The Healing Totem Pole

A star-filled sky shows a hint of aurora blocked by trees. The healing totem is dead center.
Yaa Naa Néx̲ Kootéeyaa, the Healing Totem Pole, standing tall on a clear night in Bartlett Cove.

NPS Photo / S. Tevebaugh

Yaa Naa Néx Kootéeyaa

The Healing Totem Pole



Yaa Naa Néx Kootéeyaa (Yah Nah NEX Koo-TEA-Uh), the Healing Totem Pole, stands at the head of the public dock in Bartlett Cove, Glacier Bay National Park. Designed by tribal elders, culture bearers, artists and National Park Service staff, it compresses centuries of history into 20 feet of yellow cedar. It tells the story of the evolving relationship between the National Park Service and the Hoonah Indian Association, the federally recognized tribal government of the Huna Tlingit clans. Mixing traditional form line design and modern artistic representations, it depicts the Huna Tlingit’s tragic migration from Glacier Bay Homeland, a painful period of alienation, and more recent collaborative efforts between the tribe and the NPS. The Healing Totem Pole was specifically designed not only to relate the difficult history between NPS and the Huna Tlingit, but also to relay the history of people working to overcome past hurts and heal.

See additional photos of the Healing Totem Pole, including photos from the dedication ceremony, in this photo gallery
 
formline art depicting a man's face
 
The bottom of the healing totem pole depicts clan houses and the great glacier spirit

NPS Photos / I. Nixon


The form line design in the lower section of the pole represents the spirit of the glacier that overran the main Tlingit villages in Glacier Bay during the Little Ice Age, around 1750. Tlingit elders say the glacier advanced “as fast as a running dog,” crushing the clan houses that lined the shores. The clans fled for safer places far from the glacier. Elders say this was a very sad and difficult time – the people had to adjust to new food sources, new territories, starvation and disease.

 
The side of the healing totem pole shows a form line design of a tsunami event at Lituya bay

The form line design on this side of the pole represents Lituya Bay, the territory of the T’akdeintaan (Duck-dain-tahn) Clan. About the same time as the glacial advance in Glacier Bay proper, the villages in Lituya Bay were destroyed by a giant tsunami caused by a landslide.

 
A detailed carving on the healing totem pole

After the glacier retreated, sometime in the late 1700’s, Tlingit from Hoonah returned to Glacier Bay, building a summer village called Gaathéeni (Got-heen-ee), which means Sockeye River. For many years, the Huna Tlingit travelled back and forth between this seasonal village, other summer fish camps, and the permanent settlement in Hoonah. These figures represent the canoes the people traveled in and the fish racks that used to line the shoreline of Bartlett Cove.

 

In 1925, Glacier Bay became a National Monument. Most Tlingit did not understand what that meant; in fact, many elders only spoke Tlingit and did not even speak English well and certainly did not read the formal letters and newspaper articles that described the new National Monument.


For a period of time, the Huna Tlingit continued to visit homeland and harvest the foods that had always been harvested. However, over time, the National Park Service began enforcing laws and regulations that made some traditional practices illegal. For example, it was no longer legal to hunt seals or gather seagull eggs in Glacier Bay.

 
a featureless face with several hands carved into a totem pole

The Huna Tlingit call this period the Second Little Ice Age. One elder described the federal government as a “faceless, soulless being with too many hands.” The chains represent the Huna people’s feeling of being barred from homeland, traditional foods, and the ancestors they believe remain in homeland. The Tlingit felt that the federal government in Washington, DC did not understand the importance of their traditional way of life.

 
two detailed faces, each with a tear leaving its eye, are carved into a totem pole

Elders were heartbroken for many years. The tears along the pole represent all the treasures the Huna Tlingit felt they had lost - homes, halibut, gumboots, etc.

 
tears with various details carved into a totem pole
From left to right: a traditional halibut fishing hook, gull eggs, mountain goat, and clan house.
 
detail of a scroll carved onto a totem pole

About 25 years ago, the National Park Service began talking with the tribal government, Huna elders, and other tribal members about how to better facilitate the enduring connection between the Huna Tlingit and their homeland while strengthening our relationships. Groups of Huna elders and culture bearers travelled to Bartlett Cove for meetings, and NPS staff made frequent visits to Hoonah – figuratively travelling across rough waters to find common ground. In 1995, the NPS signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Hoonah Indian Association agreeing that both entities would work together to mend our relationship and restore the Huna people to Glacier Bay. The Huna Tlingit called this process Woosh ji.een (Woosh-gee-een) – working together, (it literally means “hands together”).

 

Over the intervening years, NPS and HIA have collaborated on numerous projects and programs that reconnect tribal members to their traditional homeland. We have cooperatively planned Journey to Homeland Trips, successfully reauthorized gull egg harvest, and most importantly, we built a Tribal House together. In 2016, two handcrafted dugout canoes journeyed from Hoonah to Glacier Bay Homeland across much less turbulent waters to dedicate Xunaa Shuká Hít (Huna Ancestors’ House). Today, we (NPS flat hat and Tribal cedar bark hat) “hold the Tribal House up” together - cooperatively managing it through a Cooperative Agreement with the Hoonah Indian Association. The Tribal House supports traditional ceremonies, gatherings, workshops, camps, and meetings and is open to park visitors who want to learn more about Tlingit culture.

 
collage image showing the top of a totem pole with park ranger and Tlingit holding up a house carving
 
totem pole carving of a footprint

The footprints running the length of the totem remind us that the Huna clans have returned over and over again to “walk in the footsteps of their ancestors.”

 
formline art depicting a man's face
 

Last updated: September 21, 2021

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