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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Gull Eggs for Breakfast in Hoonah

This article was originally published on on October 25, 2017, posted by Tania Lewis, Ashley Stanek, Darlene See, Mary Beth Moss of NPS.

Glaucous-winged gulls in nesting area on Geikie Island, Glacier Bay (Source: A. Stanek/NPS Photos).

As part of recent efforts to reinvigorate cultural activities within Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, the National Park Service (NPS) and Hoonah Indian Association (HIA) have collaborated on various programs, including restoring a traditional Glaucous-winged gull egg harvest in the park.

While the NPS develops regulations to allow legal harvest of gull eggs, park managers and HIA are collaborating through a series of experimental egg harvests to determine best-practices and potential impacts of a harvest on gulls and other nesting birds, while at the same time providing eggs to community members in Hoonah.

In early June 2017, HIA tribal members conducted the second experimental glaucous-winged gull egg harvest in the park. The research aim was to determine whether egg quality, as determined by people consuming the eggs, varies depending on the number of eggs present in a nest. Glaucous-winged gulls typically lay three eggs over the course of five days and begin incubating once the clutch is complete. Eggs do not begin to develop into chicks until incubation begins. For this reason, eggs from three-egg nests may be further developed than eggs from nests with one or two eggs, and the desirability of these developing eggs may be questionable.

Ashley Stanek collects nest information on a GPS while Randy Roberts marks eggs from a 3-egg nest and Darlene See photographs the nest (Source: T. Lewis/NPS photo).

On June 2, 2017, three HIA tribal members and the NPS wildlife biologist and technician visited gull colonies at Geikie Rock and Boulder Islet to collect gull eggs and information on nesting seabirds. Glaucous-winged gull nests are typically identified by their neat nest bowl made of dried grass and moss, which can be located anywhere from bare rock to hidden in tall grass above the tide zone.

As nests were found, biologists recorded information on nest location and number of eggs, and harvesters collected eggs into moss-filled buckets for transport back to Hoonah. Eggs from the three egg nests were marked, and the recipients of the eggs were surveyed later about the edibility of marked versus unmarked eggs. Eggs were considered inedible if they were too far developed to be desirable for eating.

Harvesters reported collecting 143 eggs on the two islands. Sixty-eight of these eggs were marked as having come from three-egg nests. Eggs were distributed to 42 members of the Hoonah Indian Association who reported 117 eggs edible, 13 eggs inedible, and 13 eggs of unknown quality.

Of the 13 inedible eggs, 2 eggs were reportedly inedible due to the way they were cooked, nine were marked, and two were unmarked. Hence 13 percent of the eggs from three-egg nests were inedible compared to only 3 percent of the eggs from one-egg or two-egg nests. This information can help harvesters make decisions on nest selection to maximize edibility of eggs during future egg harvests.

HIA members Randy Roberts, Darlene See, and Ronin Ruerup collect gull eggs to distribute to the community of Hoonah (Source: T. Lewis/NPS photos).

Glaucous-winged gulls are able to replace lost eggs until the clutches are complete, as well as re-lay new clutches if all eggs are lost due to flooding, predation, or harvest; thus ensuring the persistence of gull populations.

In addition to monitoring gull nests during the egg harvest, NPS biologists also collected information on the presence of other nesting birds to understand how this human activity may impact other birds. Black Oystercatchers, Pigeon Guillemots, and Caspian Terns were observed nesting on the harvested islands, but these nests were avoided and thus impacted minimally.

The NPS and HIA will continue to collaborate by combining traditional ecological knowledge and practices with park research to ensure long-term stability of resources.

For more information, see the NPS Tlingit Gull Egg Harvest page.

GlacierHub published a post last year which discusses the historical and cultural background of gull egg harvest by Hoonah Indian Association tribal member.