Metlakatla, Alaska

Metlakatla is a small community of 1,454 people on Annette Island, near Ketchikan. Its name comes from the Tsimshian word Maxłakxaała, which means “saltwater passage.” Its official name is the Metlakatla Indian Community (MIC).

Fishing is very popular here, both commercially and for subsistence purposes, as the Tsimshian people have lived off the land this way for thousands of years.

It is one of the least tourist-focused places in Southeast Alaska, with visitors staying over 24 hours being required to apply for a visitor’s permit from the city.

That being said, tourism is still one of the biggest industries in the town, behind only fishing and fish processing.

General Background

Metlakatla is the only settlement on Annette Island, which is located just across the Revillagigedo Channel from Ketchikan.

Annette Island is part of the Gravina Islands chain in the Alexander Archipelago, whose most famous member is Gravina Island itself, the home of Ketchikan’s airport and the infamous planned “Bridge to Nowhere.”

The main town is only about three square miles and lies on the northern side of the island. There are a few logging roads out of town that are not maintained in the winter.

There are only two street signs in town and many houses do not have numbers. Although the streets do have official names, most of the residents don’t use them and may be confused if you refer to streets by these names.

Metlakatla is the only Indian Reservation in Alaska, as all other Native communities are headed by corporations that own their tribal lands, under the terms of The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

When the agreement was signed by President Nixon, Metlakatla was the only community to opt out of ANCSA and continued as a reservation.

Things To Do

If you’re on a tour, The Long House is a great place to go, with four gift shops dedicated to each of the Tsimshian clans: Eagle, Raven, Wolf, and Killer Whale.

You’ll also see traditional songs and dances performed on stage, while the host explains their meaning.

However, these are conducted only for tour groups, so if you go independently, you’ll just find the gift shop, a few offices, and a lot of empty space.

Next to the Long House, you’ll find a casino, which has primarily slot machines and bingo games.

This is the only true casino in Alaska, as most forms of gambling (except pull tabs) are banned throughout the state, but Metlakatla is exempt as an Indian Reservation.

There is also a museum in town in the building that served as the community’s first church and was also the residence of the town’s founder, William Duncan.

Getting to Metlakatla

There are three ways to get to the island: Alaska Marine Highway (AMHS) ferry, an excursion from Ketchikan, or a float plane.

The M/V Lituya is the AMHS ferry that serves the community and is one of the only ships in their fleet that only serves two ports, in this case, Ketchikan and Metlakatla.

The ferry terminal used to be in town, but a few years ago it was moved to the other side of Annette Island to reduce operating costs. It is now a 30-minute drive from the terminal into town.

Float planes also fly in from Ketchikan operated by Taquan Air, whose name is based on Taak’w Aan, the Tlingit name for Annette Island. These are more expensive than a ferry ticket, of course.

The best way to see Metlakatla is through an excursion, either through a cruise ship company or Allen Marine. This provides a fuller and richer experience, as a local guide will be there to explain the history of the Island and its people.

Where To Stay, Eat, and Shop

There are not many options for lodging, food, or shopping in Metlakatla, as it is primarily a residential town that was not designed with tourism in mind.

There are a pair of rental cabins owned by a local husband and wife that are occasionally used, as well as the Metlakatla Inn and Suites hotel. There are also a few bed and breakfasts in town.

As for food, the main options are the grocery store, Alaska Commercial Metlakatla, and Leask’s Mini-Mart, on opposite ends of town.

The main grocery store has a deli, while the Mini-Mart offers a hot counter with hamburgers, fish, and other grilled or fried foods.

There are a few other stores available in town, including a coffee shop and a hardware store.

History of Metlakatla

In 1881, a missionary of the Anglican Church named William Duncan traveled to Canada from his home in England and began to live in a city called Metlakatla in British Columbia among the Tsimshian people.

However, after a doctrinal dispute, as well as the church disapproving of his insistence on total domination of his followers’ lives, Duncan left the official Anglican Church to start a splinter group, taking 900 Tsimshian with him in canoes in search of a new home.

They eventually came to Annette Island and, after receiving permission from the Tlingit leader at the time, created the settlement of New Metlakatla, although the first part was eventually dropped.

His birthday, August 7th, is still celebrated as Founder’s Day in Metlakatla, although Duncan himself remains a bit of a polarizing figure in town.

Some see him as a well-meaning but flawed man who brought Christianity to the Tsimshian and took them to Alaska.

Others see him as a colonizer whose strict rules forbid the teachings and ancient beliefs of their people, not allowing the tribe to have a shaman.

Today, over 90% of the town’s residents are Tsimshian and many are descended from the original 900 that came with Duncan to the island.

Metlakatla is a beautiful town full of amazing views and is definitely worth seeing as part of an excursion on your next Alaskan adventure!

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