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Indigenous invention created thousands of years ago recognized for ingenuity

The induction of an ancient Alaska Native tool into the Alaska Innovators Hall of Fame during this week’s Innovation Summit in Juneau highlighted a theme echoed by multiple speakers: traditional Native knowledge can greatly enrich discussions about innovative thinking in Alaska.

(The ancient halibut hook engineered by northern Northwest Coast people was inducted into the Alaska Innovators Hall of Fame.)

The two-day event, hosted by the Juneau Economic Development Council, was organized around the theme of diversity. Local speakers included SHI President Rosita Worl, Sealaska President and President and CEO Anthony Mallott and Central Council of Tlingit and Haida President Richard Peterson.  

Political leaders, including Governor Bill Walker, Lt. Governor Byron Mallott, US Senator Lisa Murkowski (above), and Representative Don Young also addressed attendees. 

(Halibut caught by 14-year-old Thomas Barlow using a halibut hook.)

The Innovators Hall of Fame award ceremony, held Wednesday night, recognized for the first time a long history of Alaska Native ingenuity in the form of a traditional wooden halibut hook.

“This will be the first official recognition of an invention where we cannot name the inventor because it’s been done since time immemorial,” said MC Mead Treadwell (above, right, with Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott). 

(From left, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, SHI Culture and History Director Chuck Smythe, Thomas Barlow, Mead Treadwell, and Thomas George, at podium)

Accepting the award on behalf of northern Northwest Coast people were Thomas George, a master fisherman and hunter, and his grandson, Thomas Barlow, both of Klawock.

George trained Barlow to fish handmade hooks as a child and today, at the age of 14, he is an accomplished halibut fisherman who is deft at landing the fish with hooks.

“This is truly an honor,” George said. “I’ve been trying to get help to keep this part of our heritage alive for years, for decades. We’ve been working with Sealaska Heritage and it’s been a lot of fun.

We’ve got a lot of information documented, from wood grains, to carving the hooks, to baiting them, to tying rocks, buoy lines, everything.”

George was introduced by SHI’s Director of Culture and History, Chuck Smythe (at podium), who has written a book incorporating George and Barlow’s knowledge, scheduled to be published by SHI later this year.

The hooks reveal a deep understanding of the natural world and halibut biology, and reflect the innovative subsistence-related thinking of ancient Alaska Natives, Smythe said.

Often works of functional art, they remain artistically and environmentally relevant after centuries of use.

Rosita Worl highlighted another Native innovation in her Thursday morning presentation: formline. In addition to its spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic values, Northwest Coast art should be recognized for its distinctive potential as an economic engine for the region and state, she said.

“Imagine what we can do with more than 1 million visitors to Juneau during the summer months, and as the community ranking sixth in the nation for our creative vitality,” Worl said, a reference to the Western States Arts Federation 2018 rankings. “That is a building block for us.”

Worl also spoke about the benefits for all Alaskans of drawing on the abundant traditional knowledge of Elders such as Thomas George, and of learning from the innovative approaches of Alaska Native leaders of the past.

She cited the example of clan leaders who hired a lawyer to advocate for Native land claims in Alaska. 

“That was truly an innovation on their part, where they took the institutions of the larger society and made those institutions work for them. They sought their rights through those new institutions that came to our country.

I’d like to think that some of the things we offer are an example of that, where we integrate our traditional knowledge with the knowledge that has come to our shores.” 

Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott, who addressed conference attendees Thursday afternoon, tied his talk on innovation to the four core cultural values that are integral to traditional knowledge.

Giving a presentation on how his ancestors viewed the concept of innovation was a task better suited to an Elder such as David Katzeek or Paul Marks, Mallott said, describing his own explanation as “formulaic.”

“When you’re given the task of, ok how did your ancestors think of innovation? Describe that. Think through that. That is something that my uncles, my grandfather, the real culture bearers of our cultures, they would be the ones who could speak to that,” Mallott said.

“I had a cultural upbringing but in terms of understanding the depth of our values, I’m an elementary student.”

Mallott’s overview of how Tlingit culture fosters innovative thinking included key concepts such as encouraging critical thinking and curiosity, building an intimate knowledge of the environment, and the imperative of improving the livelihood of the next generation.

Adaptability and resiliency are also key traits. Integrating traditional values and contemporary business approaches is a main focus of Sealaska, he said.

The Innovation Summit was held Wednesday and Thursday at Centennial Hall in Juneau. For more information, visit

(Photos by Nobu Koch)