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.
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.
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.
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.
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.