a welcome change for a community that had seen tourism plunge. And it comes at a critical time, with state and federal revenues on the wane, said Victor Wellington, mayor of the Metlatkatla Indian Community.

"With all the decline in revenues from the state and federal governments, it gets pretty tough, but we're making a go of it," by returning to tourism, said Wellington. 

Things have greatly improved since the late 1990s, when a ship dumped some 700 visitors on the town. The lack of public toilets at the time proved problematic.

"You need all the conveniences for all the older people," but because the village lacked them, the tourists went "house-to-house" banging on doors in search of relief.

"It was a fiasco," Wellington said.

In the years since then, Metlakatla has invested in public restrooms, roads, busses that haul 50 people at a time, and other conveniences, organizers said.  

A few test-runs of catamaran visits proved wildly popular with tourists, said John Dunlap, vice president of Allen Marine Tours.

At the urging of Metlakatla officials, Allen Marine late last summer agreed to test the village as a stopping point on tours heading between Ketchikan and Sitka, organizers said.

The few trial stops gave tourists the chance to see all of Southeast Alaska's major cultures up close: a Tlingit community at Ketchikan, a Haida village at Kasaan, and the Tsimshian village at Metlakatla.

"In short order, people were able to visit the three primary Native groups in Southeast Alaska and get an overview of the similarities and differences," said Dunlap. "I don't know if there is any other way someone could do it, and it was very fascinating."

The village's unique history stood out. Metlakatla resettled from a British Columbia city of the same name in the 19th century after a breakaway missionary with the Anglican Church canoed with 800 Tsimshians to Annette Island, about 70 miles to the northwest, to establish a utopian Christian community.  

The Annette Island Reserve -- home to Metlakatla -- is now the state's only Indian reservation. The missionary, William Duncan, testified before Congress himself to win the status.

Because of its unique past, the village mixes ornate Victorian architecture with Tsimshian language and customs that include carving, drumming and traditional dancing, Dunlap said.   

Dunlap rode along last year to audit one of the Metlakatla visits. "I was so impressed that I said, 'Wow, can we do this as a day cruise?'"

Thus was born this year's expansion. On Saturdays through the summer, the St. Innocent catamaran will bring 24 visitors on day trips from Ketchikan, about 16 miles miles away. A 36-passenger catamaran, the Alaska Dream, will continue to arrive for a stop on the excursions between Ketchikan and Sitka, said Dunlap.

Metlakatla probably still isn't ready for 700 people. But residents are hoping the tours with Allen Marine are a start, said Lacey Wilson, head of tourism for the Indian community. People are excited and would like to see the village steadily increase visits in the years to come, she said.

"It provides monetary support for the community," including for carvers and artists who sell crafts at an artist's village, Wilson said. "Even the (traditional) dancers that perform are paid, and all the payments are bankrolled into them traveling and going to different places to dance some more."

"Tourism provided a lot of support for the community in the past and it's just exciting to see people come back," she added.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com