The Chief’s necklace has long been used in Athabascan culture to symbolize leadership. You often see the large, dentallium shell necklaces draped across the necks of prominent native leaders and chiefs during large meetings such as the Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention and Tanana Chiefs Conference’s Annual Convention.
However, in recent years, the necklaces seem to be showing up everywhere. You see them being presented to politicians, public service officers, and others who are not part of the native community. You see them being worn by those not in leadership positions. You see them being worn in grocery stores.
All of these situations bring up the question- are people forgetting the significance of these necklaces? But also, what are the rules of Chief’s necklaces? Who is allowed to wear them? Who is allowed to gift them? When should they be worn? Where should they be worn? What is their significance?
These are some of the questions that the Denakkanaaga Board has been trying to answer.
“There has been concern about the use of Chief’s necklaces and what it really signifies,” explains Sharon McConnell, Executive Director of Denakkanaaga, “People are wearing them more and more, without regard to their significance. People see them more as a source of pride for being native.”
In an effort to educate people on what the protocols are surrounding the use of Chief’s Necklaces, the Denakkanaaga Elders held a meeting in May to begin the discussion. The meeting also included other native leaders such as TCC Chief/Chairman Victor Joseph, Will Mayo of TCC, FNA Executive Director Steven Ginnis, Denakkanaaga Executive Director Sharon McConnell, Traditional First Chief Don Honea Sr. and Traditional Second Chief Trimble Gilbert.
“I thought it would be good to have a bigger discussion and make sure that we pass it on correctly to our younger people,” explained Chief Joseph, “it has all become gray and I would like to know what the protocols are. Not just to document it in the western way, but to have it documented in the right way so that people don’t forget. “
Denakkanaaga Board Member Jack Wholecheese of Huslia expressed that Chief’s Necklaces should only be given to Native chiefs, “It’s a Native tradition that you give it to another native. It’s OK to give a gift, but something that symbolizes a native chief should never be given away.”
Other elders shared that Chief’s Necklaces weren’t traditionally used in their village until as recently as the 1940’s and 50’s, which leads to another important element of this discussion – traditions are not the same in every village. The TCC region covers a vast area of land that contains many different cultures and each of those has their own set of rules and protocols when it comes to traditional activities
“’Each subregion has their own protocols and we have to be sensitive to that,” explains McConnell, “But leadership realizes that there needs to be some sort of guidance do people don’t forget the significance of the Chief’s necklace.”
The topic was also discussed in a special presentation at the Denakkanaaga Elders and Youth Conference this past June. Comments from the May and June meetings are now being compiled and sent to the tribes throughout the region as well as Interior Native organizations for review and comment.
The goal is to develop a region-wide document that would cover the basic protocols on the use of Chief’s necklaces. However, there is no official due date and, considering the complexities of the subject, the Denakkanaaga elders believe that it is something that should be thoroughly researched and thought out.
More information will be made available as the discussion progresses.
McConnell stated that Denakkanaaga plans to continue work on drafting cultural protocols on various topics once done with the Chief’s necklaces.
If you have comments or know of local history and traditions regarding Chief’s necklaces, you can contact Denakkanaaga at 907-451-3900
Story by Rachel Saylor, Communications Mananger