Tlingit myth goes cartoon

It's a ritual performed by generations of North American children.

It’s a ritual performed by generations of North American children.

Every Saturday morning, with the near-perfect consistency of a religious ceremony, the televisions are flicked on, the milk and cereal is poured, and the great Saturday morning cartoon marathon begins.

If you’re the type who laments television’s stranglehold on contemporary culture, you probably haven’t seen Anash and the Legacy of the Sun Rock, now filming its second season in Whitehorse for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

The seven-episode series is an amalgam of good intentions. Carol Geddes, the writer, director and producer of Anash, struggles to identify exactly what it is she’s trying to do with the show – revive Tlingit culture, offer substantive storytelling to children or simply keep them entertained.

“I hope I’m encompassing all of those,” said Geddes, who was meeting with the cast this week in Whitehorse to go over the script.

Anash isn’t a traditional Tlingit myth. It’s a mishmash of Tlingit symbolism, history and partial stories.

“It’s a classic quest story,” said Geddes, who is Tlingit and lives in Teslin.

Anash and his servant, Kole, must travel to various islands and inland locations along the Pacific Northwest, where the Tlingit originally settled.

Their goal is to gather six diamonds, or sun rocks, so that they may be returned to an inland lake where they were discovered.

When the diamonds are returned, a vicious monster will end its tyranny over the Tlingit clans who are suffering in an age of war and disease.

While the story may not be pure Tlingit storytelling, it is based on years of research Geddes did on her people.

“Although the story is fictional, a great deal of the knowledge is based on fact,” she said.

The story takes place in the 1820s, at a time when Russian trading ships were snaking their way along North America’s northern coast on the lookout for fur.

Those ships kept detailed logs that Geddes used for Anash.

The Russians, who also employed many Europeans to sail the ships, left behind important nuggets of information on the early contact period.

Geddes also consulted other sources from within the Tlingit community, which, she said, has been much luckier at retrieving old records of a bygone era than other First Nations.

In the late 1800s, American anthropologist George Emmons gathered an unprecedented amount of information from Tlingit elders.

The Russian ship logs, the Tlingit’s own knowledge and Emmons’ research all gave Geddes the basic material she used to write Anash.

“I was very worried about getting something wrong – saying something about Tlingit culture that was wrong,” she said.

But elders both in Alaska and the Yukon have condoned the show since it’s first season went on air last year.

“It’s been well-received,” she said.

That’s incredible when you consider the rules surrounding storytelling in Tlingit culture.

“In oral culture, the consistency of the stories is absolutely remarkable,” said Geddes.

The Tlingit – who have settled in the Yukon interior for hundreds of years – organized a rigid pecking order for who could and who couldn’t tell stories.

Those stories, a vast and magical universe of Ravens, warriors and heartbroken wives, conveyed a moral order to the real world for the Tlingit.

So, playing with stories isn’t just playing with cultural identity, but reality itself.

Those who were allowed to tell stories felt the burden society put upon them. Wavering from tradition wasn’t popular.

But it’s not just the story, but the media that Geddes used that broke with tradition.

The show is filmed in live-action animation. Real actors and some props provide the base visuals. Animation is then added for effect.

The result is a colorful and visually stimulating story that blurs the line between the real and the imaginary; a perfect union for a production that is based in retelling old Tlingit mythological classics.

Anash also features brief cartoon-only vignettes that recount Tlingit myths in their original form. The anime-inspired cartoons are a relief for anyone who’s tried to read transcripts of First Nation mythology and found out how much written text can encumber the intensity of a story.

The Anash website has won 10 international awards, said Geddes. The site allows kids to write their own stories and play games, not to mention watch clips of the show at leisure.

“A lot of social issues, like the denigration of culture and the feelings of racial inferiority, have posed a threat to the strength and vibrancy of Tlingit culture,” said Geddes.

Breaking into the Saturday cartoon lineup – however untraditional that may be – offers a chance for Tlingit stories to survive.

“It’s important for young people to know about that vibrancy,” she said.

Contact James Munson at