Tag Archives: Culture

Raven and Eagle Totem Raising at Xunaa Shuká Hít

Last year when  Xunaa Shuká Hít was built in Glacier Bay National Park  it was a joyous day. This incredible structure reconnected the Huna Tlingit to their traditional homeland, but it was still missing a key part of a tribal house : it’s totems to tell the stories of those within. On May 20th, 2017, the citizens of Hoonah returned again to their homeland to celebrate raising two totems in front of their tribal house.

Arriving at The Tribal House

It was a moody day with gray clouds and no wind as our catamaran pulled from the dock, sped through Port Frederick, and crossed into the expanse of Icy Strait. Each of the 130 passengers on board were familiar with the trip, and we passed all of the familiar landmarks along the way to mark our progress over the 25 miles : Hoonah Island, Flynn Cove, Eagle Point, and then Point Adolphus. Off the right side of the boat, in the distance a Humpback Whale began to breach near Pleasant Island. It rose from the water eight times in short succession before it stopped its gigantic splashing. The spectacle had the kids and adults on the boat watching out the window with exclamations of delight. The excitement of the return to Glacier Bay was growing with each mile closer and each new wonder.

There were many drums on the boat, and they started to pound and the students and travelers singing started as we approached Glacier Bay. Each drum was hand-crafted and the baton resulted in an echoing boom that filled the ship. Even in the top deck you could hear the drumming below. We reached the border of Glacier Bay National Park along with a second catamaran from Juneau. Tobacco offerings  were made to the ocean to welcome the ancestors of the Huna Tlingit, and a song that was sung expressing the sorrow of leaving the park 250 years ago as the glacier advanced was. It isn’t as often that songs of mourning are performed, and the slower drum was syncopated with a melody that easily conveyed the sorrow of departing their homeland even if I did not understand the words.

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The tobacco ceremony welcomes the Tlingit Ancestors back to the park.

Our catamarans crossed the park boundary, and in front of us, two, 42-foot, red dugout canoes came into view. Colorful, hand-carved paddles splashed in the water to propel the boats, and soon the canoes were between our catamarans. Each canoe’s speaker welcomed us to the homeland of the Huna Tlingit and then we were led to shore.

The hand-carved dugout canoes greet the arriving passengers from Hoonah and Juneau.

Raising A Totem

This might be an obvious statement, but totem poles are not light. Each of  poles (one of Eagle Clan and one for Raven Clan) weighed about 2,000 pounds and was carved from the trunk of a red cedar. Although some of the pole had been hollowed out, 12 feet of the pole maintained a solid core. The weight presented a couple of unique challenges – you have to be able to move it, and you have to be able to control the weight when standing it up. In order to move it, we slid poles under and 18 people stood on each side. It was truly an honor to be one of the members lined up on along the totem pole to deliver it to Xunaa Shuká Hít. We were reminded as we entered, that each one of was participating in history. We could all look back on the pictures of the day and tell our grandchildren that we were there the day the poles were raised. Thinking that to myself made my aching arms seem like much less of a burden.

With my place at the side of the totem, I was honored to be one of the bearers to the Tribal House.

Each of the poles told the story of the two primary clans (Eagle and Raven) and each clan married into them.  Many of the stories are passed down through the clans and cannot be told to the public. However, representatives from each clan briefly explained the significance of the totem’s art.  Before each of the poles were raised into place, their names were repeated three times by the entire crowd to breath life into them.

The intricate carvings of the totem tell the story of the clans of the Tribal House.

Traditional pole totem pole raising may last up to a week with many feasts, speeches, and longs nights of singing and drumming.  Large poles raised in the traditional method require a huge amount of engineering to leverage the pole into place. As it was explained to me, there are many ways to put up a totem pole, and the method you choose is dictated by your resources and experiences.  The totem pole raising at Xunaa Shuká Hít also used the resources available. To ease our backs and ensure safety, a large crane positioned the pole onto its metal backing where it was mounted into place by master carver Gordon Greenwald. Each went up and smoothly. With the poles in place in front of the tribal house there was only really one thing left to do – go inside to eat together, to sing, and to dance.

The tribal house smelled strongly of pine. I think the smell was exacerbated by the heavy rain that fell outside and the humid conditions inside. I love the smell of the tribal house! Every corner was packed with people, and and the red, blue, and black regalia worn by many offset the yellow, wood walls. As lunch finished, a group of traditional Tlingit drummers, singers, and dancers from Sitka performed for the audience. Their drum echoed through the house, and the mostly male chorus was very powerful to listen to. The music and the atmosphere caused my skin prickle and my hair to raise on my arms. Each performer was equally impressive to watch. Their colorful, yellow, white, and blue Chilkat robes twirled  with each step and movement. We ended the day with an hour (or more? I lost track of time) of dancing from the community. The joyous songs brought all members of the house to their feet to join in the festivities.

The power of a day like this is hard to convey in writing and in pictures. If I were to think of an analogy that I hope makes you feel how I perceive the Huna Tlingit to feel, imagine going home for Christmas after being gone for 5 years in a foreign land. In your grandparents house, the Christmas tree reminds you of the last time you were there. Many of the sights an smells are familiar and memories of your childhood of opening presents and eating pie Christmas morning obligate you to tell stories to the young people around you of Christmases past. You realize, that although you are home for Christmas, the true joy is in knowing that you are passing on the tradition and stories to the next generation. Perhaps that’s true reason you are home for Christmas. Passing on stories and traditions were a big part of why the Huna Tlingit raised their poles. That ideal of creating a place for their children to return to in the future was the unifying theme of the day.  Although not all of our elders will be here in coming years, the totems at Tribal House will stand the test of time and tell the story of the Huna Tlingit for many generations to come.

The completed totems stand outside of Xunaa Shuká Hít

The Totems of Kasaan

“If there’s one thing that I want you to come away with from my presentation today, it’s that we do not worship totems”, stated Fred Olsen, Jr. , a native Haida of Kasaan. In front of us, the one of the totems from Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House stood proud among towering spruce trees. This house pole was among several totems at the Kasaan Totem Park to be rescued and preserved in this still grove of evergreens. Like the other Haida poles in the park, this one was moved from the village site of “old Kasaan” and moved into the totem park in 1938. The ornate carvings of these original totem poles, represented the status and rich history of each clan house or the story to honor a deceased elder.

A tall totem stands outside of the Kasaan Whalehouse.

The effort and time to carve a totem is not lightly undertaken and only occurred for special events. As we walked from Chief Son-I-Hat’s totem to the next shorter totem, Fred began to explain some of the reasons totems would differ in size or purpose. Totems could be carved in honor of a deceased elder, to demonstrate the rights that a person acquired over their lifetime, or to symbolize the generosity of a person who sponsored a Potlatch. As Fred explained, Haida culture was not concerned with the amount you owned, but rather in your generosity in giving back. Hosting a Potlatch required a tremendous amount of resources, planning,  and leadership. A successful potlatch could last for several days, earn you the respect of your community, and at its conclusion a ring could be added to the top of your house’s totem. An extraordinary demonstration of this generosity was visible in  eight rings at the top Chief Son-I-Hat’s pole.  The eight rings symbolized that his house had hosted eight potlatches.  Because the rings showed off the status and generosity of Chief Son-I-Hat,  they ensured that incoming travelers and traders would seek him out first among the community. The furs he gained through their business contributed his status as one of the wealthiest of the Haida chiefs.

The totem that stood in front of Chief Son-I-Hat’s house contains 8 rings symbolizing potlatches he hosted.

For the Kasaan Totem Park, which winds nearly a half-mile through an incredible and vibrant forest, the journey is also the destination. The totem trail concludes at a cobbly beach with distant views of the mountains. On its shores are the bleached remains of spruce trees and boulders.  Near the shore a seemingly impossibly-tall totem rises rises from the ground in front of the Kasaan Whale House.  What we now call the “Whale House” was built in 1880 and was named ” Náay I´waans” (meaning “Great House”). This was the first of two clan houses built by Chief Son-I-Hat. The Whale House underwent a full restoration starting in 2011, the results of which are truly remarkable.  Inside and insulated by its thick, wooden structure, is is much cooler than the warm day outside. It smells earthy and wonderful. Light streaming from an open roof vent streams onto the floor where it is easy to imagine hundreds of Haida gathering to listen to the stories of their elders and smoke rising from the fire in the central pit. Listening to Fred’s words fill the space provided a meaningful end to a day of serenity in this beautiful place.

Kasaan Totem Park, Whale House, Kasaan
Fred Olsen, Jr. Presents some of the stories of the Haida to us in the restored Whale House of Chief Son-I-Hat.

 

It should be noted that I’m not an expert or knowledge base on Haida Culture; all that I can pass on is what I’m told or what I read. It was actually Fred’s opening words in front of Son-I-Hat’s house totem that inspired me to write this blog because it was new knowledge to my limited understanding of Haida culture. I’ll paraphrase them as, “Our totems are not our religion, but our stories and our culture.  It’s that message that I wish everyone knew”. If there’s nothing else you know of totems, I hope that Fred’s words will stick in your mind, so that you will have learned that even without visiting this incredible monument of the Haida culture.

For The Past and For the Future : Xunaa Shuká Hít

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 Hoonah Indian Association and the National Park Service which helped heal the past and prepare for the future.

Glacier Bay National Park is the traditional homeland of the Huna Tlingit. In the early 1700’s, 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. This forced the Huna Tlingit out of their homeland and they eventually settled 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 where there had once been ice. 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 portion of American and Tlingit history much of the language and culture was lots due to repression. Fortunately in recent years patience and collaboration with the NPS has led to development of many program that have helped to strengthen the relationship and served to bring back traditional activities in 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 were 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 Barlett 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 moeity 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.

When entering the park we stopped to remember those who are no longer with us, but entering in spirit.
When entering the park we stopped to remember those who are no longer with us, but entering in spirit.

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.  As I mentioned in my previous article, 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 and the three, vibrant-red boats glided closer to us. On the shore, many members of the community and kids from school were dressed in traditional colors, robes, tunics, and headbands. They stood on the shore waiting expectantly and with anticipation. The canoers approached with their paddle blades raised in the air to signify they came in peace. As the bow of the canoe slide onto shore and the first feet set 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. He was the first of many to wear the robe to celebrate canoe journeys as the robe will travel to future events which include canoe journeys.

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Each paddle was hand carved and painted and tells something about its paddler.
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A stack of colorful, hand-carved paddles that delivered the canoes to the Tribal House.
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A stack of colorful, hand-carved paddles that delivered the canoes to the Tribal House.
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A stack of colorful, hand-carved paddles that delivered the canoes to the Tribal House.
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An ornate and vibrant paddle leaning against the tribal house at Bartlett Cove.

Tree Ceremony

Without the correct process the dedication of the tribal house would not be complete. Per tradition, 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.

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Giving thanks to the trees during the tree ceremony.
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Giving thanks to the trees during the tree ceremony.

Screen Ceremony/Naming Ceremony

All of the artwork in the Tribal Households symbolize stories that are just waiting to be told 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 Tribal House. Xunaa Shuká Hít. The crowd repeated it 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 and the dancing began. The sound made the walls of the tribal house throb and pound. It was a joyous end to a dramatic and memorable day.

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The screen ceremony and naming ceremony was led by the clan elders.
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The pounding, thumping, joyful dance of the Huna Tlingit in their tribal house.

Regalia

For me one of the most incredible pieces 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 a greater and better relationship between Glacier Bay National Park and the people of Hoonah. This photograph of Tribal President Frank Wright shaking hands with NPS Superintendent Philip Hooge says a lot about a relationship that is starting to bud and provides hope that future trips to Xunaa Shuká Hít will continue to remember the past while preparing for the future.

 

Phil Hodges and Frank Wright shake hands after receiving the NPS Directors award for collaboration.
Philip Hooge and Frank Wright shake hands after receiving the NPS Directors award for collaboration.

Special thanks to Mary Beth Moss of the National Park Service for her review of this article.

The Tlingit Cultural Heritage of Hoonah, Alaska

Since I arrived in Hoonah, Alaska in March I have been thrilled and privileged to  experience the beauty of Tlingit culture and the dedication of those creating traditional art. The constant, thudding-pulse of adzes sticking into wood have resonated outside of my office. Each swing by the carver has pulled a woodchip from a 45 foot long, 3 – foot diameter spruce log. Two of these logs are being carved into traditional dugout canoes. In a separate area, two 45-foot long facades, and four totem polls telling the oral history of the Tlingit were being painstakingly carves by hand. Each bead of sweat, aching muscle, and hour of lost sleep were in preparation of the re-entrance of the Huna Tlingit to their traditional homeland in Glacier Bay National Park which occurred on August 25th, 2016.

Canoe

The commissioning of two, 40+ foot dugout canoes resulted in the largest, traditional dugout canoes in Southeast Alaska. The effort was lead by Master Carver Wayne Price, and after nearly a year of carving by a slew of volunteers, the final boats are incredible to behold. The process starts by flattening the top of the spruce log. From there the wood is pulled out of the center resulting in a hollow, log with curved edges. The log is steamed  by heating volcanic pumice found near Hoonah and placing it in the canoe which is filled with water. Like a rib-spreader, the cavity of the canoe is opened up little by little by wedging in longer boards. Incredibly, the first canoe started with beams at 39 inches and expanded to 69 inches! The tree was able to accommodate 30 inches of new space. Once spread the canoes were given a modern touch with fiberglass and paint. The painting style follows the traditions of the Tlingit people. Each canoe was outfitted with a sail that in the right conditions can push the large vessel up to 8 miles per hour.

The first time the canoe went into the water was a very powerful moment. Flat conditions greeted the paddlers, and as they moved out near a couple of miles near Cannery Point two sea otters fed in the kelp bed. The 42-foot dugout was accompanied by two smaller dugouts and the paddlers inside worked in unison to make the canoe glide through the water with surprising speed. As they rounded Cannery Point, it is likely they were the first to do so in a dugout in several decades or more. The first journey was a landmark moment for the carvers and the community and set the determination for the second canoe to be finished in time for the Tribal House dedication. I was fortunate enough to witness the canoe on the waters several more times during training sessions; its red sail was striking against the often gray conditions of Port Frederick! The legacy of these canoes will live on for decades to come.

Tribal House Screens

The Tribal House being built in Glacier Bay National Park at Bartlett Cove will be built in the traditions of Huna Tlingit Clan Houses, but is different as each of the four clans will be represented in the structure. Historically, Clan’s each had their own house. This presented a unique challenge for Master Carver Gordon Greenwald. It was necessary for him to design the “screens” of the front building facade and inside to tell the history of the four clans (T’akdeintaan, Wooshkeetan, Chookanedi, Kaagwaantaan). By listening to the elders a couple of days he drew the design for the screens and house-post totem poles. As he told me the story of the meaning of one of the screens, I was astounded by the information the artistry held. The intricacies of the hand carves wood brought the stories to life and were part of the reason it took five years for the work to be completed.

The story in the screen is complex, and represented by small and intricate details in the carving. My account here should in no way considered to be complete. Rather, I hope it gives you insight into the deep meaning of these powerful works.  There were originally 4 clans that settled in Glacier Bay. They came from Lituya Bay (on the left side of the panel) where their was a glacier. In the panel, you can see the spirt of the glacier. However, in Lituya Bay, there was a large tsunami (scientists now know it reached 1,400 ft) that washed a large and very dangerous rock out the mouth of the bay. It allowed for safer travel in and out of the bay. The people of of Lituya bay are still anchored in Lituya Bay even though they now live in Mount Fairweather. In the panel you can see the canoe anchored in Lituya Bay and the spirit of Fairweather Mountain symbolizing that. The people of Glacier Bay were very used to icebergs in Icy Straits, and around the panel the spirits of the icebergs are predominant – however each carved spirit is different as no iceberg is the same as the next. In the center of the panel is the spirit of the Glacier. It is that glacier that pushed the Tlingit people from Glacier Bay 200+ years ago when a girl called the glacier towards them by throwing out fish bones – she called it to them as you would call a dog. In the panel, you can see the glacier reflected in the girl’s eyes. Even though they were pushed out by the glacier, there are others still anchored in Glacier Bay. Both Porpoise and Octopus are still anchored in Glacier Bay.  Wolf and brown bear are still anchored in their homeland. The panels also indicates the importance of the marbled murrelets when the Tlingit lived in the mountains during the great floods. Finally, at the top of the panel is a canoe with no crest or design. It represents every else who are welcome to join the Huna Tlingit in Glacier Bay – the paddles are raised to signify friendship. It shows they have nothing to hide.

The enormous size of these panels is hard to represent in a photograph. Each facade is constructed from a single (!!!) yellow cedar planks. They stretch 18×45 feet.

The time that I’ve spent with the carvers and learning about these incredible projects has helped provide a connection to a community and a culture. I hope in the years to come that I continue to understand more fully the meaning hidden in their incredible artwork.