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  • Day17

    Timely Tlingit

    September 8, 2018 in the United States ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C

    A Tlingit village called Hoonah is a tiny hamlet near Icy Strait Point near the mouth of Glacier Bay. It is the last home of the Tlingit people who have been in this part of the world for many centuries. Now there are only a few members of the many original clans. The point where the ship docked at about midday today is the site of the former fish cannery, but which is now heavily dependent on the passing tourist trade. An island, it is not accessible by road, so tourists come by cruise liners or seaplane. We arrive en masse, shop ourselves silly, then get back on the boat and sail away. The people could not have been more friendly or gracious, but it must be hard for them. Ours will be the last cruise ship until the winter is over. In the meantime, the people eke out an existence from what they have grown during the short summer months, plus what they have shot or caught.

    It seems distateful to me but each Tlingit person in the Hoonah village is entitled to shoot and eat five black tailed deer a year. Some of the citizens are not able to hunt for themselves so someone can hunt for them. The bus driver, taking us from the Cannery site to Hoonah Village, explained to the big man from Texas who was sitting right behind her, that if they didn't cull the deer each year, the herd would grow so big they would starve to death, or die in the snowdrifts. Well I can understand the former reason, but not the second. Anyway, the population in Hoonah is only a few hundred, and the black tailed deer is far from endangered, so this must be one of those natural balances that it is possible to sustain. The people also fish a great deal and take halibut and salmon in quantities.

    The village is rather rough and ready in its construction, but frankly they only need it to be safe and warm and the rest is window dressing they don't need.

    The history of the place is fascinating. For centuries the people lived further up Glacier Bay but the glaciers grew so big that it forced them to move further away from their ancestral lands. This was really only about two hundred years ago. The diaries of the British naval personnel mapping the area, such as Captain Vancouver and a young Lieutenant Bligh, commented that they found the pass virtually impenetrable because the glacier was up to a hundred feet thick. It is now a long way back and cruise ships can make their way many kilometres up the path of the former glacier. As we know, young Bligh went on to be a difficult captain and then controversial Governor of Australia, so it did not take a long time for the glacier to shrink back into the mountains.

    The Tlingit people did make an attempt to go back to their ancestral home but Teddy Roosevelt and his exploring companions declared it a national park and so they stayed put. The government aided them during the process so there is little acrimony. The old site is still recognised by the state and totem poles have been set in place to tell the story.

    Once in Hoonah, (pronounced with a gutteral ch at the beginning)we wandered around the village. There is not a lot there, but one of the most fascinating things was seeing two Tlingit men carving a totem pole. It has been commissioned and they will be working on it for a further seven months. The piece of Yellow Cedar which the pole is made from, cost $15,000. Both men have long traditions within the culture. One man, the main sculptor, has clanship with the octopus, while his assistant is a very rare thunderbird man.

    Stories like this are present in many cultures as we hear of certain clans or tribes disappearing. People with the heritage leave it behind and move away to become part of the dominant culture. One of the girls working in a gift shop explained to another customer that National Geographic visited last year to ask for DNA from everyone so they could begin to track and codify the origins and movements of these people. There was a suggestion of links to peoples from eastern Russian via the Bering Straits as well as many others.

    We were lucky to be able to listen to these stories and watch the men create this fantastic sculpture. It was difficult to photo such a large object with small features all over it, especially as it was lying down. I did manage to capture the very interesting face of the Thunderbird man.

    Equally difficult to photograph were the eagles that live in this area. They sit high up in the spruce and cedar trees and use their extraordinary eyesight to hunt for fish and small animals. They always seem to be just too far away for a clear picture. One has been sitting in the trees near me for some time now. I can see his white head and tail, and when I zoom in on my camera, I can clearly make him out. At such distance, the photo though is quite blurry.

    This morning, before we headed off on our shore excursion we went to a lecture in the Princess Theatre. It was given by the on-board marine biologist and it was on whales. Most of what he had to say was familiar. I have been watching David Attenborough for a very long time. However, his remarks made me rethink my spotting of orca the other day. The blows were not orca blows but humpback blows. They were the wrong shape and size for orca. So, that was pretty good news.

    Today, as we watched our ship dock, I noticed a disturbance in the water. There was obviously a small group of something coming up behind the boat. My first thought was dolphins. They like to follow ships and play near them. However, they did not rise out of the water in dolphin fashion so we just kept watching. It seemed they had lost interest and gone until I saw a splash and it was gone. Then again,.... and again. Each time was in a different place so we could not get a good view. Finally, I got my camera ready, pressed the button down half way and waited. There it was. I replayed the image and enlarged it. It was a seal. From then on we saw his nose peeking up at regular intervals and then the occasional roll. He was clearly entertaining us. After a while he rejoined his group and went back out to sea.

    That makes a seal, an eagle, and finally there was some unusual behaviour from the gulls. All of a sudden they started making a lot of noise and gathering below the pier. I watched closely and then noticed them all pecking at the barnacles on the base of the pylons. They were having lunch and it was going to be a rowdy party.

    So our quota for today has been met, yet again. We have indeed been blessed.

    It is my intention in the next couple of days to take some photos of life on the ship. Everything is very fancy with decorations and fine fittings. It seems odd indeed to be on the ocean and having people wearing their fine jewellery and high heels. I have managed to avoid the excesses, but some are revelling in it.

    Tomorrow we arrive in Juneau, the capital of Alaska. I wonder what we will find when we arrive at 8 am tomorrow.
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