Tlingit Song Recalls Glacier Bay and Time Gone By

Paul McCartney is said to have composed the melody for the hit Beatles’ song “Yesterday” in a dream. Sometimes composers labor over a song’s creation, and sometimes they are born in an instant. A recent paper published in the journal BioOne describes such a song from 120 years ago when a Huna Tlingit woman named Mary Sheakley first sang one after an encounter with wolves in Glacier Bay Alaska. Also recounted in the paper—and just as remarkable—is the spontaneous recollection and recovery of this song decades later by her younger clan sister, Amy Marvin, after being nearly lost to time.

The Huna Tlingit of southeastern Alaska inhabited Glacier Bay for millennia before the glacial advance of the Little Ice Age in the 1700s necessitated a move out. While they never permanently resettled the Bay, they continued fishing and berry picking there for centuries. After the area was designated a National Park in 1910, however, the US Government forced them to leave. After decades of struggle by the Tlingit to regain ownership of their sovereign land, small efforts have been made by the National Park Service in recent years to honor this sovereignty and once again allow activities like berry picking—which have important cultural significance. 

Xunaa Shuká Hít—the Huna Tribal House—was the first permanent clan house in Glacier Bay in over 250 years when it was built in 2016. (Credit: National Park Service)

Anthropologist and lead author Thomas Thornton went on such a berry picking excursion in Glacier Bay with Huna Tlingit elder Amy Marvin and her niece in 1996. Marvin—then in her late eighties—had been going around with Thornton to help him record the Tlingit names for the places in the park. During a break from berry picking, Marvin recalled an old song she’d previously forgotten that was composed by an older clan sister of hers. Seated on some logs, sipping coffee, she began to sing.

“[Amy and her niece] were just chatting away in Tlingit, and she just goes ‘oh you know what, there is a song that was composed here and I think you should know it,’” Thornton told GlacierHub.

Amy Marvin performing Mary Sheakley’s song in 1996. (Credit: University of Southeast Alaska)

That was over two decades ago. Thornton didn’t know the meaning behind the words, and it stayed with him. “It always haunted me,” he said. Then, a couple years back, Thornton ran into Marvin’s daughter, Mary Rudolph, who was herself nearly 80 by this time. Marvin had unfortunately passed away some years prior. Rudolph was not on that original trip, but is a native Tlingit speaker, and has adopted the matriarchal mantle of her mother.

“I told her, ‘you know your mom sang this song on that trip and it haunts me twenty years later. Would you be willing to look at it with me?’” said Thornton. She agreed and they sat down to listen to the recording. Rudolph, who is a co-author of the paper, helped Thornton understand its meaning. 

Mary Sheakley’s Song as Introduced and Sung by Amy Marvin in August 1996:

A transcription and translation by Mary Rudolph and William Geiger, co-authors of the paper, of the recording of Amy Marvin’s performance.
(Credit: Thornton et al 2019)

When Marvin retrieved the song from memory back in 1996, she also recounted the story about how it was composed. She told of a berry picking trip that her older clan sister, Mary Sheakley, took in Glacier Bay sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. As the story goes, when Sheakley finished up and pushed off from shore in her canoe, a group of wolves came down to the water’s edge and began to howl. Sheakley sung the piece on the spot in response.

A wolf’s howl is nothing new in this region. “What made it novel,” said Thornton, “was that they came to the beach and seemed to be addressing the paddlers…being addressed like that inspired a response.”

Sheakley’s response was a reflection on life in general, and the shortcomings we often experience throughout it. It’s a song of longing and maybe a little regret, but also of making peace with everything that has transpired.

Huna clan members in 2016, at the opening of the Tribal House in Glacier Bay. (Credit: National Park Service)

“It is kind of a reflection on how we maybe didn’t accomplish everything we wanted to. Maybe we got sidetracked; maybe we long for something else; but hey that’s the way it is and we can celebrate anyway,” said Thornton, adding with a laugh, “That’s my extremely crude reduction of the song.”

Mary Rudolph taught the song to her daughter Amy Starbard—also a co-author of the paper—who in turn instructed her daughters. The song is now a clan-wide song that is performed during ceremonial meetings called potlatches. Songs are rich components of many indigenous communities, and passing them on from generation to generation provides critical support for the survival of these cultures. Thornton credits Amy Marvin with keeping the song alive.

Securing the legacy of Sheakley’s song preserves more than tradition, but also the power wrapped up in its music. Thornton described an experience with this power in Glacier Bay. After Marvin died, he and Rudolph went up to Glacier Bay together with some students. As their boat puttered up alongside Margerie Glacier—the big one at the head of the bay—Rudolph sang the song. “After she sang this song all these little ice chunks came off,” said Thornton. Several people accompanying them remarked that those were the glacier spirit’s tears. “It was really poignant.”     

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