Gene Tagaban (Guuy Yaau)
“When you’re talking to the people, talk to their spirit,” Gene Tagaban remembers his mentor once telling him. “That’s where you’re going to see miracles happen.” A renowned storyteller and dynamic performer, Gene uses interactive stories, music, and dance as tools to entertain, inspire, and heal. He brings people of all ages and backgrounds into active participation with timeless Indigenous teachings centered on deepening self-knowledge, strengthening interpersonal connections, and developing compassion and respect for the natural world.
Tagaban, whose Tlingit name is Guuy Yaau, is a member of the Tak’deintaan Raven Freshwater Sockeye Clan of Hoonah, Alaska, and the child of the Wooshkeetaan Eagle Shark Clan of Juneau, Alaska. Of Cherokee descent on his mother’s side and Tlingit and Filipino on his father’s, Gene was raised in his father’s homelands in Southeast Alaska, where the Tlingit people have lived for at least 11,000 years. While his father was among the generations of Native peoples who experienced deculturization resulting from federal assimilation policies, his mother ensured that Gene and his brother learned their Tlingit culture by enrolling them in traditional dance groups as children. Native storytellers who visited the schools further helped Gene reconnect with Tlingit culture, and inspired him early on to begin teaching others. When working as an outdoor and experiential educator, he met Chris Makua, a performer with Alaska Native storytelling company Naakahidi Theater. Apprenticing with Makua, Gene became immersed in Tlingit and other Indigenous cultures by visiting with elders and storytellers throughout Alaska and beyond. Makua was a Raven Dancer, an interpreter of the bird that embodies the trickster in Tlingit cosmology. Being of the Raven Clan, Gene was drawn to perform the dance—and following Makua’s passing, accepted Naakahidi Theater’s invitation to take his place.
Since then, Gene has devoted his life to sharing teachings gathered from a range of mentors and disciplines. He has performed for or appeared alongside such figures as the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Maya Angelou, and Jane Goodall, and is also a celebrated comedian, actor, and motivational speaker—all of which he incorporates into his live performance. The Raven Dance remains a featured part of Tagaban’s repertoire: Dancing in a stunningly beautiful, hand-painted mask and feathered wings, he transforms into the mythical bird while telling the classic Tlingit story of how Raven transformed darkness into light and filled the world with spirit. Gene especially likes to perform for mixed-generational audiences: “When the children are feeling it, the adults start opening up, and they start feeling the spirit that’s there, the spirit that’s in all things,” he says.
Like Raven, Tagaban’s mission is to empower, educate, and transform. “There are a lot of people who have suffered trauma or pain, and they’re searching for something, searching for healing,” he says. “Ultimately, our life is a story, and it’s up to us what story we choose to tell.”