Tag Archives: Southeast Alaska

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.

Ocean Biolumination and the Aurora Borealis

Although late April in Alaska typically spells the end of the “dark days” of winter and hence the aurora borealis, we were fortunate to have an active aurora forecast (KP6) and clear skies on April 23rd. Perhaps the fates were aligning without my knowing it as spring in Southeast Alaska is known for its clouds and rain, but as  I drove out to The Cannery at Icy Strait Point I was greeted by stars and a moonless night.  From the parking lot my feet crunched on the gravel of the rocky beach. I walked along with the water lapping near my feet and the sea-air filled my nostrils from the swelling waters of a high tide. I was not alone out there. My headlamp lit up only a small portion of the inky-dark night, but up ahead a mink’s eyes showed brightly like two opals in the dark. Another mustelid, a River Otter, swam in the waters just offshore. He got closer to me several times, obviously trying to figure out what I was up to. All of these wonders were the precursor to the amazing show that was only be beginning.

At 12:30 AM The aurora began to intensify over the waters of Port Frederick. Soon the pulsing green, pink, and white lights turned the ocean fluorescent green and my eyes wide. I had never seen a display this active in Southeast! I worked with my camera to tether together the sea and the Northern Lights. I was fortunate enough to have the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry add some scale at about 1AM.

Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
Sea shells accent the Northern Lights from the Cannery in Hoonah.

Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska

At 1:30 AM the adrenaline of the incredible show finally started to wear off. I set off down the shore to go home,  staring at my feet to avoid tripping. That’s when the first small blue light in the water caught my eye. I splashed a rock into the water and blue waves of biolumintation echoed out from its crater. I stepped into the water, and my footprints erupted with light. All around me in the waters of Port Frederick, small, bio-luminescent creatures swarmed and let off burst of cerulean blue light like underwater fireflies at the slightest disturbance. It was then that I knew what I had to do! My camera began clicking 6 inches from the water’s surface as I sought together bond together the lights of the sea and the lights of the sky as its unlikely I will ever have this unique experience ever again!

Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska, Phytoplankton, Biolumination, Bioluminescence
A huge bloom of bio-luminescent creatures provides a blue glow to the foreground of this image. You can see their streaks in the water in this long exposure.
Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
Bio-luminescent creatures in the waters of Port Frederick and under the Northern Lights.

 

Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
The aurora borealis arches over all of Hoonah, Alaska.
The incredible dark skies of Hoonah are offset by the Aurora Borealis.

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.

DSC_3943
Each paddle was hand carved and painted and tells something about its paddler.
DSC_3942
A stack of colorful, hand-carved paddles that delivered the canoes to the Tribal House.
DSC_3862
A stack of colorful, hand-carved paddles that delivered the canoes to the Tribal House.
DSC_3864
A stack of colorful, hand-carved paddles that delivered the canoes to the Tribal House.
DSC_3813
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.

DSC_3722
Giving thanks to the trees during the tree ceremony.
DSC_3721
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.

DSC_3698
The screen ceremony and naming ceremony was led by the clan elders.
DSC_3959
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 American Dipper

Before I begin to tell you about North America’s only fully aquatic songbird, lets set the mood. You perch on a large bolder along  the edge of a rushing river and the sound of gurgling water drowns out your senses. As you relax you realize you have effectively  no hearing due to the sound of the water, and your eyes seem keener and your sense of smell more acute.  You absorb more of you surroundings and the moss seems greener, the water colder, and the day more beautiful. You marvel at the inter-connectedness of it all. Your growing perception of the surrounding ecosystem is enhanced as a small, nondescript, gray bird flutters into sight. It dives into the water and re-appears with a mouth full of food. He is the harbinger of death for small fish and crustaceans. The death of the small creatures is not unwarranted, and you gain insight into the necessity of their harvest as the American Dipper flutters fifteen feet into the air where hungry mouths appear at the cavity of a moss-covered nest. It is springtime in Southeast Alaska, and the children are hungry. As the adults swoop down river the rushing water again over takes your senses and you wait for their return.

American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
An American Dipper perches with a mouthfull of food that it just scavenged from the river’s bottom.

The American Dipper, “Dippers”, is North America’s only fully aquatic songbird. Their range is expansive across the Western US from Alaska to Mexico, and I have been delighted to find that they are relatively common along the clear and cold rivers in Hoonah, Alaska. The scene that I described above was one that I experienced recently. After finding the dippers I sat on the water edge and watched their behavior for two-and-half hours.  After doing some research, I’ve realized that many of the things I observed about the Dipper that day are well documented behavior. The video below gives a one-minute real of highlights from the day.

Why a “Dipper”?

The American Dipper is aptly named. Everywhere it goes its knees bob which are synchronized with its tail. This comical effect has no explained reason. Bob Armstrong, one of Alaska’s most renowned birders, provides several guesses from conversations with birding experts. Some suggest it is a form of communication while some suspect that it enables them to see into the water by cutting the angle. Since dippers are such a small bird (about the size of a robin), I was interested to know how they were able to be so successful at hunting. I watched many times as they plunged their head into the water looking for prey in much the way that a Common Loon would.  This is different from many fishing birds which choose to fly or perch above the water before making their selection or growing long legs like a Great Blue Heron.

American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
The American Dipper checks me out from a perching point in the river.

Dipper Anatomy

In review of the images I took, I noticed something lacking in the American Dipper that I might otherwise suspect they would have – webbed feet. It should be an essential for a full aquatic bird, right? I observed the Dipper dive into extremely fast current above a small rapids, submerse it self for several seconds, and then reemerge in the same spot with food in its mouth. It turns out Dippers use their wings to swim and walk along the bottom. Again deferring to Bob Armstrong, you would be missing out not to watch some of his amazing footage of Dippers feeding underwater.

The Voice and the Little Ones

Dippers are songbirds and have beautiful voices. As I sat along the rivers edge with the sound of water pounding in my ears their trills and calls always cut through the din of the water. Their call is clear a true and may be heard in the video I posted too over the rush of the river.  I found that they mostly called right before leaving the water to fly to their nest in the cavity of the bridge. A series of trills brought the hungry mouths of the kids to the nest’s opening even before the parents arrived.

Nest, American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
Hungry mouths wait for the return of parents in moss-covered nest about the size of a volleyball.

In bird-watching language you may go out for a stroll never see the bird you set out for, it’s called “dipping”. For instance, “I went to see a blackpoll warbler, but dipped on them”. Next time you are on a small stream in Southeastern Alaska I hope you don’t dip on Dippers!

First Impressions of Hoonah, Alaska

Incredibly I have been in Hoonah, Alaska for an entire week already. There is so much to see, learn, and do in Southeast Alaska that I cannot wait to dive into life here more fully, but I hope to give you a small taste of what I have experienced up this point and foreshadow future opportunities.

Seeing as the community is along the rich waters of Port Frederick and the Pacific Ocean there is strong interest in the cycles of fish. The chatter throughout town is that the herring will be here any day and will fuel an entire diverse ecosystem. Once they arrive the whales, salmon, halibut, eagles, bears, and much more will all follow in short order. Four types of salmon may be commonly caught by simply casting a spoon from shore, and if you have a boat, the opportunity of a 300 pound halibut is just a stones throw away. I was told that whales bubble feed underneath the docks on the Hoonah Harbor. The waters here are so clear that if they are near the docks you can likely watch their underwater feeding before they break the surface.  Once the salmon are in the rivers, the highest concentration of brown bears in the world will flock to the rivers to fatten up on salmon for the winter.  All of these wildlife will present photographic opportunities that I cannot wait to shoot!

Clouds and rain are a staple of Southeast Alaska and fuel the temperate rain forests containing mammoth spruces, hemlocks and cedars growing to over 200 feet in height. Some regions of Southeast receive over 200 inches of rain each year and never seem to have cloudless nights. To my delight I was presented with a relative rarity in Southeast Alaska : clear skies. There are very few large towns in Southeast and light pollution is minimal. The conditions are perfect for night photography. I ambled my truck filled with camera gear high above the ocean to Gobbler’s Knob. From there the Milky Way stretched out in front of me and the aurora emanated from the far northern horizon. I listened to the sound of Long-tailed Ducks from the ocean below, the rumbled of diesel boats, and my own heartbeat. Certainly a memorable night more easily expressed through photos! The photographs below are a slice from Hoonah which I look forward to embellishing on and bringing your more of!