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  • How Gene Tagaban Heals through Stories and Wisdom

    A man wearing birdlike regalia stands in front of an audience outdoors.

    Gene Tagaban performs in his Tlingit raven regalia at the museum's amphitheater on Thursday, June 27. In Tlingit folklore, the raven character is a mischeivous trickster.

    Photo by Carys Owen, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    For Gene Tagaban, there is one element at the crux of his storytelling and his work with the Native Wellness Institute.

    “The foundation of everything I do is based on healing,” he says.

    Tagaban, or Guuy Yaau, is of the Takdeintaan clan, the Raven, Freshwater Sockeye clan from Hoonah, Alaska. He is Tlingit, Cherokee, and Filipino. Raised in Juneau, today he resides on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish peoples in Washington state. “I grew up in the land of glaciers,” he says. It’s a place that’s inspired him throughout a lifetime of storytelling and healing work.

    But Tagaban finds inspiration in everything. “You can hear stories in the supermarkets, in the airports, or even if we’re just quiet out there on the land. As a storyteller, and as somebody who facilitates healing and wellness, stories are everywhere, and influence is everywhere.” His parents and grandparents inspire him; the home he shares with his wife, three dogs, and a cat inspires him.

    A man in a blue shirt squats on a gravel ground with three black dogs next to him.
    Tagaban sits with his dogs Ani, Beau, and Maggie at Owen Beach in Tacoma, Washington. As a storyteller, he seeks inspiration from those he loves.
    Photo courtesy of Gene Tagaban

    That sentiment follows him to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where he shares stories every day in the Amphitheater outside the National Museum of the American Indian. Tagaban’s storytelling honors Tlingit tradition, with contemporary, experiential stories and themes woven into the narrative threads. His commitment to wellness lives within his roles as a storyteller and counselor.

    “Yes, I’m a storyteller. I’m a dancer, a musician. But the majority of the time, my work, my primary work, is as a facilitator, a trainer. I facilitate healing and wellness gatherings and workshops on healing, grief, wellness, male engagement, and deep trauma.” For Tagaban, “Storytelling, music, and our traditions go hand in hand. I use our Native, traditional ways of healing and doing things. Storytelling, dance, and music are all part of it.”   

    This mission stays with Tagaban offstage, too. “That is what the Native Wellness Institute is all about. How can we facilitate healing in the world, with all people—specifically Native people, but all people? How can we keep our ancestral wisdoms alive?”

    When Tagaban learned that the 2024 Festival would celebrate Indigenous cultures, he knew he would be in Washington, D.C. He was also here twenty years ago, when the National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors. “That’s the memory—of just the gathering of the people in celebration of a space. Of being acknowledged. Of acknowledgement that we’re here. We’ve never gone away.”

    Tagaban calls Tacoma, Washington, his home, but the Festival on the National Mall is full of familiar faces. Among his fellow participants are people he has performed with in the past, and new ones, too. “I like to look at young, up-and-coming artists, storytellers, dancers, singers, presenters, teachers. As I age, who’s going to step in? Who’s going to step up?”

    A man with a gray beard wearing a black t-shirt stands at a microphone. With one hand, he holds a drum, and with the other, he reaches out as he tells a story.
    Tagaban performs at one of his storytelling sessions at the museum’s Amphitheater. In these sessions, he dances, plays music, and tells traditional folkloric stories from Tlingit culture.
    Photo by Stanley Turk, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Tagaban’s preparation for the Festival built on a lifetime of work. “I have been preparing for the last thirty-five, forty years,” he says. “It’s not performance for me. It’s not presentation. It’s ceremony, because each of these stories are sacred. To treat them that way, that’s what really keeps me going.”

    He also says the stories he plans to share may change in the moment. He considers his audience: are they children, adults, or a mix? But Tagaban is certain he’ll tell some Raven stories. “Every culture has a trickster. Raven, coyote, rabbit, raccoon, spider, snakes, dragon.”

    In Tlingit culture, “Raven is that trickster.”

    Raven is at the center of the Tlingit creation story. He brought light to the Earth through trickery and cleverness. Tagaban says Raven connects him to people, to tribe and community, to land and environment, to spirit—and to love and healing.

    “I believe in hope, I believe in change, I believe in global transformation, but it’s not going to happen in my lifetime. I will be an ancestor by then. But what is it that I can do now to start to plant those seeds? What can we do to plant those seeds?”

    Ella Ryan is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a senior at William & Mary, studying history and creative writing.

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