John Perkins, pictured with his drum, educates tourists on the uses of Sitka spruce trees, hemlock trees, and red alder trees, June 26, 2014. Perkins is a Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tram conductor. (AP Photo/Capital City Weekly, Mary Catharine Martin)

John Perkins, pictured with his drum, educates tourists on the uses of Sitka spruce trees, hemlock trees, and red alder trees, June 26, 2014. Perkins is a Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tram conductor. (AP Photo/Capital City Weekly, Mary Catharine Martin)

Tram conductor gives Tlingit lessons on ride

  • Sunday, July 6, 2014 10:25pm
  • News

JUNEAU — John Perkins starts his daily journeys up Mount Roberts with a few lessons in basic Tlingit.

Then he gets out his drum and breaks into song, prompting his passengers on the Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tram to join in.

“Hoo ha hoo ha haa oh hei,” everyone sings. He points out an eagle’s nest, and a deer. (“We should probably put (the deer) on contract,” he jokes as people begin pointing and taking pictures.)

At the top, he tells the tourists “Gunalcheesh ho ho” (thank you very much). He’s at the top of the tram for a few minutes, dancing, singing and encouraging the little girl of a family from India to join in. She asks to borrow his drum and smiles hugely and shyly as her parents take her picture.

On the way back down, Perkins recites a poem, “Thunderbird Child,” that he wrote in honor of his sister. He tells people about traditional uses for Sitka spruce, hemlock and red alder.

“From the beach to the woods, we gather our goods,” he said. “There’s Sitka spruce for an achey tooth, bruises, boils and burns …”

For the relatively small window he gets to teach people about Tlingit culture, Perkins conveys quite a bit of information.

Perkins, now 53, was raised in Petersburg in the 1960s and 70s, one of 11 siblings, 10 of whom were boys.

His Tlingit name is Daku’dane, and he is an Eagle of the Shangukeidi (Thunderbird) clan.

“What I tell people down South is, we were so poor we were forced to eat king salmon, king crab, Dungeness crab, prawns … (later,) I realized we were never poor, just broke,” he said. “I write about that. When I write about my mother, I point out the subsistence lifestyle.”

As a person of half Tlingit and half African American ancestry, Perkins and his brother were some of the first minorities to live in Petersburg, he said.

His father didn’t have a role in his life, but “black heritage did affect me – because my mom was a musician,” he said. “I tell people my father was black and my mother was an Elvis Presley impersonator.”

His mother, Jin’ku’see’e, was a singer and musician who listened to soul music and was part of a group called The Offbeat Five in Petersburg and Juneau. She still lives in Juneau and works for the Douglas Indian Association. She taught them about hunting, fishing and processing of all kinds of local, wild foods, he said.

In the 1970s, when Perkins was 15, the family moved to Juneau, and for the most part has been here ever since. He completed some school at Juneau-Douglas High School and finished high school in Anchorage.

He started out in poetry by changing the words in songs. When he moved away from Petersburg, he and his best friend kept in touch by sending poems to each other about how cool the other one was, he said.

He characterizes his poetry as “more in the style of Robert Service, as opposed to some kind of slam jam. It’s not the slam tram,” he said, laughing.

“I believe people who write in rhythm and rhyme kind of evolve toward that style,” he said. “I think they evolve toward that because it’s the most difficult way to write. It forces you to be more creative with your words.”

Growing up and during the first part of his professional career, Perkins went by the last name of Valentine – his mother’s last name.

He worked for a while as a features reporter with KTOO, and in TV at KTVA and KTOO TV, he said. He’s also DJ-ed in radio stations in towns up and down the West Coast.

He’s lived in California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii and Washington, in addition to Alaska. In Washington, he worked with the Chief Seattle Club, which provides “a sacred space to nurture, affirm and renew the spirit of urban Native peoples,” according to its website.

Though he’s not interested in getting involved with anything political here in Juneau, “I have a drum with me at all times, and I really try to instill to the youth, to the younger people, to continue to create … Native expression,” Perkins said. “To continue to evolve, and to maintain the sacred traditions of the different arts … that’s what Tlingits would have been doing regardless of a Western imposition or not. It’s what I do with poetry.”

Being away for many years gives him a better perspective on what an amazing place Southeast Alaska is, he said.

“One thing I’m noticing more and more is the majesty of Southeast Alaska,” he said. “I’m recognizing it for the first time, I guess.”

As a tram conductor, he has a good vantage point from which to do so.

“What I realized it’s that it’s a role that seemingly, I’ve been training for all my life,” he said. “I’m a presenter, I’m a poet, and I’m a Southeast Alaskan.”

More in News

Travis Every, top left, speaks in support of fishing opportunity for the east side setnet fishery before the State Board of Fisheries at the Egan Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Local fishers talk conservation, opportunity before Board of Fisheries in Anchorage

Local fishers from the Kenai Peninsula traveled to Anchorage this weekend to… Continue reading

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, presents information on a bill establishing a voluntary buyback program for Cook Inlet’s east side setnet fishery on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Bjorkman bill would pay bonuses to nationally certified teachers

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development estimates that the bonus program would apply to about 215 of Alaska’s estimated 7,315 teachers — about 3%

Alaska senators meet with members of the media to discuss education legislation after a press conference by Gov. Mike Dunleavy on the topic on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)
Dunleavy threatens veto of education bill if more of his priorities aren’t added

It is not certain there would be the 40 votes necessary to override a veto by the governor

A map displays a wide-ranging special weather statement, published Tuesday by the National Weather Service, covering Southcentral Alaska. (Map courtesy of National Weather Service)
Strong winds, low wind chills forecast through Friday

Wind chills over night may reach as low as -20 to -40 degrees in much of Southcentral

Snow falls atop the Central Peninsula Diabetes Center in Soldotna, Alaska, on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. The office opened in October, but a grand opening was held this week. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Central Peninsula Hospital adds Diabetes Center

The center has been seeing patients since October and held a grand opening Monday

Gary Hollier pulls a sockeye salmon from a set gillnet at a test site for selective harvest setnet gear in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Findings from pilot setnet fishery study inconclusive

The study sought to see whether shorter nets could selectively catch sockeye salmon while allowing king salmon to pass below

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Kenai Peninsula COVID-19 case rate continues to climb

State reports three consecutive week-over-week increases to new high

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola delivers her annual address to the Alaska Legislature on Monday, in Juneau. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)
Peltola celebrates federal intervention in Albertsons, Kroger merger in legislative address

The one-term lawmaker said collaboration between stakeholders has helped produce wins for Alaska’s fisheries and the state’s economy

From left: Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, and Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, speak during an at-ease on debate on education legislation on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Senate concurs on House education bill, Dunleavy is skeptical

The governor’s office announced Dunleavy will hold a press conference Tuesday afternoon in Anchorage to discuss the legislation

Most Read