This story comes from guest blogger, Stephanie Shor. It is a report on the dedication ceremony of the new Tlingit tribal house in Bartlett Cove, Glacier Bay National Park. Stephanie is the editor of our sweet local paper, “Strawberry Point Pioneer.” Thanks, Stephanie, for sharing the story of this historical event with us!
“We heard our ancestors singing as we came into the bay. They’ve waited a long time for us. It’s hard to hold back the tears of joy.”
The shores of Glacier Bay were humming with people, young and old, native and non-native, as three traditional Tlingit canoes slowly emerged through the morning mist of Bartlett Cove. Hoonah Tlingit children, grandchildren of the tribe in their ancestors’ regalia, waited with wide eyes to receive them in a long-awaited return to their homeland.
The first day of the week-long tribal house dedication event included a color guard for Hoonah veterans, a naming ceremony for the tribal house, a spirit song and a collective breath of life into the structure.
As the canoes, carved over long months from 400-year-old trees, drew closer to the sight of the new tribal house standing on ancient Tlingit land, elders and their grandchildren began to sing. Hoonah’s youth met the
rowers and were handed the individually carved oars of their elders as the crowd lifted the canoes to carry as a whole onto land.
Huna Tlingit history began in this land of lower Glacier Bay, where there were at least 3 ancient tribal houses, like the modern-day version now in Bartlett Cove. About 300 years ago, they were forced to flee their homeland as glaciers advanced and overran their settlements, according to park service documentation. The retreating Tlingit clans eventually settled in modern-day Hoonah.
Tlingit elder, Ken Grant, watched from the new tribal house as the people sang and danced through the crowds and up the hill of their ancient birthplace. Many had tears streaming down their faces. The children were solemn with understanding.
“What we ever do is for our children and our grandchildren,” he said. “They can say, ‘I was there and I am Tlingit from Hoonah.'”
Grant stressed the importance of the Xunaa Shuka Hit, or “Huna Ancestor’s House,” in incorporating “the ancestors before you and the children ahead of you” to keep their traditions alive. Young adults and elders were ceremoniously dressed in their regalia by members of an opposite clan to symbolize partnership. The new tribal house in Bartlett Cove represents four different clans.
One of the many purposes of the tribal house, which took nearly 20 years of collaboration between the National Park Service and Tlingit people to complete, is to foster a sense of healing between communities and within individuals. In fact, as master carver, Wayne Price, and others crafted the canoes in Hoonah, youngsters collected the wood chips from the ground and community members wrote names of loved ones suffering from personal struggles such as addiction and depression, to burn in symbolic release.
The process of burning wood chips was incorporated into the soaking and steaming of the canoes, which the entire Hoonah community helped to accomplish. Tlingit master weaver, Darlene See, visited Gustavus often to provide updates on the massive project underway. She said Hoonah residents rose at 6 am for every soaking and steaming to carry the unfinished canoes down to the water.
Upon completion, canoers paddled tirelessly from Hoonah to reach Glacier Bay in time to see their tribal house. At the opening ceremony, elders thanked not only the trees for their contribution, which they likened to their revered women, who constantly bring life, but also their neighbors in Gustavus and all across Southeast, both native and non-native. This was a first in history for the National Park Service and a native group to collaborate on such a project, and NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis bestowed a partnership award on the accomplishment.
Southeast residents joined the park service and their Tlingit neighbors at the ceremony, and all helped to breathe life into the tribal house, meant to not only bring the Tlingit people back to their homeland, but to bring all people together, Grant said.
“This house to us is a keystone that holds up the bridge between the National Park Service and the Huna Tlingit,” he told the crowd. “I wish the rest of the world could be like that. Instead of fighting with each other, let’s talk.”