Born and raised in the Alaskan village of Kake, population 538, Juneau International Airport Supervisory TSA Officer Shawn Jackson’s golden rule approach to life is a throwback from his native Tlingit culture and traditions.
“Most aspects of the Tlingit culture revolve around caring for others and all aspects of life,” said Jackson. “From mother nature to animals, the elders teach the younger generations to respect and look out for all walking life forms. We take pride in where we come from, and we carry on traits that were taught to us. Our ancestors realized there was more to life than to just look out for ourselves, but rather to look out and help others when we can.”
Jackson’s route to joining TSA in 2008 came out of the selfless desire to provide for his growing family.
“I was working toward a teaching degree at the University of Alaska Southeast when I found out I was going to be a father,” remembered Jackson. “I couldn’t exactly support a family on scholarships, so when I heard about TSA and saw what the job paid, I applied.”
Preserving culture took an attitude adjustment
Jackson counts his two daughters as his greatest accomplishments and continues the Tlingit tradition of biannual cultural events called Celebrations with them, something he wasn’t active in as young child.
Historically, ancient Alaskan traditions were squashed by missionaries. Totem poles made to tell the tribal stories were cut down and native languages were banned. Jackson’s father, like many strict Christians of his generation, frowned upon celebrations of indigenous dress, music and food, seeing them as glorifying pagan beliefs. Jackson, however, feels differently and is part of a movement to bring back traditions for posterity.
“I want my daughters to be a part of this because it’s who they are and have been from the moment they were born. My oldest daughter looks forward to participating every time it comes up. To see her dancing and celebrating and to know that the culture is thriving again is very touching for me.”
The Potlatch is another ancient Tlingit tradition that speaks to stepping up and being present. The modern version of the tradition still has hints of the ancient one, but is best explained as a huge potluck offered as a repast after a funeral or during difficult times when one tribe offers support to another.
“My uncle would always say, ‘even if you don’t say anything, just your presence is enough.’ I really love that this tradition is about unity.”
Care for our people comes naturally
Jackson carries that state of mind to his work life, especially when he considers his transplanted colleagues' emotional well-being. Adventure, nature’s beauty and attractive salaries are great motivators for making the jump to the last frontier, but taking up full-time residency can be a culture shock coming from the lower 48.
“There’s a good chunk of darkness here during the winter that a lot of folks aren’t prepared for,” said Jackson. “The sun sets at 3:35 p.m. and doesn’t rise until 8:15 a.m.”
To combat this, Jackson embraces his new co-worker’s hobbies, often outdoor adventures of hunting or hiking. Whether spending hours talking about the best trails or fishing holes, or actually participating in the events with them, making that human connection is important to him.
“To see their face when they catch their first king salmon or to be on top of the mountain to watch a sunrise is more than enough payment for me to see them in that moment and share what I love about Alaska.”
It’s not a stretch for Jackson who finds peace in Alaska’s natural beauty.
“I love just being in that serene moment (in nature) where you realize this world and certain aspects of it are more than what we are.”
“Native American Heritage Month is as significant as any other month that recognizes other ethnicities because it brings understanding to those around us,” said Jackson. “It helps others see things from a new point of view and how diverse our world is, and expands our sights of how amazing each person is and where they came from. One of the things I am proud of is my grandfather was a code talker in World War II and played a vital role during the war due to the enemy not being able to decode the message. Just like the Navajos did, we couldn’t have been successful without everyone working as one.”
What I do matters
“Living in a rural place like Juneau, where the only way in or out is either by plane or ferry, knowing you are protecting one of the lifelines for your home is very crucial. With a population of around 35,000, it is like a big village and local folks quickly become familiar with one another.
“I feel that my ‘village’ mentality of treating those around me like family creates a calm yet vigilant mindset and helps instill trust with the traveling public by treating everyone with respect and professionalism. The traveling public is more open to listening and understanding why we do the procedures we do and it puts them more at ease.
“Sooner or later a bond is created with officers and traveling public. To see all the familiar faces on a weekly basis, it feels as if you have family on each plane that takes off, making it that much more important that we’re on our A game to ensure each plane makes it safely to its destination.”