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Healing and the Healing Pole at Glacier National Park

Exactly two years after the Tribal House dedication in Glacier Bay National Park, five boats full of tribal members from Hoonah floated  to the dock in Bartlett Cove at the entrance of the Park.  Inside of Bartlett Cove a light rain fell and fog rolled through the trees – normal conditions for the homeland of the Huna Tlingit. The approximately 30 students on the boat departed in full red, black, and blue regalia with drums pounding.  They  were there to participate in the raising of a new totem, the Healing Pole, to recognize the reconciliation between the Park and Tribe in the last decade-and-a-half.

Glacier Bay National Park, Tlingit, Hoonah, Totem Pole, Tribal House
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Glacier Bay National Park, Tlingit, Hoonah, Totem Pole, Tribal House
Students lead the walk into Bartlett Cove with song. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

The students danced past the awaiting attendees at Bartlett Cove and to the beach. These songs were to welcome the people at the Park and those still arriving by water. They waited silently as the 42-foot dugout canoes were paddled in carrying elders, tribal members, and members of the National Park Service. Once the canoes disembarked all dignitaries werevon shore the rest of the ceremony commenced.

The canoes arrived on the shores of Bartlett Cove delivering elders, community members, and Park Service employees. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Randy Roberts, Hoonah Resident and National Park Service Employee, welcomes to the canoes. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

The Healing Pole

In 2017, traditional carvers Gordon Greenwald, Herb Sheakley, Owen James, and Randy Roberts began to carve a new totem. The pole’s goal  was to tell the story of the relationship between the National Park Service and Huna Tlingit. Much of that story is difficult to tell as the Park (and the preceding National Monument) was responsible for keeping the people of Huna from harvesting their traditional foods within the park boundary since the year 1925 and into the present.

Healing Pole, Glacier Bay National Park, Hoonah, Tlingit, National Park Service
The healing pole carvers were charged with a difficult task : tell the story of the Huna Tlingit and Park Service. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

The Pole Arrives

It takes a community to move a pole. On this day its weight was born by Tribal members and Park Service employees symbolizing the relationship between the two. Step by step it was moved to lay next to its final location at the entrance of Bartlett Cove.

Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Healing Pole, Glacier National Park, Alaska, Huna Tlingit, Hoonah Indian Association
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

The Friend Who Has No Eyes. No Spirit. Sheds No Tears. Has too Many Hands.

Gordon Greenwald, dressed in woven cedar hat and vivid regalia, stood in front of an expectant audience to talk about the story conveyed in the totem. The story was laid out from the bottom to the top. Fish, seagull eggs, devils club, and halibut demonstrated that Glacier Bay was the food basket of the Huna Tlingit. However, 250 years ago as the glacier surged forward and destroyed the villages in Glacier Bay  the pole showed how people got in their canoes and scattered to new settlements. A lock and chain nailed to the totem above canoes showed that by the time the glacier receded the U.S. Government had converted Glacier Bay into a National Monument and barred them from using their homelands in the traditional fashion. Even more ominous  was the blank, colorless, eyeless face above the lock and chain. Gordon explained, “Then came the friend you have that has no eyes. The friend you have that has no spirit. The friend you have that sheds no tears. The friend you have that has too many hands. The U.S. Government”.  Waves in the totem show that the metaphorical waters of Glacier Bay were turbulent for years, but footprints above the waves demonstrated that “we walk in the footprints of our grandparents and ancestors” and those footprints eventually led to the Tribal House that crowned the pole.

Gordon Greenwald explains the meaning of the carvings and story of the Healing Pole. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

The Healing Pole was much different than the clan poles erected in front of the Tribal House as it incorporated traditional formline and modern carvings. The addition of the chain and lock provided a powerful, although non-traditional twist to the message of the pole.

Up It Goes

In due time it was time for the totem to be raised. The students sang traditional songs and audience members raised their hands to dance. Within 20 minutes the enormous pole was proudly displayed for all to admire and know the story it held.

The Process of Healing

As part of the healing process Hoonah Indian Association and Tribal members created matching robes to be given to the the Superintendent of the park and President of the Tribe. Receiving the robe, Park Superintendent Phillip Hooge hugged Julie Jackson and Darlene See warmly with tears in his eyes. His open emotions brought a smile to my face because it demonstrated the barriers that were being broken down. This was not just a stiff, formal presentation, it was a truly significant and meaningful transaction.

Phillip Hooge, Glacier Bay, Robe, Hoonah Tlingit
Park Superintendent Phillip Hooge receives a traditional robe created by the Hoonah People. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Hoonah Indian Association President Frank Wright Jr. receives a matching robe. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

Dancing Together

With the formalities done outside it was time to go inside the Tribal house for stories and to dance and sing. Students let the procession and songs within the Tribal House. The emphasis on students during the event was heartwarming – it was done acknowledging the future leaders of the Huna Tlingit and their need to recognize, know, and participate in their culture.

Elders share the stories of their people in Glacier Bay with all present. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Students, Youth, Tlinigt, Hoonah
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
A student hangs onto their drum between songs in the Tribal House. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

For me, the most powerful moment came when Park Service employees were invited to the dance floor. The dance began with  institution leaders Phillip Hooge and Frank Wright Jr. As it progressed more and more people joined the throng. The moment was powerful – it was not that many years ago that such a blend of backgrounds, views, disciplines, and culture would have seemed impossible. As the dance tapered away it was obvious that spectators were as invigorated by it as the participants.

Dance, Park Service, Healing Pole, Hoonah Tlinight
Tribal members and Park Employees dance together in the Tribal house of the Huna Tlingit. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Dance, Park Service, Healing Pole, Hoonah Tlinight
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Dance, Park Service, Healing Pole, Hoonah Tlinight
Park Superintendent Phillip Hooge and HIA President Frank Wright Jr. dance together in the Tribal house of the Huna Tlingit. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

The Healing Pole Ceremony is another chapter in the annals of history for the Huna Tlingit and the Park Service. The growth and relationships developed through the Tribal House, Clan Poles, and now the Healing Pole will need to be nourished to continue the healing and progress that is needed for the people of Hoonah.  The fact that all around people acknowledged the need for that nourishment makes me feel hopeful for the future.

As a non-native spectator it was a privilege to be at this event. It was especially nice to have the context of the previous two events and my  knowledge of working for the Tribe to help set the story. I am honestly pretty shocked by the openness of emotion showed from both sides – the plight and longing to actively use their homeland was evident through the stories of Elders and Tribal members. The acknowledgement of the damages done and the willingness to make good as the Government System allows could be seen in the Park Service employees. Because of the event’s blend of traditional and modern values, it continues to show the resilience of the Hoonah Tlingit – their ability to adapt will has and will ensure their culture is alive and well into the future.

The Week the Rains and Salmon Came to Hoonah

When something you expect and love (although sometimes you may not know you love it) is absent for a long time you experience great joy in its return. When the rains returned to Hoonah after the second  driest July in 20 years I rejoiced in how quickly it rejuvenated the ecosystem and in the resilience and patience of salmon.

A July Without Rain

In July 2018, there was something very obviously missing from Hoonah, Alaska : rain.  Even though this was only my third summer in Hoonah, it was not difficult for me to think back to previous summers and acknowledge how the lack of rain was impacting our local berry patches,  rivers, salmon, and forests. The conditions reduced the wet muskegs to patches of brittle sphagnum moss and sedges. There was a noticeable impact on our salmon berries and blueberries. Very few salmon berries ripened, and blueberry barrens normally laden with ripening berries had nearly blank bushes. Our local temperature rainforest ecosystem was struggling without rain.

Bear, Coastal Brown Bear, Hoonah, Alaska, Game Creek
Coastal Brown Bears feed on Chum Salmon that made it into the river despite the low flows. The salmon were easily captured because they lacked the ability to escape.

The lack of rain resulted in a lack of spawning salmon. It is expected in July that Pink and Chum Salmon would fill the holes throughout the rivers. However, the drought-like conditions reduced rivers to minimum baseflows and kept Chum and Pink Salmon from easily returning to rivers.  Especially Pink Salmon were almost absent from all of Hoonah’s major rivers because they were trapped in the mouths. Without a large rain event they would remain at the mouths until desperation and time forced them upstream.

Bear, Coastal Brown Bear, Hoonah, Alaska, Game Creek
A Coastal Brown Bear snatches a Chum Salmon from Game Creek outside of Hoonah Alaska. Only half of the river had active flow in it and the breeding Chum Salmon were subject to high predation from waiting Bears.
Chum Salmon, Dog Salmon, Hoonah, Alaska, Spasski River, Underwater
During July Chum Salmon were able to get into the rivers because they are larger than Pink Salmon and can skirt up the riffles more easily.

Climate Norms

It is easy for time to erase the memory, and for past perceptions about the weather to vary widely. However, I talked  to many in Hoonah who could never remember the rivers so low. I was curious to know if that was true or if time had changed the memory.  Although Hoonah does not have a river baseflow station I used precipitation data and assumed that low monthly precipitation results in low rivers.  The summarized data showed that we received 1.11 inches in July 2018 and that only 2009 was lower with 0.9 inches. 1999 was noteably low with 1.51. inches. As Hoonah is centered in a temperature rainforest each of those years was far different than the average of 3.95 inches of rain that Hoonah would expect in July. These results made July 2018 the 2nd driest in 20 years!

Rain, Analysis, Hoonah, Climate, Weather, Precipitation
Total rainfall accumlation at the Hoonah airport from 1998 to 2018. In the last 20 years there have been two instances where July has been very dry – 1999 and 2009. I would infer in those years that rivers were similarly low as our 2018 July. Data are summarized from the NCDC NOAA Daily Summaries dataset (https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/datasets#GHCND)

I was struck when summarizing the data in the amount of variation of precipitation over the last 20 years in Hoonah. Even 2018 was an example of that.  It was in stark contrast to July 2017 which was noted as the “10th wettest” by Juneau weatherman Rick Fritsch.  I needed to keep this summer in perspective : although it was obvious that our rivers, berries, and salmon were stressing from the heat and lack of precipitation, each had been through this before.

The Relief of Rain

In early August the drought came to an end. It rained and poured for nearly a week as an “atmospheric river” brought in moist air from the Gulf of Alaska. I can say with confidence I have never been so relieved to get rain. Overnight the muskeg ponds were filled and returned to the wetlands they were meant to be. The rivers were choked with water and soon after brimming with salmon. Despite the drought and the longer wait at sea they had returned anyway. I could only smile as I watched them in the rivers circling in the holes and splashing up the riffles.

Salmon, Alaska, Hoonah, Pink Salmon, Split Level, Underwater, Go Pro
Pink salmon followed the rain in and filled the upper holes of local rivers.

With global climate change already heavily impacting Alaska the drought felt like a warning knell for times to come.  Scientific modeling for the region suggests we will continue to warm drastically but that precipitation amounts will remain about the same.  The outlook for salmon in a warming climate has different endings depending on who you will talk to. Certainly there is a lot of variability between glacial systems, snow systems, mountains, rain regimes, and so much else which makes a certain future hard to predict. Global warming will impact each salmon species differently (some potentially positively and some negatively) and there is no scientific concurrence how exactly what the impact of a warming world will be for salmon. My views are generally pessimistic for our salmon in the next 50 years, but their patience and resilience this year give me hope they will find a way to survive in the future, too.

Cascade, Hoonah, Alaska, River, Long Exposure, Waterfall, Lighting
A local stream choked with high-flows from the drought-ending rain.
Future climate models show temperature to increase in Hoonah Alaska over the next 50 years. Data from SNAP community profiles.
Future SNAP precipitation models suggest that rainfall will remain pretty consistent, however, with warming temperatures more winter precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow. That will reduce crucial mountain snowpack that feed salmon streams.

Salmon, Alaska, Pink Salmon, Underwater Salmon, Alaska, Rain,