This online document is a means of sharing the adventure of traveling on America's waterways with friends and family. Last Dance is continuing to take her crew to historical, natural, beautiful, and interesting places. Enjoy the ride.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Alaska - The Tlingit People

The Tlingit (pron. Clin-kit) people arrived in Glacier Bay 10,000 years before the Europeans.  The area where they lived included what is now the panhandle of Southeastern Alaska and surrounding areas of Canada.  Their culture continued until the late 1880s, when European diseases, such as smallpox, could not be cured by their traditional medicine and Russian Orthodox missionaries converted them to Christianity.

The sub-set, tribe, of Tlingit living around Glacier Bay are the Xunaa Kaawu, known in the Anglicized term as the Hoonah People.  The literal translation is “People from the Direction of the North Wind.”

In 1925, their relationship to the U.S. Park Service began when the park service took their lands at Glacier Bay for use as a national park.  That relationship has improved in recent years and the Tlingit Culture is now a part of the park experience.

Sonya Gray is Xunaa Kaawu Tlingit.  She is now serving as an interpretive park ranger providing a tour and insight into the Tlingit People.  We were fortunate to be a part of the first Tlingit interpretive walk.

The walk begins at Protest Beach.  Twenty years ago, a group of Tlingit rowed in traditional canoes from the town of Hoonah to the park headquarters in protest of the park service taking their traditional lands.  This peaceful protest began discussions as to the appropriate ways that the lands might be shared.  The Tlingit Walk is one of the results of those talks.  A large commemorative plaque provides visual and written information on the protest that occurred at that spot.

A second stop along the trail is at a traditional Tlingit canoe, one like was rowed on the two-day voyage from Hoonah to the protest at the park.  A 36-inch wide spruce log is carved and hollowed out.  It is then stretched to 6 feet wide, which pulls up the bow and stern.

A visit with the whale named Snow, followed.  The whale was killed in a collision with a cruise ship.  The dialogue began with stories about Snow, then led into the importance of animals to the Tlingit People’s subsistence and culture.  Tlingit traditional religious beliefs are that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence.  Animals, land, plants, trees, seasons and all aspects of the environment are respected and honored.

The major exhibit is the new Tribal House.  The aboriginal people of the Pacific Northwest, including the Tlingit, lived in one, large, shared house, soundly constructed of wood.  This house has not only brought the Tlingit meeting place back to Glacier Bay, it has also returned the spirit.  The wall facing the bay is intricately carved with representative features of Tlingit traditions. 

Robin Roberts Photo

The carvings include a representation of the maiden who stayed as the glacier moved south, encouraging the glacier to carve the bay which produced much of their food, harvested from the waters.  She is depicted with glaciers in her eyes.

The tribal house was built with the same hand tools as have been used for centuries.  Each board surface was struck many times with an adze, a sharp tool on a handle, much like a hatchet or ax, but with the blade transverse to the handle.  The force of the blade cutting the wood seals the pores, making the wood more waterproof and more resistant to rot.   A lesson learned long ago, passed down through generations through teachings of the elders.

Two totems stand at either side of the Tribal House, one topped with an eagle, the other with a raven, the two animals that are most highly revered in the culture.

Inside, the tribal house has one large, open room, with four huge supports, caved as more totems.  The large screen in the front of the room is also carved and painted with representations of the culture. 

Some of the carvings on the screen are easy to spot, as they are highlighted with paint.  Some are not as obvious.  There are two canoes.  Looking closely, a canoe carving can be seen with a salmon and octopus on the bow.  There is even a rope attached to the bow with an anchor (round rock) on the other end.

Each representation on the wall and on the totems tells a story of the Tlingit Culture.  Sonya shared only a couple of the stories and, when she finished, a spirituality could be felt.  It is hard to describe such a feeling.  It was there inside us.  Yes, the spirit has returned to Glacier Bay.

Hoonah is a small town on an island southeast of Glacier Bay National Park.  Over 70% of the population is Tlingit.  We left Glacier Bay, moving to Hoonah, to take advantage to their small airport and a flight service to Juneau for the trip back home.  It was also a chance to visit with the Tlingit and learn more about the culture.

There is evidence throughout the community of the Tlingit culture.  The high school is painted a bright red with two totems in front.  The images at the beginning of this post are two of the representations on these totems.

A new totem is being carved for the park.  It is a contemporary totem, telling of recent history and relationship with the park service.  It will become part to the Tlingit Trail at the park.

Gordon, who is leading the design and carving of the pole, was kind enough to take time to explain the stories behind the images that were becoming a part of the pole.  Kindness is a characteristic of the Tlingit.

One of the images is of a masked character.  He was described as our friend who has too many hands, our friend who grabs everything, our friend who has no eyes to see what he does, our friend who cries no tears, our friend who has chains.  It is a representation of the park service.  Interesting that they call the park service, who took their lands and who they have had to spend many years in negotiations to reclaim a few rights, their friend.  Gracious people, the Tlingit.

The adze used for carving are handmade.  The handles are carved from specific species of wood found on the island.  The small, remote village has few industrial resources, so the steel for the blades was sourced from the leaf springs of old trucks – a contemporary aspect for the contemporary pole.

Owen is one of the carvers.  He uses a small adze, shaping an image on the pole.   Owen had a tranquility about him.  There is a calming effect when you talk with Owen.  The spirit of the Tlingit lives within the people.  We have much to learn from these gentle souls.