Tlingits closer to relief from 80-year ban on egg gathering

Hoonah teens win special permission for egg collection through petition, school project

Posted: Wednesday, August 08, 2001

Juniors and seniors from Hoonah City Schools took a step this summer toward bringing back the Tlingit tradition of gathering sea gull eggs.

Teacher Colby Root challenged his Contemporary Social Issues class to take on a project that "would bring about change in the world."

Kevin Skeek and Johan Hinchman, along with friend Billy Peters, knew about the gull egg issue from publicity it had received in recent years. They researched the topic and invited representatives from the Hoonah Indian Association and the National Park Service to join in a roundtable discussion.

As a result of their class project, Skeek and Hinchman were granted a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to harvest for cultural purposes. Skeek and Hinchman were the first Tlingits from Hoonah to collect eggs legally since passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act more than 80 years ago, but only on Middle Pass Rock.

"They really did well," said Johanna Dybdahl, tribal administrator for the Hoonah Indian Association. "They gave a presentation to several classes. They developed a petition to support the process and collected over 300 signatures.

"They developed a resolution passed by their student government, and we have passed the petition and resolution on to the National Park Service, which we think will be helpful at the congressional level where we need a legislative fix for harvesting within Glacier Bay National Park," she said.

The park is the goal for the Hoonah, particularly South Marble Island, which has been off limits since the 1960s.

The site lies on the outskirts of the park and is dangerous because of surging ocean tides, Dybdahl said. Middle Pass Rock is a near-vertical dome at the edge of Cross Sound. Because of its isolation, it is a favored nesting site for glaucous winged gulls and kittiwakes.

The actual gathering of eggs "has been really exciting for us," said Dybdahl.

"It has been a long process but we have been tenacious and the Park Service has made every effort to help us. The Hoonah Indian Association has been working on the process to resume taking sea gull eggs for 30 years, and more diligently for the last 10 years," she said.

"We already had an ethnographic study and biological study done. When the students approached us earlier this year and wanted to do a project that would effect change, I suggested they choose something on which some of the major work had been done because these changes don't happen overnight."

Spring egg gathering has been referred to as "Tlingit Easter," but this is not an exercise in sugar gobbling and chocolate bunnies. Collecting birds' eggs is serious business, an important part of the subsistence cycle.

"Although many of our people would refer to it as an 'outing' because they take the whole family with them and have a picnic, it was the beginning of the food cycle when seaweed began to grow and clans could replenish food stores," Dybdahl said.

From the middle of May to the first part of June, when sea gull egg gathering traditionally took place, the village larder often was bare.

"All of the food sources like dried salmon were probably gone from the previous year, and people were starting to go to fish camp," she said.

No one need be concerned that all 647 tribal members will collect eggs, Dybdahl added. "The ethnographic study showed that it has never been that way because they did not all have the boats. A few families went and then shared."

Gathering eggs is a task for the young and agile. Access onto rocks requires mild weather conditions, slack water at high tide, and youth who dare to scramble onto the slick rocks as the skiff bucks and dives.

Skeek and Hinchman fit the bill, and followed Tlingit protocols of collecting eggs from some nests while leaving others alone. Supervised by Mike See, a long-time subsistence user and representative of Hoonah Indian Association, they collected 47 eggs. That evening, they drove around Hoonah and distributed them to elders.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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