The following editorial first appeared in the Ketchikan Daily News:
It is a story that is all too familiar: Facing climate change and the destruction of their historical home, Alaska Natives made the difficult, dangerous decision to relocate.
The catch? This particular story isn’t about the Alaska Native village of Shishmaref, which voted last week to move from its coastal location as Arctic seas, powered by melting ice, continue to carve into its land like water through flour. Nor is it about any of the other Alaska Native villages facing similar decisions as global heat records are set seemingly every month.
In fact, it’s not even about this century.
It was the 18th century, and an advancing glacier was overrunning the Huna Tlingit settlement in Bartlett Cove. Though the Huna had no way of knowing it, Europe and other parts of the world were also struggling with severe cold around the same time, part of something most commonly known today as the Little Ice Age.
In the Glacier Bay area, the advancing glacier forced a Huna Tlingit diaspora south and the eventual founding of Hoonah. (According to the National Park Service, Hoonah’s original name, Xunniyaa, means “shelter from the north wind.”)
When the glacier finally shrunk back, the Huna found that their traditional villages and homes had been wiped away.
On Thursday, the first permanent tribal house in Bartlett Cove since the mini ice age will be dedicated in a ceremony that is open to the public.
The tribal house, called Xunaa Shuká Hít, will allow tribal members to gather and re-establish a connection with their traditional homeland, while also teaching Glacier Bay tourists about the history of the Huna people.
Ketchikan’s P.K. Builders won the bid to build it.
According to the National Park Service, the $2.9 million house’s design is based on historical records, and Tlingit artists and apprentices have decorated the building to tell the stories of the Huna’s four big clans.
It’s heartening to see this development and move toward preserving Huna Tlingit culture, given that when Glacier Bay was declared a national monument in the 1920s, the federal government severely limited the Tlingit group’s access to the area.
Today, the National Park Service says it works with the Hoonah Indian Association and Hoonah’s government to develop educational programs, sponsor summer culture camps, collect oral histories and sponsor cultural trips to the park.
The tribal house is an important extension of these activities, and an explicit acknowledgment by the federal government that preserving culture is just as important as preserving glaciers and trees.