This winter, eight Hoonah CIty Schools students spent three days at the newly opened Xunaa Shuká Hít (Huna Ancestors’ House) in Glacier Bay as part of a culture camp. One of them, 16-year-old Shungukeidi and student Treston Lafferty, said the experience was a very important one.
“…this is what my ancestors only wished for,” Lafferty said after returning. Randy Roberts (T’akdeintaan), 18, elaborated on these sentiments: “It always gives me a good feeling, just being on the land. Now there is a house where you can physically see the spirits,” he said.
These Hoonah City School (HCS) students, and their peers Mary Jack (Shangukeidí), Cecelia George (Kaagwaantaan), Sophie Henry (T’akdeintaan), Alaska Skaflestad (T’akdeintaan), Eddie Williams, IV (Chookaneidí yádi), and Valarie Williams (Gaanaxteidí) traded four days of winter vacation for the opportunity to learn from elders and culture bearers in their traditional homeland, Glacier Bay. The culture camp was conceived of by HCS’s Cultural Leadership Club during the 2015 Elders and Youth Conference. A group of Hoonah students who participated in the conference brainstormed the idea of gathering with elders to learn Tlingit history and stories and to practice Tlingit crafts and language. In past years, these kinds of activities might have taken place in the Hoonah City School gym, or perhaps at the old Whitestone Logging Camp cookhouse, now converted into Hoonah’s community center. But with the opening of the Xunaa Shuká Hít on the shores of Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park, the students could learn and celebrate surrounded – both literally and figuratively – by the wisdom of their ancestors.
From its earliest inception, the purpose of the Xunaa Shuká Hít has been to establish a physical presence for the Huna Tlingit in their ancestral Glacier Bay homeland; provide a venue for Huna Tlingit gatherings, workshops, ceremonies, and other cultural activities; and offer opportunities for park visitors to learn about the living, vibrant Huna Tlingit culture. After almost 25 years of collaborative work between the National Park Service (NPS) and the Hoonah Indian Association (HIA), the Tribal House has become a symbol of a newer, healthier relationship between these organizations and a reminder of the power of working together. Both partners also believe that Xunaa Shuká Hít will serve as a springboard for more effectively communicating about the range of complex issues associated with managing homeland as a national park.
The hand-adzed walls and richly carved and painted house posts provided the perfect setting for students to absorb cultural lessons and be inspired to create their own traditional crafts. HCS’s Cultural Leadership Club Advisor, Amelia Wilson, partnered with NPS cultural anthropologist Mary Beth Moss (the author of this article) and HIA’s cultural resource specialist, Darlene See, to plan a camp itinerary including lessons on Tlingit protocol and traditional crafts, opportunities to inform and participate in park management and operations, and time to celebrate with song and dance.
During the event, elders Ken Grant (T’akdeintaan) and Paul Marks, Sr. (L’ukaax.ádi) reflected on Tlingit protocols, oratory, history and traditions while Heather Powell (HCS’s Haa Kusteeyí Áyá Program Director), wove language and song throughout the days. Johanna Dybdahl (Taakwaneidí) taught students the art of regalia making and Darlene See modeled how to gently form small cedar bark roses – a prelude to more complex weaving techniques. Each craft held lessons far deeper than the twisting or stitching of raw materials – listening attentively, lending a hand, perseverance, and adaptability. These and other cultural lessons were the primary goal of the winter camp. embodied in Glacier Bay National Park and associated programs.
NPS Planner Sara Doyle also met with students to gather their thoughts and perspectives on managing Bartlett Cove, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve’s only developed area or “front country.” The park initiated a Front Country Management Planning process in 2016. The resulting plan will guide future management decisions about the Bartlett Cove developed area over the next 10 to 20 years. While the students were initially hesitant to offer input, they soon chimed in with thoughts about how to improve Bartlett Cove.
To round out the student’s perspective on the history of park and tribal relationships, retired NPS staffers Wayne Howell and Greg Streveler joined the group over a shared meal. With more than 50 years of perspective on past relationships between the Huna Tlingit and the National Park Service between them, Howell and Streveler shared historical accounts of the past events that defined this relationship and the people who had partnered to heal it.
Around an evening bonfire, students and adults shared stories, songs and memories from previous Journey to Homeland trips. Traditional Tlingit games brought out the student’s competitive spirit as well as rounds of laughter. Joining right in, HCS’s new principal and trip chaperone, Ralph Watkins, taught that a sense of humor and a positive approach are universal lessons.
On Dec. 22, a cold and snowy day, students boarded the Three Wolves Charter Vessel to return to Hoonah carrying homemade gifts, traditional knowledge, and a sense of pride in being amongst the first to gather, learn, and celebrate within the walls of the Xunaa Shuká Hít. They left the camp with their own handmade tapestry embellished with raven and eagle designs and small cedar roses, but more importantly, with a deeper understanding of the strength of Tlingit culture and a renewed commitment to their homeland and traditions.
Club Advisor Amelia Wilson said “It has been so uplifting to listen to their (the youth group’s) vision, hopes and dreams for the future of our culture. They are strengthening our culture through their drive, desire and ambition to truly understand who we are, where we came from and all that our elders wish for us to know. Their love of language, culture and songs inspires me and gives a sense of pride and comfort knowing our future is in their hands.”
This culture camp, inspired by the vision of HCS youth, was supported by Hoonah City Schools, Hoonah Indian Association, Huna Heritage Foundation, Glacier Bay National Park, and Three Wolves Charters. The HCS Cultural Leadership Club is open to all HCS high school students and focuses on providing high school students opportunities to learn about and celebrate their culture and traditions.
Mary Beth Moss is a cultural anthropologist with the National Park Service.