When the citizens of Hoonah, Alaska, and surrounding Southeast communities arrived at Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park during the morning of August 25th, 2016, it was a homecoming over 250 years in the making. The powerful events of the day were the culmination of nearly two decades of collaboration between the Hoonah Indian Association and the National Park Service (NPS), helping to heal the past and prepare for the future.
Glacier Bay National Park is the traditional homeland of the Huna Tlingit. In the early 1700s, Sit’k’i T’ooch’ (“Little Black Glacier”) in Glacier Bay National Park surged forward and pushed the Huna Tlingit from their homeland by destroying their settlements, including L’eiwshaa Shakee Aan. The Huna Tlingit resettled in Xunniyaa (“Sheltered from the North Wind”) which is today known as Hoonah. Eventually the glacier receded and the Huna Tlingit began to hunt, fish and gather in Bartlett Cove. However, in 1925, the establishment of Glacier Bay National Monument and regulations that followed ultimately led to a strained relationship between the people of Hoonah and the National Park Service. This was coupled with ongoing cultural loss due to integration into Western society. Through a tragic period of American and Tlingit history, much of the language and culture was lost because of repression. Fortunately, in recent years patience and collaboration with the NPS has led to the development of many programs that have helped to strengthen the relationship and served to bring back traditional activities within the park boundaries. In 1995, the concept of a tribal house in the park was first suggested and the dedication of Xunaa Shuká Hít on August 25th brought that dream to reality.
Entering the Park
The ride over to Bartlett Cove was marked by a Fire Bowl Ceremony symbolizing “feeding the ancestors” and remembering those who are no longer with us. This somber entrance was a reminder to me that this day was not only about going forward for the future, but also to commemorate and embrace those not able to see the day themselves. After the ceremony we continued to the shores of Bartlett Cove and walked up to the tribal house site.
To begin the ceremonies in Bartlett Cove the traditional donning of regalia commenced. Following tradition the opposite moiety members dressed each other while stating, “This is not me placing this on you, but __________,” filling in the name of an ancestor. The regalia marked the clan that each was from with incredible artistry and color. The oldest robe was over 100 years old and its faded colors stood in stark contrast to the vibrant new shawls, but was no less incredible to see.
Canoe Landing Ceremony
After donning regalia, hundreds of people walked down to the beach of Bartlett Cove and lit a welcome fire for the canoes. These hand-carved dugouts were commissioned for the entrance into the park and their emergence from the far shore was remarkable to watch.
The heavy fog of the morning shrouded Bartlett Cove in a thick haze, and by squinting you could see the canoes appear through the curtain of fog. Custom-carved and painted paddles dipped seamlessly into the flat water as the three, vibrant-red boats glided closer to us. On the shore, many members of the community and kids from school were waiting with eager anticipation, dressed in traditional colors, robes, tunics, and headbands. The canoers approached with their paddle blades raised in the air to signify they came in peace. As the bow of the canoe slid onto shore and the canoers first stepped foot onto the beach, drums broke out and, with paddle blades raised, the pullers danced while the throngs of people and brilliant color swayed to the music. As the songs receded, the canoe was hoisted onto many shoulders and brought to the tribal house. A beautiful, hand-woven Chilkat Robe was presented to Master Carver, Wayne Price. Many others will wear the robe as it travels to other events celebrating canoe journeys, but he was the first.
The tree ceremony acknowledged the resources that were required to make the tribal house and canoes. Without the yellow cedar and spruce nothing would have been possible, and without following the correct process, the dedication of the tribal house would not be complete.
Screen Ceremony/Naming Ceremony
All of the artwork in the tribal house symbolizes stories that are just waiting to be told. During the screen ceremony, the clan leaders described the exterior screen of the tribal house to let the people know what the design symbolized. Finally the name of the tribal house was announced and breathed life into the structure. Xunaa Shuká Hít. The crowd repeated the name three times and it gave me goosebumps. The name approximately translates to “Huna Ancestors House.” It could not be a more fitting name for a building made to tell the story of the past and prepare for new generations.
It was a privilege to walk into Xunaa Shuká Hít with the Tlingit People. The inside smelled of fresh cedar and spruce, and throngs of people packed around the edges to leave room in the middle for the elders. Each clan leader began to tell the story of their clan as expressed on the interior house screen and house poles. Their stories mingled with the low murmur of the crowd. As they concluded, the drums started to pound, making the walls of the tribal house throb, and the dancing began. It was a joyous end to a dramatic and memorable day.
For me one of the most incredible aspects of the dedication was the art and colors of traditional Tlingit ceremonial clothing. Many of these pieces of regalia are only exhibited during special events. The blankets and robes depict clan crests, which are images that document a significant event in a clan’s history and stake claim to a particular bit of territory. An example of this may be seen in the Chookaneidi regalia. In it, the octopus design is meant to memorialize an event in which two Chookaneidi men gave their lives to defend the community against a giant octopus. The crest then stakes the Chookaneidi claim to the Inian Islands where the event occurred.
The Future of Xunaa Shuká Hít
The tribal house dedication is only the beginning of increased and better cooperation between Glacier Bay National Park and the people of Hoonah. A photograph taken during the ceremony shows Tribal President Frank Wright shaking hands with NPS Superintendent Philip Hooge, which says a lot about the growing relationship. Many hope that future trips to Xunaa Shuká Hít will continue to remind us of the past while preparing for the future.
*Special thanks to Mary Beth Moss of the National Park Service for her review of this article.
Ian Johnson is a wildlife photographer and blogger located in Hoonah, Alaska where he works as a Community Catalyst and Environmental Coordinator for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. He received his Masters in Wildlife from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in 2015 and has enjoyed traveling and documenting science and life throughout Alaska. You can follow along with more of Ian’s work at his website www.ianajohnson.com or on his Facebook page www.facebook.com/ianlww