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Glacier Bay Natives Try to Preserve Traditions - 2001-08-22


Sail Alaska's Inside Passage and the rocky fjords, tidewater glaciers, and abundant wildlife of Glacier Bay National Park will be the highlight of your cruise. But while the Bay is increasingly accessible to tourists, the Alaska natives who call the region home are not always welcome there.

In early June, two teenaged boys revived a native tradition denied their people for more than 80 years by international treaty. They visited a small, windswept island just outside Glacier Bay named Middle Pass Rock, where they gathered three dozen sea gull eggs.

Recent changes to the international treaty that protects migratory birds made the egg gathering legal for the first time since 1918. But United States Park Service regulations still prohibit subsistence food gathering of any kind inside Glacier Bay. The local native people, the Hoonah Tlinget, are pushing hard to have their subsistence rights within the park restored as well in a campaign fueled by a growing desperation to keep their traditional knowledge alive.

Kevin Skeek is one of the native teens chosen to gather gull eggs on Middle Pass Island. "In the Tlinget culture your uncles were supposed to educate you, because your father or your mother would be too easy on you and you wouldn't be able to survive," he said. "So, like the first time going hunting. My uncle took me out and showed me how to hunt and things like that and then my first time fishing he showed me how to do that. And it's things like these that are passed on. Like now, when my nieces and nephews get old enough I will teach them and teach them how to hunt and fish and, you know, certain things like that."

But in Glacier Bay that cycle has been disrupted. As the years pass, there are fewer and fewer native elders who remember life in the bay before federal preservation. Skills, rituals and traditions normally taught by family are not being passed down and may soon be lost. Kevin Skeek had to go back two generations to learn something about egg gathering. "I was told from my grandparents exactly how to gather sea gull eggs," he said. "If you look in the nest and there's one or two eggs you can take both of those because they've just been laid and they haven't been incubating that long, so. But if there's three you don't know which egg was laid first or last or anything so you just leave all three eggs alone."

Park Service biologists have confirmed that this tradition complements the gull's reproductive cycle. If followed precisely, the purloined eggs are quickly replaced with a new brood.

U.S. Senator from Alaska Frank Murkowski says that with nine millennia worth of experience at their disposal, the Hoonah Tlinget may have a great deal more to teach us if given the chance. "They know the seasons, they know the frequencies of the bird migration, just like they know the movement of the halibut, when the halibut move in and out," said Sen. Murkowski. "And they, through their own sensitivity, manage that resource for renewability. And these are based on the observance and participation of people who, you know, are very wary of over fishing or over gathering because it would affect their children or their children's children."

The Park Service mandate insists that Glacier Bay resources be preserved for future generations at all costs. Glacier Bay Park Superintendent Tommie Lee seems committed to granting the natives greater access to the park, but says she wants the process to move slowly to avoid making costly mistakes. "It's like taking a pebble and dropping it in a pond and all the ripples go out," she said. "That's an impact, but not necessarily an impairment. So what we need to do is not allow an impairment while still allowing some gathering of food stuffs that will not impair that particular resource. That it'll be there for generations and generations and generations, hopefully forever."

Johann Henchmen also gathered eggs back in June. He plans on a career in the U.S. Coast Guard, but hopes to return to Glacier Bay one day, raise a family, and continue the traditions of his people. "I don't plan on staying up here very long," he said. "I want to go out and experience the world and what not, but definitely I want to come back and live here. If I had a family, I'm definitely going to teach them how to be able to do traditional harvest or even hunt. There's a whole lot of things out there in our culture that we can be able to do."