The history and culture of Glacier Bay National Park

Be guided through the history of Glacier Bay by the Huna Tlingit, who have inhabited the area for a thousand years or more.

The first people known to have called Glacier Bay National Park home are the Huna Tlingit. Although recovered artifacts date Huna settlements in the Bay back to 1250, if you ask a local Huna Tlingit, they’ll tell you their people’s history in this region predates even this early estimate. But however long their history may be, undoubtedly, the Huna Tlingit are the people of this land. Every aspect of Tlingit culture embraces the very nature of Glacier Bay National Park, celebrating its resources and overwhelming abundance while meeting the inherent challenges of life in the shadow of a massive and unpredictable glacier.

In the early days of human habitation, Glacier Bay National Park was truly a place of abundance. Tlingit art and legends describe a broad, grass-covered valley, replete with freshwater streams bursting with salmon. Berry bushes bloomed across sunlit meadows and mature forests provided everything from medicinal herbs to building materials. Certainly, the massive glacier that today comprises the Grand Pacific glacier was a part of life in this region. Though confined at that time to the recesses of the valley, the Tlingit still called this homeland S’e Shuyee, meaning “at the edge of the glacial silt”.

During the 1750s, in a period known as “The Little Ice Age”, the Grand Pacific glacier began a rapid advance. Eventually flowing “faster than a dog could run” the glacier was unstoppable. The Huna Tlingit decamped as their homeland was consumed by the advancing ice. As the glacier sprawled forward into the open waters of Icy Strait, they dispersed throughout the area, finally settling in a new village now known as Hoonah, located on a small inlet on the southern shoreline of Icy Strait.

In 1778, when Captain Cook first sailed into the region, the Grand Pacific Glacier lived up to its name. Cook’s crew met a formidable face of ice, most likely hundreds of feet high, reaching forward into Icy Straits and stretching back as far as they could see. Some 16 years later, Captain Vancouver recorded a bay some 4 miles deep. His detailed sketches still depicted a towering glacier filling the bay, but the immense retreat of the Grand Pacific had begun.

By the 1830s, the Huna began to return to the bay during summer to fish, hunt seals, and gather berries, and by 1879, when the naturalist John Muir first visited Glacier Bay National Park, he and his Tlingit guides travelled some 30 miles back into the newly-formed bay.

Today, ships travel some 64 miles back into the park, cruising along fjords that were created as the Grand Pacific advanced, and are still being revealed as this immense glacier retreats.

For Glacier Bay National Park, the low-key arrival of John Muir was very much a turning point. His glowing descriptions of the region, combined with the tales of adventure told by returning gold prospectors put Alaska’s Inside Passage on the map. Cruise ships of the day departed from Seattle and headed north, bound for the fabled, icy wilderness of Glacier Bay National Park.

For the Tlingit people, changing times brought many challenges, but today their deep cultural connection to Glacier Bay National Park, a place that they see as their spiritual homeland, is now fully recognised. After a decade of planning and construction, the Huna Tribal House has now opened its doors, right alongside the main park visitor centre in Bartlett Cove at the entrance to the bay. The tribal house allows visitors to experience firsthand the rich culture of the Tlingit people in this region. Looking ahead, the house serves as a concrete commitment to the inclusion of Tlingit traditional knowledge and cultural practices in future management plans for the park.

Images provided courtesy of Alaska Native Voices.

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