For the past 100 years, the Huna Tlingit were unable to return to their ancestral homeland of Glacier Bay.
The next 100 years will be very different.
On Aug. 25, the exact 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service, Huna Tlingit from across Southeast Alaska, along with the National Park Service, friends, relatives, supporters, the Hoonah Indian Association, and Gustavus residents and visitors arrived in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve for the dedication of Xunaa Shuká Hít — the Huna Tribal House. Hundreds of people attended; more than 100 of them were National Park Service employees alone, estimated Chief of Interpretation Tom VandenBerg, and hundreds were Huna Tlingit.
“It’s quite a production pulling this off,” VandenBerg said.
The Huna Tlingit were forced to flee Glacier Bay several centuries ago by the advance of a glacier, but they had always planned to return to their homeland. Many of them settled in Hoonah. When the bay was made into a national park, however, they were forbidden from returning.
Xunaa Shuká Hít is a building representing all four of Glacier Bay’s original clans — the Chookaneidí, the Kaagwaantaan, the Wooshkeetaan and the T’akdeintaan — which now have a place of their own in their homeland.
The day of the building’s dedication began when about two dozen people who paddled from Hoonah to Glacier Bay in freshly carved dugout canoes arrived through the mist of Bartlett Cove and were greeted by hundreds gathered on shore. A good portion of those greeters were Hoonah schoolchildren. Students Leah Moss and Teddy Elliot greeted the canoes in Tlingit.
“Our people left this land with heavy hearts and tears in their eyes, and now we’re here… to bring joy to the land of our ancestors,” said paddler and Wooshkeetan clan leader Dennis Gray as he addressed the waiting crowd. “It took many years … we made it happen by … pulling together. Woosh.ji.een.” (Woosh.ji.een means “pulling together.”)
After a representative of each canoe spoke, the paddlers landed and danced onto the shore, carried one of the canoes closer to the tribal house, and the dedication began.
For the paddlers who made the trip from Hoonah, the return to Glacier Bay took traditional, physical form.
Stu Mills, clan leader of the T’akdeintaan, paddled on one of the two 40-foot spruce dugout canoes carved by master carver Wayne Price and apprentices Steven Price, Zack James (Tlél Tooch Tláa.aa) and James Hart (Gooch Éesh). The Jibba, a smaller cedar dugout named for Price’s stepson, also made the trip, captained by Price.
As they entered Glacier Bay a previous night, “we were singing and we actually heard singing back to us once we entered Glacier Bay,” Mills said. “I wouldn’t change a thing for the world. We heard it again this morning.”
“We try and put people’s faith back in the traditional craft of the Tlingit canoe,” said Zack James, adding that dugouts perform better than, say, a strip canoe (made out of assembled pieces of wood.) “When a large wave comes, it wants to tilt and ride over it naturally.”
Wayne Price said the canoes are “a real testament to our ancestors who created them in the first place.”
WEAVERS ACROSS THE WATERS
After the paddlers walked to shore, master Chilkat weaver Clarissa Rizal greeted Wayne Price with the “Weavers Across the Waters” robe, the work of 50 people from across the Pacific Northwest. Forty-four weavers wove squares — either Chilkat or Ravenstail, two different traditional styles — and six people helped in other ways, Rizal said.
The robe, all together, took thousands of hours to weave and hundreds of hours of Rizal’s time.
Price danced with the robe and wore it for the rest of the day.
“It was a wonderful surprise,” he said. “It’s a great honor I get to bring it to life.”
The robe will be used at canoe gatherings and the maiden voyages of new dugout canoes up and down the Pacific Northwest.
TREE AND NAMING CEREMONIES
“What’s happening today is not an ordinary celebration. This house, to us, is a keystone,” said T’akdeintaan spokesman Ken Grant. “The keystone holds up the bridge — the bridge between the National Park Service and the Huna Tlingit, through HIA … we’re going to go into the second 100 years (of the park service) tomorrow, and we’re turning over a new chapter.”
Clan leaders burned chips that came from the wood of the house as a way “of saying thank you to the tree people.”
Then, after words from leaders and elders, representatives from each of the four clans repeated the name “Xunaa Shuká Hít,” “breathing life into the house.”
“Xunaa” refers to the Huna people, “hít” means “house” and “shuká” is a word that refers both one’s ancestors and the children that will follow you, said one speaker.
“Even though it’s foggy, I know that Mount Fairweather is behind the fog over there,” said Ken Grant. In oral histories, Mount Fairweather is the origin of the T’akdeintaan. “Our ancestors are watching us from the top of Mount Fairweather, and I have a feeling they are very happy.”
After a purification ceremony, people danced their way inside the tribal house for the first time, filling the air with drumming, singing and the smell of cedar.
The partnership between Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and the Hoonah Indian Association won a national award from NPS. Park superintendent Philip Hooge presented it on behalf of Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior Michael Johnson, one of many people who was unable to fly to the ceremony due to fog (other people stuck at the airport included U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. State representatives Sam Kito and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins made it in by boat.)
The U.S. Forest Service, Sealaska, the Huna Heritage Foundation, and numerous leaders, elders and culture bearers also helped the project.
Hooge called Xunaa Shuká Hít a “great dream” that the park service “is honored to be a part of.”
“Never has a tribe cooperated with a national park to build an anchor for a tribe in their homeland,” he said.
Another upcoming collaboration is a totem pole that will “not… shy away from the challenges of the past, but will also celebrate our special partnership. We hope that this pole will serve a special place in healing,” Hooge said. They’ll also raise two exterior totems next spring, he said, one for the Raven moiety and one for Eagles.
Frank Wright of Sitka spoke of growing up in Glacier Bay. He also spoke of his memories of fishing in Glacier Bay as a child, and of his hope to be able to do so once again, which inspired applause.
The park service has worked to legalize subsistence gathering of gull eggs, and is working to allow things like spruce root gathering, Hooge said.
“I wish the rest of the world could work together like that instead of fighting,” Wright said.
Glacier Bay tourism slows at the beginning of September, but every day during the season, rangers do a spotlight program that will include the house, NPS Chief of Interpretation Tom VandenBerg said.
Huna Tlingit are also planning cultural events and programs at Xunaa Shuká Hít throughout the year. The first will likely be a weaving workshop, said Chilkat weaver Darlene See.
“There’s so much with the carving of the house — it will be fantastic to have women represented, too,” she said. (Carving is a traditionally male occupation, and weaving is traditionally female, though this is not now always the case.
Throughout the day, elders told stories. Some of those stories were to interpret the carvings on the four interior house posts, each representing an original clan.
Some had to do with battles, or the crest animals of different clans. Some had to do with family, and people now gone. After stories about each clan’s pole, a member of the clan marked that pole’s corner of the house.
The carvings at the house — the interior and exterior screen and house posts — were led by carver Gordon Greenwald, along with Owen James and Herb Sheakley, all of whom have been working for several years on the project.
Chookaneidí elder Mary Rudolph (Jina.áakw) told the story of the Huna Tlingit people’s flight from Glacier Bay.
It began with Kaasteen, a young woman in isolation for her first menstrual cycle. Bored, she “called the ice like you would a dog.” When the glacier began to advance, causing the ground to shake, Kaasteen stayed behind, ashamed, and her grandmother stayed with her, Rudolph said. People gave them sea otter furs (represented at the center of the interior house screen both with actual sea otter furs and with intricately carved wood) so they could keep warm. In the interior house screen, Kaasteen has abalone eyes, reflecting the glacier as it advances.
“As they were leaving, they (those on the boats) could see the house settling,” Rudolph said.
Kaasteen’s mother began to cry and sing a grieving song.
“We still long for it,” Rudolph said. “We don’t live here, but we still claim it as our homeland.”
“We will never exit from Glacier Bay again,” Tlingit language teacher Heather Powell told the crowd.
• Contact Capital City Weekly managing editor Mary Catharine Martin at email@example.com.
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