This year (2014), the Sitka Tribe of Alaska named Herman Davis the “Tribal Elder of the Year.” At 81, Davis says that honoring one’s elders is about more than listening to what they have to say. It’s about being an apprentice to an entire way of life.
Herman Davis has given countless speeches in his life. But none quite like his welcome at this year’s Whalefest.
“When I got a hold of the microphone,” said Davis, “I was just looking at everyone like that. And then I started.”
Davis at Whalefest: If I were a rich man, Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum (crowd laughing). All day long I’d biddy biddy bum. If I were a wealthy man. I wouldn’t have to work hard (laughing)…isn’t this supposed to be a singing contest?
“People started laughing and that’s the way I wanted to start it,” said Davis.
Davis at Whalefest: Gunalchéesh. Thank you all for coming here.
That is classic Herman Davis. Commanding a room by putting everyone at ease. Davis was born at Todd Cannery, a canning operation in Peril Straits, in 1933. After serving in the Marine Corps, he worked for nearly three decades in the Pioneer Home. And after so many years caring for his elders, Davis has become one.
He’s 81 with a shock of white hair and a twinkle in his eye that rivals Santa Claus. Though he’s wheelchair-bound, the past two decades have been the busiest of his life. At a potlatch in 1995, Davis became the Khaa Tlein, or the speaker, of the Coho clan.
“When I first took over the job, only for funerals and koo.eex,” said Davis. “Funerals and koo.eex. Then pretty soon totem pole raisings, pretty soon. So now it’s going to get interesting.”
Davis wasn’t always this comfortable as the clan speaker. His predecessor was his brother, Albert Davis and the first time Herman spoke for the clan was a surprise. While traveling to Haines through Juneau, Albert slipped in the shower and broke his hip.
“I was just ready getting ready to get into the ambulance with him,” remembered Davis. “When [Albert] yells, ‘No, no, no. You keep on going to Haines. You’re going to represent us. You’re going to represent me.’ I thought, ‘Holy mackerel I’ve never done this before. What am I going to do?’ I don’t mind saying I was nervous. He said, ‘You’ll see, you’ll find out. Just go over. Speak for us.’ So that was my first experience.”
Albert died in 1995. There’s a picture of him in Davis’s living room, wearing the clan hat. Now, Davis wears that hat. It’s made of alder and abalone, and Davis tells me that it hurts when you wear it too long, because there’s a lump on the inside.
Since taking his brother’s place, Davis has travelled throughout the region, providing ceremonial leadership and a central voice for the Coho people.
“He has a big schedule, and it’s hard to keep up with him, but I try my best,” said Heather Powell.
Powell is Davis’s clan granddaughter and one of the many people who put his name forward for Tribal Elder of the Year. Powell travels quite a bit with Davis. On their last trip, they brought the Coho clan hat with them, but were afraid to put the delicate object in the belly of the plane. They asked the pilot if he could stow it elsewhere and the pilot asked to see the hat.
“And so we unlocked the chest and we opened up the box,” Powell said. “And when we lifted up the hat, the pilot’s eyes just got huge. And he looked at it and he goes, “That’s the most beautiful thing.” And we explained to him that it had been in my grandfather’s family for over 300 years.”
With that, the pilot offered to watch over the hat in the cockpit. So much of being an Elder is about this, about being the conduit between a sacred past and a future that races ahead. Davis is not sure, for example, who will wear the hat next. There’s no one ready to be speaker just yet.
For Davis, one of the hardest parts is adjusting to a world that’s missing so many of the people he loved. His wife, Vida Davis was a Tlingit teacher at the Sheldon Jackson Campus and passed away last year.
“I was very, very sure I was going to be the first to leave,” said Davis. “And she kept saying, “No, no, no. I want to be…” Well, kind of hard to come by because, she’s gone and I’m still here.”
Davis says he still has a lot do. He wants to see the houses of the Coho clan unite. He wants to raise a totem pole for the Coho on Katlian Street. “I really don’t want to leave yet,” he says. “I want to make sure everything is set.”