The Powerful Story Behind Glacier Bay National Park’s New Totem Poles

They’re 20-foot-tall symbols of a slowly healing rift

Totem Pole Raising
Each pole is 20 feet high and weighs over 2,000 pounds. NPS

At Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, the glory of nature is on display. The park is packed with 3.3 million acres of glaciers, wildflowers and water. But the area’s indigenous people haven't always been celebrated. As National Parks Traveler reports, the Huna Tlingit people, whose ancestors lived in what is now the park, have had a contentious history with the National Park Service. But the relationship has improved in recent years. Now, in honor of the Huna Tlingit's connection to the area, two gigantic totem poles—each weighing 2,000 pounds and rising 20 feet tall—have been erected in Bartlett Cove.

As NPT reports, members of the Hoonah Indian Association and national park employees carried the poles to a newly dedicated Huna tribal house by hand, then erected them in a ceremony that included dancing and speeches. The poles are made of red cedar and the carvings of eagles and ravens represent clans of the area.

The tribal house, known as Xunaa Shuká Hít, will serve as a gathering place for tribal members whose ancestors traditionally occupied the area. As the National Park Service notes, such multiple families lived together in such homes during the winter months.

Xunaa Shuká Hít is the first permanent tribal house to be built in Glacier Bay in over 250 years. In the 1700s, the Native Alaskans who lived in the area were forced to flee due to glacial advances. Though they planned to return, those plans were thwarted when Glacier Bay was made into a national monument and then expanded to become a national park, Mary Catharine Martin reports for

The Huna people were not consulted on the National Park Service's plans, writes Kate Siber for the National Parks Conservation Association. Afteward, the Huna Tlingit people continued to do what they had always done in the area—hunt and fish. But as the NPS became more interested in regulating the park, the organization cracked down, imposing laws against trapping and hunting. Conflicts over hunting seals, which have special meaning for Huna Tlingit people, escalated into bitterness, notes Siber, especially as tourism to the park grew.

In recent years, however, the National Park Service has changed the way it approaches people for whom Glacier Bay is an ancestral land. After a series of protests, the NPS decided to incorporate Huna Tlingit culture into the park and accepted the idea of building a tribal house in the park. All four Huna Tlingit clans collaborated with the agency on the house. And last year, Hakai Magazine’s Joshua Zaffos reports, the NPS not only opened up plant gathering in parks to native people but announced that they will again allow traditional seagull egg collection in the park.

The totem poles were designed to symbolize not just the area’s indigenous heritage, but the ongoing reconciliation between the NPS and the Huna Tlingit people. “It was clear that a physical manifestation of pride in culture, strengthening connections to homeland, and the success of collaboration, the Eagle and Raven poles now stand tall for all to see,” the agency wrote in a press release.

Editor's Note, May 31, 2017: The photo caption in this article initially reported the weight of the totem poles in error. The totem poles weigh 2,000 pounds not 20,000 pounds.

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