A newly constructed tribal house within Glacier Bay National Park in the Southeast Alaskan panhandle begins a fresh chapter in the contentious relationship between the Huna Tlingit, a Native American tribe, and the National Park Service (NPS). For much of the 20th century, the NPS infringed on Huna hunting rights and appropriated the majority of Huna land to create a monument, and later a National Park and Preserve over 5,000 square miles in area.
The recently opened 28,000 square foot tribal house coincides with the NPS’s 100th anniversary and will serve as a gathering center for the Huna, displaying artwork and cedar carvings, while also informing some of Glacier Bay’s 500,000 yearly visitors about the Huna’s rich culture.
The house sits on the Huna’s ancestral homelands in Bartlett Cove, originally known in the endangered Huna language as L’eiwshaa Shakee Aan, which translates to “Town on Top of the Sand Hill.” It will memorialize the lost clan houses which used to dot the coast but were destroyed by the rapidly advancing Grand Pacific Glacier in the 1700s. The glacier cleared the land, including wildlife like salmon found in the streams, and destroyed Huna villages. But beginning in the 1800s, the glacier began to recede, leaving 100 miles of destruction in its wake. By the 1830s, the wildlife returned, along with the Huna, who set up seasonal camps where they fished, hunted and collected gull eggs and berries. The new tribal house will be the first permanent house since the glacier drove the Huna away to their current village, Hoonah, 30 miles south, where over 800 of them dwell.
Remnants of tribal dwellings and other evidence of the Huna’s presence can still be found in the park. For example, cairns are memorials or landmarks made of mounds of stones marking the highlands used to retreat from floods associated with environmental change. In addition, archaeologists have discovered old smokehouses, house pits, and culturally modified trees stripped of bark, which may have been used for markers, baskets, pitch or shelter.
Around the time the Huna returned to Glacier Bay, Westerners also arrived. Captain George Vancouver, an English Naval Officer, surveyed the area in 1794, and John Muir, often referred to as the “Father of the National Parks,” visited between 1879 and 1899. Muir is sometimes credited with the discovery of Glacier Bay, although he relied on Tlingit guides to get there. The area was proclaimed a national monument in 1925, a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, and finally, a national park in 1980.
When the monument decree was passed under President Calvin Coolidge, the Huna Tlingit were not consulted, leading to anger among tribal members, and in addition many tribe members did not speak English. The NPS increasingly infringed on the Huna’s hunting rights, first limiting firearms to protect brown bears in the 1930s, and then ten years later outlawing all hunting and trapping except for seals, which the Park Service later banned in 1976.
In 1992, a Huna hunter in the Park was ordered to appear before a federal magistrate in Juneau for shooting a seal that was going to be used in a potlatch, or ceremonial feast, and his gun was confiscated. Around the same time, the Park Service began considering phasing out commercial fishing which prompted peaceful protests on the shores of Bartlett Cove by the Huna. Speeches were given by elders about Huna history and the importance of subsistence. Following the protests, constructive talks began, and in 1997, the idea for a tribal house was accepted by the Park Service.
However, limited funding slowed the tribal house project down. In 2013, superintendent of Glacier Bay, Susan Boudreau, redirected concessionaire franchise fees toward the Huna Tribal House, which ultimately cost $2.9 million dollars.
Eugene Hunn, a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, told GlacierHub, “This new tribal house should strengthen Huna Tlingit claims to their traditional territory within Glacier Bay National Park and provides them a long-overdue central role instructing the tourist public about their deep historic ties to the local landscape.”
The tribe hired carver Gordon Greenwald to oversee construction of the handcrafted totem poles, interior posts, and floor-to-ceiling wooden screens, which depict pictures of tribal stories. A carved screen inside the house depicts complex stories of the four clans in separate canoes, and a fifth canoe represents all other people holding their paddles vertically as a sign of friendship.
Traditionally, each clan would build their own house but they decided on a common house, an idea that was controversial at first. The interior posts feature colorful depictions of wildlife common to Glacier Bay, many of which serve as crests of Huna’s Glacier Bay clans.
Last August, the Grand Opening Ceremony of about 800 people– a mix of tribal members, Park staff, and visitors– celebrated as members of the tribe ceremonially arrived in canoes donned in traditional regalia. It had been many years since the Huna paddled the 30-mile journey from Hoonah to their ancestral homeland in Glacier Bay. There was chanting, singing, and drumming while clan elders burned cedar and spruce chips and poured seal oil over themselves as gesture of thanks to the trees that gave their lives for the construction of the house and canoes.
The tribe named the house Xunaa Shuká Hít, which translates to “Huna Ancestors’ House.” They called out the name during the ceremony, a Huna tradition intended to breathe new life into the house. Later in the night, about 300 guests crammed into the house to dance and cheer for the long awaited opening.
Thomas F. Thornton, an anthropologist who has worked on issues concerning the Huna since 1991, told GlacierHub, “It was a great day of celebration in August of 2016 when the Huna Tlingit were again able to inhabit a tribal house in Glacier Bay, having been forced out, first by the glacier’s advance and then by the Park Service’s exclusionary policies.”
Park service staff and tribal members hope the new tribal house can be a model for making amends with Native people.
“These descendants of Glacier Bay should not only have the right to harvest cultural foods and other resources in the park but also to have a meaningful partnership in the interpretation and management of their traditional homeland,” Dr. Thornton observed. “Although there is still healing and work to be done, this is a constructive start to what could be a new era of mutual recognition and cooperation in curating and caring for this magnificent World Heritage Site.”