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common ground

Speaking Nation to Nation
Summer/Fall 1997, vol. 2(3/4)

Online Archive

*  The Bay in Place of a Glacier

(photo) Yankton Sioux delegation arrives at the White House, 1905.

"[Glacier Bay National Park] was founded in the spirit of John Muir, with a strong tradition of scientific inquiry [and] an historic focus looking only as far back as the arrival of European explorers. Perhaps it was this short-sightedness that led to many of the conflicts to come."

Wayne Howell

by Wayne Howell

In the fall of 1879, an imperceptible but nonetheless significant event occurred in the lives of the Hoonah Tlingit when a canoe carrying two white men paddled into Glacier Bay; one was a Presbyterian missionary, the other, naturalist John Muir.

Muir was enthralled by the grandeur of the scene and awed by the forces at work. His effusive writings inspired laymen and scientists alike. By the late 1880s and early 1890s the Hoonah Tlingit homeland was a regular stopover for tourist-laden steamships, and scientific expeditions set up tent villages in the bay's upper reaches, where before there had been only the seal hunter camps. The vision of a monument to the forces of ice and time was born.

Established in 1925, and expanded in 1939 and again in 1980, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve encompasses 3.3 million acres of deep coastal fjords, glacier-clad mountains, and forested lands. It eventually came to encompass the greater portion of Hoonah Tlingit territory and the homeland of the Dry Bay (Gunaaxoo) clans of the Yakutat tribe. The monument was founded in the spirit of Muir, with a strong tradition of scientific inquiry; its enabling legislation directed managers to promote scenic and scientific values, with a historic focus looking only as far back as the arrival of European explorers. Perhaps it was this short-sightedness that led to many of the conflicts to come.

Decades of Conflict

In the early years of the monument the Park Service and the Hoonah people rarely interacted, and the natives were able to continue many of their traditional ways. That began to change in the late 1930s, when the Park Service restricted the use of firearms in anticipation of expanding monument boundaries to protect brown bears. Such conflicts came to define the relationship between the Park Service and the Hoonah. In 1946 three Hoonah men were arrested for trapping in the monument. Then, in the 1950s, the National Park Service, largely in response to plummeting seal populations brought on by a state bounty program, began regulating seal hunting, eventually curtailing it entirely by the late 1960s. Having lost most of their traditional subsistence activities in the park, the Hoonah Tlingit found themselves on the outside looking in.

Both sides have in the past decade made isolated attempts to resolve matters. In 1988 there was a wonderfully conceived canoe project that brought Hoonah elders and carvers together at Bartlett Cove (park headquarters) to carve a traditional sea otter hunting canoe. After the wood chips stopped flying and the songs and dances of the dedication ceremony quieted, the canoe was put on outdoor display. But it rarely touched the water and soon began to crack. Although it is the central Tlingit interpretive display in the park, it has not created the bridge that its designers had hoped for. In 1992 the Hoonah clans brought a flotilla of fishing boats to Bartlett Cove and conducted a memorial ceremony on the beach, symbolically rekindling their ties to Glacier Bay, and making an overture of peace.

Although both sides parted amicably, relations eventually slipped into the familiar routine of episodic NPS "consultation" whenever a ground disturbing project needed clearance, and an occasional NEPA-related public meeting that produced long lists of native grievances, but no solutions.

Redefining a Relationship

Just when Glacier Bay National Park turned the corner is open to debate. I believe the course started to change about 1993, when the park's newly hired resource management specialist, Mary Beth Moss, began working with Tim Cochrane, the regional cultural anthropologist. This convergence of regional and park interests generated a more holistic approach. Merging cultural and natural resource funds, they initiated several projects, including a NAGPRA repatriation, a place name map, an ethnographic study to help us better understand the Hoonah connection to Glacier Bay, and a maritime anthropology study of the traditional and commercial fisheries in the bay.

In the winter of 1995, a watershed year, new superintendent Jim Brady arrived with native relations near the top of his list. In the spring the NPS systemwide archeological inventory program proposed a survey in the park, and Mary Beth seized the opportunity. She posted a local hire announcement for an archeologist, and got only one applicant—an itinerant "dirt archeologist" working a seasonal round between Guatemala and Alaska.

Although I hired on as a seasonal archeologist, unrelated files began appearing on my desk: land claims, missing clan artifacts, subsistence disputes. For the first time in its existence, Glacier Bay had a cultural resource manager, and immediately the staff saw the value of having someone to do the job. In September the NPS and the Hoonah Indian Association signed a memorandum of understanding establishing government-to-government relations. The signing ceremony coincided with a traditional totem pole raising and potlatch, followed the next day by a NAGPRA repatriation in a remote corner of the park.

What a weekend! But what happened the following Monday morning was equally important; rather than the silence that had always followed these coming-together events, there was a phone call. I don't remember what I talked about with Johanna Dybdahl, the Hoonah tribal administrator—probably unsigned NAGPRA papers. The significance was that there was a phone call at all. The memorandum had created a common platform, spelling out in a few clear words that a designated person in the park was assigned to communicate on a regular basis with a designated person from Hoonah.

With relations established we were ready to move to the next phase. In the spring of 1996 the park moved forward on its development plan to guide growth at Bartlett Cove for the next several decades. The governing board of the Hoonah Indian Association participated in every stage of planning, and an open house in Hoonah provided the general tribal membership the chance to participate. What we discovered is heartening: partners with a strong conservation ethic, committed to preserving the integrity of their homeland and their culture, which they view as an integral aspect of the landscape. Key elements of the document are a Hoonah tribal house based on a traditional model, and a spirit camp to teach tribal traditions and customs to the children. In essence, the plan lays part of the foundation for the Hoonah homecoming to Glacier Bay.

Gunaaxoo—Land of Raven

With virtually all of my energy focused on Hoonah, I had little time to reflect on the far northwest corner of the park, where the Dry Bay clans had lived. Over the decades forces like those experienced by the Hoonah people [see sidebar] had driven them to resettle in the larger centralized villages scattered throughout southeast Alaska, principally at Yakutat. What drew me to Yakutat was some paperwork on my desk telling me that we were to take part in a three-park, multiyear oral history project, called Jukebox, in cooperation with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

All I really knew about our remote Yakutat office was that it was staffed by a couple of back country rangers and a quiet Inupiat woman who worked as an interpreter/clerk. I had met her at a training session the year before, so I knew that she was married to a local Tlingit man, and that she was a basketweaver. With only that to go on, I went to Yakutat with a sense of uneasiness. I wasn't sure what my approach should be, but I knew I didn't want to walk around with a tape recorder sticking a microphone in people's faces. What I found was a pleasant surprise; unknown to park headquarters, Yakutat had sprouted its own cultural resource program. Intelligent and village-savvy, MaryAnn Porter had in a few short years developed a multifaceted community outreach program.

By the time I got there, an oral history group—formed in consultation with native elders—was already hard at work. As people settled in for the first meeting, they brought with them notebooks, maps, lists, and tape recorders. I opened the meeting by laying out the parameters of the project. One gentleman took a few quick jabs at summing up park /tribe relations; with this protocol out of the way we plunged into the work. It became immediately clear that these people had a mission; they knew it was their job to transfer the special knowledge of this, the last generation of Tlingits to have lived on the land, to future generations of children and grandchildren. I quickly learned that my job was to provide general direction, handle the logistics, and stand clear.

The group decided that the first order of business was to travel to Dry Bay and reconnect to the landscape. In the spring, a group of nine bay residents accompanied six NPS and Forest Service staffers for three days of exploration. The highlight of the trip for me was the chance to teach a Tlingit grandmother how to look at the landscape with the eye of an archeologist, then watch her plunge into the brush to search for house pits. We found several old village sites, identifying by name some of the old clan houses. The group is already planning another expedition to look for Shaking Ground Village and the legendary settlement of Guseix.

They are also recruiting people from throughout the region who might have specific information about place names and clan histories of Dry Bay. The group has decided that place names should be a central focus of the project, and thus far we have several dozen toponyms for villages, streams, and landforms. Some names, we are finding, are from the time of Raven, a sort of trickster through whose wily manipulations the current world came to be.

A New Direction

As we get our footing in these new relationships we are finding many challenges. We have learned that the consultation process is just that—a process for building a relationship. In the past we had treated it at as a project-related event with a beginning and an end (usually when the paperwork was completed). Rather it is an ongoing dialog with a fuzzy beginning, and probably no end.

We have also discovered limitations in our process. Although the memorandum of agreement has worked well for us, I tend to make a quick and easy phone call to the tribal liaison, rather than consulting directly with the clans because sometimes the message often does not reach who it should.

On the other hand, it seems like our partners have been waiting for us to come along for years. They are separated from their homelands, but hold tenaciously to the stories and names that make them whole. One NPS role is to help them preserve those stories and names, and reconnect them to the landscape. Aside from our oral history projects, which are the core of our program, we are also using the place name maps as tools in ethnoarcheology surveys, where we hire native college students and train them as field archeologists. Not only do they get to spend the summer kayaking around the park (putting them in the ancestral paddling mindset), they also learn first hand about the old villages and sacred sites, and the names their ancestors gave them.

We also see that the Tlingit language is at a critical stage. In Hoonah, of 542 tribal members, there are only about 25 who speak it; in Yakutat there are 24 out of just over 300. Very few under the age of 50 speak the native tongue, and it is unheard of for children to learn it at home. With each year, more elders die, and the number of native speakers declines. The Tlingit language is the human voice of our landscape. Embedded in it is the rhythm of the tides and the seasons, and if we allow it to fade away we will all lose something precious. We are exploring ways in which the Park Service can help slow or even halt the trend.

Now that we have connected with our partners and understand their needs and the urgency of their mission, one challenge is to design projects that don't just stand on their own, but that can evolve into other, related projects. That way, relationships can grow with our program. Perhaps my biggest challenge, though, is to just keep working with those Tlingit elders, who recognize that time is short, and there is much work to do.

For more information, contact Wayne Howell, Cultural Resource Specialist, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, P.O. Box 140, Gustavus, AK 99826, (907) 697-2230, fax (907) 697-2654, e-mail Wayne_Howell@nps.gov.

MJB/EJL