Canoe, Dugout, Hoonah, Alaska, Tribal House Dedication

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.

7 thoughts on “The Tlingit Cultural Heritage of Hoonah, Alaska”

  1. A great telling. You were fortunate that your move to Chichagof coincided with such an important event. And we are fortunate for your telling. Thanks!

  2. Another adventure with a capital “A”. Fascinating stories, Ian. I, too, hope to learn more of the native culture. Thank you for the introduction!

  3. I just bought a beautiful carved beaver bowl piece by A. Johnson of the Tlingit clan. Does anyone know anything about him. It looks to be very old. He has put the initials A.J. on it, but also he has inscribed his name A_____ Johnson and under it says Tlingit. Anybody know? I can’t read his first name.

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