HOONAH — The hope is for commerce and culture to coexist.
A groundbreaking and ground blessing ceremony for a new dock Wednesday at Icy Strait Point placed a premium on Tlingit cultural values, tradition and respecting land while welcoming a new development that could bring as many as 10,000 more cruise ship passengers per week to the tourist destination near the small, predominantly Alaska Native village of Hoonah.
“For 45 years, Huna Totem Corporation has created economic value and opportunity for its Alaska Native shareholders and for the community of Hoonah,” said Russell Dick, CEO for Huna Totem Corporation during a brief introductory speech. “That’s really important, and it’s special to me because that value allows us to create opportunity for our shareholders and more importantly it allows us to ensure the perpetuation and preservation of our culture.”
Icy Strait Point is owned by Huna Totem Corporation, a for-profit Alaska Native corporation, and the new dock is a collaboration with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. The City of Hoonah has also taken action to support the project.
Hoonah is a small community about 40 miles southwest of Juneau, and work on the new structure could begin in June with the hope of welcoming passengers in the 2020 season. Jimmy Dalton, who bused attendees from the airport to the ceremony’s starting point, said there are 760 permanent Hoonah residents, there are 112 Hoonah City Schools students, including six high school students. Most of those residents are Tlingit, Dalton said.
The most recent 10-year census data backs him up on both counts with a population of 760 recorded with 66.1 percent of those reporting as at least part American Indian or Alaska Native.
Cruise ship crowding is a concern voiced by Hoonah residents and it’s one that is shared in other cities in Southeast Alaska.
The dozens who were in attendance at the ceremony were decidedly pleased by the development.
City administrator Dennis Gray Jr. allowed there may be some Hoonah residents with concerns about a surging number of tourists, but he said plans for the new dock seems to be mostly positively received.
“It’s just exciting for the city of Hoonah for sure,” Gray said in a phone interview.
He said public review periods for city applications that allowed the project to happen did not draw detractors.
“All of our public reviews of the applications, no one spoke against it,” Gray said.
Dick and Norwegian Cruise Lines Executive Vice President Howard Sherman said Icy Strait Point will be able to handle the influx of visitors that will come with the new dock.
“We’ve got the infrastructure here to handle it,” Dick said in an interview. “We were pretty strategic about the dock location we picked. It will keep people spread out.”
The future dock, will be about a half mile away from an already existing dock toward Outer Point Sophia.
Sherman said since Hoonah’s first dock opened in 2004 and the second is not yet open, the community is essentially starting from scratch as a tourist destination, which helps with planning.
He compared it favorably to cruise line private islands since it has a real history, culture and activities — a zipline, rope course and more — that he said engage passengers.
During the groundbreaking and blessing, there was a lot of talk about respecting the land’s tradition.
Sherman said that could manifest as unique painting on the dock, or a plaque telling the story of the people who live and have lived in the area.
Dick said something like that would need to be something decided on by elders, but it will be considered.
Culture and elders were front and center during the ceremony for the dock.
It featured a groundbreaking with shovels made to resemble paddles etched with Northwest Coast art designs, words from clan representatives, song and dance from the regalia-clad children in the Gawwt’ak.aan Dancers and remarks from elders as well as Huna Totem and Norwegian Cruise Line officials.
Many of the remarks made before, during and after the ceremony mentioned the brisk breeze that put a chill in the air on a sunny day.
“That wind, that was coming from Glacier Bay, the homeland,” said George “Digger” Dalton Jr., a relative of Jimmy Dalton’s, after the ceremony.
Huna Totem Corporation Board Chairman Ed Davis also mentioned Glacier Bay, and said the new dock is a milestone for the corporation, shareholders and the community.
Davis said the project speaks to the history of Tlingit resilience in Hoonah.
“It all starts two centuries ago, when we left Glacier Bay, and an advancing glacier forced us out of there,” Davis said. “Just think about our ancestors leaving our homeland and coming ashore on the very land you guys are standing on.”
He mentioned some other events that spoke to resolve, including the fishermen-turned-business leaders who laid the foundation for Huna Totem Corporation in the ’70s and the community’s ability to overcome economic maladies throughout the 20th century that include lost production from the cannery in the ’40s and a dwindling timber industry in the ’90s.
“The point being is that Hoonah Tlingit has had a history and precedence of being reliant,” Davis said. “Overcoming obstacles and overcoming challenges and developing opportunity.”
Preserving the culture that comes with that is part of the goal of Huna Totem Corporation’s expanded tourism efforts, Dick said.
“I truly believe history will judge us on whether or not we create those economic opportunities for our shareholders, and whether or not we ensure a vibrant and strong culture as we go forward,” Dick said.
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.