The Path to Tlingit Subsistence at Glacier Bay

By Megan Cater

Huna tribal house

Photo Public Domain by National Park Service

Companion Material

Assignment Prompt B

In Tlingit mythology, a legend tells of a human boy who was given extraordinary hunting abilities by an eagle. In this tale, the boy, who was an orphan, sought to provide for his grandparents, so he began to gather food in a nearby reef. One day, the rope that attached him to his canoe untied itself, but he was rescued by an eagle, who appeared to him as a beautiful woman and called herself his future wife. As gifts to his future son-in-law, the eagle’s father gave the boy powerful shirts for hunting but told him one caveat: he must kill only one animal per hunt. Over time, the boy, now a young man, became very wealthy from his hunting abilities. However, before he retired at an early age, he decided to kill two whales. And yet, before he could reach the shore with his kill, the raven crowed and the young man died.[1] Many Tlingit legends such as this one emphasize ideas of sustainability instilled within the Tlingit spiritual tradition. However, in Glacier Bay National Park, the native Tlingit have struggled with park management and their ability to continue their subsistence practices on the federal land. Why would these Natives be denied their ancestral practices when it is clear that sustainable resource management is ingrained within their culture?

The prohibition of these practices by the National Park Service goes back as far as the NPS’s history in the park. The Huna Tlingit, who called their home S’e Shuyee or “edge of glacial silt”, occupied the Glacier Bay area of Southeastern Alaska for thousands of years, living off the land according to long-standing cultural traditions, such as gull egg harvesting, seal hunting, and salmon fishing.[2] When the land was established as a national monument by the federal government in 1925, much of the Tlingit homeland was included within monument borders and many of their traditional practices became forbidden, sparking a difficult relationship between the Tlingit and the NPS.[3] By this point, the hunting of migratory birds and their eggs had already been prohibited by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, with no exception for indigenous Alaskan subsistence.[4] However, after seven years of debate, some of the bans on Native practices within the park were rescinded in 1946, when the Tlingit were officially allowed to gather berries, hunt seals, and possess weapons in case of bear attacks. Despite this, Tlingit continued to be arrested for hunting, and in 1974, seal hunting was officially banned from the park by the NPS in order to protect native seal populations, even though the Native people depended on seal hunting to make a living.[5] According to the Park Service, Tlingit seal hunting in Glacier Bay was scaring wildlife while threatening the experience of tourists.[6] When the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was passed in 1980, allowing subsistence practices to resume in Alaskan parks, the NPS determined that this did not apply to Glacier Bay National Park, only its preserve, and thus the prohibitions remained.[7] And even when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was amended in 1995 to allow Native hunting of birds and their eggs for subsistence purposes, the NPS continued to prohibit the practice in parks.[8]

Despite nearly a century of conflict between the two entities, progress towards cooperation began to emerge in the late 20th century. In 1995, the NPS and the Huna Tlingit signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which spearheaded the development of a working relationship between the two.[9] In recent years, efforts have been made to renew the Tlingit’s traditional harvesting of gull eggs, culminating in the passage of the Huna Tlingit Traditional Gull Egg Use Act in 2014. The act recognized that the Huna Tlingit were denied their subsistence practices at the park in the past, which they found could be sustainable if maintained and limited.[10] Furthermore, the Huna Tribal House, which had its grand opening in 2016, was built to help mend the strained relationship between the park and the Tlingit through cooperation. The project garnered national attention because it promoted collaboration between the NPS and Native Americans instead of just exchanging dialogue. Now the structure serves as an anchor for the Tlingit community, a place where tribal members can gather to share their knowledge and skills while educating visitors about the local culture.[11]

Perspectives towards Natives and their subsistence practices have evolved significantly since the public first encountered the Tlingit and their way of life. What caused these changes to occur is not so clear, however. In this paper, I will argue that disapproval of Tlingit spirituality and cultural tradition in late 19th and early 20th century media culminated in legislation that prohibited these practices and was enforced by the NPS. However, later studies initially meant to preserve this fading culture highlighted Tlingit sustainability, ultimately influencing 21st century policies that began to return a Native presence to the park.

The earliest ideas of national parks were born out of an empty wilderness ideal, which ultimately excluded Natives from the picture while making their culture appear vanishing and their traditions impure. Scholar Theodore Catton argues that the “wilderness ideal,” which is the assumption that pure wilderness is devoid of human presence, was the driving force behind the removal of Native Americans from parks. Strengthened by writers such as John Muir, this ideal created an “unnatural nature.”[12] He further argues that the wilderness ideal favored early Natives to contemporary ones, who were influenced by modernity. This resulted in the rejection of Native rights when, for example, the Tlingit were seen hunting Glacier Bay seals from modern-day boats instead of canoes and thus were not “real Indians.”[13] Mark David Spence, on the other hand, attributes the idea of impure Natives to nationalism instead of unorthodox practices. He argues that Native Americans who used parks illegally were deemed unpatriotic, lacking appreciation for the park and stubbornly holding on to their ancestral traditions. The idea of the “vanishing Indian” then became a way to bolster the popularity of national parks, complimenting the nationalistic ideals of pure American wilderness that the parks offered.[14] These scholars ultimately illustrate the main forces behind the removal of Natives from national parks, including the Tlingit of Glacier Bay. However, my approach will demonstrate the justification behind the removal of Tlingit subsistence within the park, building on the idea of “impurity” in their ancestral traditions, and how these perspectives have changed.

Not long after the purchase of Alaska in 1867 did the media begin to express their disfavor of Indigenous Alaskan practices, including that of the Tlingit, ultimately leading to the loss of these traditions within Glacier Bay and in general. An 1890 article for The Friend emphasizes the revolting and mindless nature of Alaska Natives, suggesting that their subsistence practices are appalling and unnatural.[15] “The Peoples of Fur-Land” expresses a similar concept, noting similarities between Christianity and the Tlingit faith but arguing that, despite having a God-figure, they continue to sin with no desire for repentance.[16] These two articles underline the supposed barbarity of the Tlingit and their lack of devotion to religious practices. They ultimately make a case for the rejection of Tlingit subsistence, as it is solely based on mindless greed and not spirituality. In his article about Glacier Bay’s discovery, John Muir rejects Tlingit superstition while expressing disapproval towards the Natives hunting seals as they voyaged alongside him.[17] Muir argues that Natives, even in their own home, do not fully understand or appreciate the beautiful world around them. He illustrates that knowledge, experience, and a fervent belief in God are all one needs to successfully journey through the land, not Native spirituality or tales of ill-fated voyages. And yet, in an article from 1909 by The Craftsman that praises Tlingit spirituality and practices, the author carries an undertone of dislike towards the less elegant aspects of their primitive ways, a rejection of Tlingit tradition.[18] These articles disseminated disapproval of the Tlingit way of life to the public by classifying them as barbaric, hypocritical, and deplorable, which began to reflect in legislation. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was passed in 1918, took away a crucial aspect of Tlingit subsistence.[19] At its inception, the legislation lacked recognition of sustainable practices and thus penalized the Natives who followed them, presenting the perspective that all hunting of migratory birds and their eggs, no matter the practice, is ecologically threatening. In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge laid out in Glacier Bay’s founding principles that no person is allowed to “appropriate or injure any natural feature… or to occupy, exploit, settle or locate” upon the newly established monument.[20] With no exception for Natives, the Tlingit were officially excluded from their ancestral homeland, while the NPS, influenced by the media’s disapproval of Alaska Natives, adamantly enforced its prohibitions. Even when legislation such as ANILCA and the revision of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act attempted to return Native subsistence, the NPS let its original viewpoint continue to dictate the Tlingit presence in the park.

The loss of Tlingit practices due to past legislation began to prompt researchers to focus attention on their culture beginning in the 20th century, thus realizing aspects of sustainability ingrained in their way of life. A compilation of interviews of the Tlingit by the Forest Service, published in 1984, was made to preserve knowledge about Tlingit subsistence due to the disappearance of their culture. The quotes presented highlight how hardly anything is wasted or done without purpose, thus making the argument that, as in the tale of the orphan boy, sustainability is central to their tradition.[21] A similar perspective emerges in a study of Tlingit salmon harvests, which was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to acquire new understanding of these practices. The tale of the “Salmon Boy” and numerous quotes from Tlingit interviewees show that the Tlingit encourage preservation and the respect of all life in their native tradition.[22] These two studies emphasize how the idea of sustainable practices are ingrained into the Tlingit through cosmology and spiritualism. Thus, they harbor the point-of-view that subsistence practices do not oppose the NPS’s mission of protecting the ecology of the park. By 1993, with the release of the Third Science Symposium, the NPS began to recognize the value of Tlingit tradition in the park as it included studies of their lifestyle in the symposium for the first time.[23] Moreover, a Glacier Bay environmental impact statement from 2010 relating to the harvest of gull eggs notes how continuing the prohibition of gull egg harvesting would negatively affect Tlingit identity and culture.[24] It ultimately sides with allowing the practice in Glacier Bay, with some restrictions, by underlining the importance of preserving the Tlingit tradition. Therefore, studies produced to preserve vanishing Tlingit culture drew the attention of the NPS, who in turn took notice of the emerging revelation of Tlingit sustainability.

This renewed interest in Tlingit lifestyles, which supported their sustainability, prompted the NPS to develop new legislation in the 21st century and ultimately create an environment that is more welcoming to Tlingit culture within the park, a process that continues into the present. The Huna Tlingit Traditional Gull Egg Use Act of 2014 arose out of these studies with the NPS acknowledging that it had unjustly prohibited Tlingit subsistence in the park for generations.[25] The act shows that ecological sustainability does not always mean prohibiting Native activities and that cultural and spiritual traditions should not be impeded by laws as long as they are ethical and relatively harmless. Two years later, the Huna Tribal House had its grand opening in Glacier Bay. An article for the National Parks Conservation Association argues that its creation marks a huge leap in the relationship between the NPS and the Tlingit, which to both, the Tribal House acts as “‘a very important bridge’” between their differences.[26] The building now stands as physical proof of the Tlingit’s presence in the part, representing an act of repatriation that is visible to tourists and ultimately promotes subsistence use. These 21st century solutions represent a dramatic shift in the perspective of the NPS towards the Tlingit, who have come to recognize the value of a Native presence in Glacier Bay which for decades, they had excluded.

As a whole, these sources develop a narrative of Tlingit history in Glacier Bay. Magazine and newspaper articles from the late 19th and early 20th century spread to the public a general disapproval of Alaska Natives and their traditions. Legislation of this period reflected this perspective, removing any evidence of a Native presence in Glacier Bay. For decades, the NPS viewed the Tlingit as obstructions to their ideals of ecological preservation and an empty wilderness. As Tlingit traditions waned, attention was drawn to their lifestyle in the late 20th century with the intention of preserving it in written form. These studies emphasized a culture of sustainability within Tlingit subsistence and ultimately argued for the return of these practices to the park. With the turn of the 21st century, the NPS began to recognize these studies and the Tlingit tradition of sustainability. Acknowledging their prohibitions, the NPS worked to pass legislation that allowed Native subsistence within Glacier Bay and began to establish a Tlingit presence in the park. Together, the sources demonstrate how perspectives of the Tlingit from the park’s discovery to the present were crucial to developing the environment the Natives experienced at this Alaskan national park.

Ideas of barbaric, mindless Tlingit to tales of salmon boys and sustainability are representative of the way the public’s opinion has changed drastically over the decades, influencing the way the Natives have interacted with the park service at Glacier Bay. However, this is not the only change that has occurred. The NPS changed their idea of ecological preservation when they passed the Huna Tlingit Traditional Gull Egg Use Act. Instead of enforcing the empty wilderness ideal, the NPS came to the conclusion that preserving the local culture was more valuable than erasing any sign of a human presence in the park. This shows that, even though this wilderness ideal is central to national parks, the parks are malleable, acting as constructs of what people want them to be. As Scholar Jerry J. Frank argues, parks, no matter how you put it, are the product of human influence and are not truly natural or untouched by man.[27] When the public decided that the Tlingit’s practices were barbaric and unacceptable, these practices were almost completely removed from the park. When researchers decided that Tlingit subsistence was sustainable and valuable, the NPS worked to bring it back. Media and public opinion have the power to shape legislation that in turn shapes national parks. National parks, as American creations, are designed by the American people, so when Americans change their idea of how Natives should interact with parks, the parks change along with it. Relating historical media, such as magazine and newspaper articles as well as research studies, with legislation of the time can illuminate the justification behind the legislation, ultimately demonstrating how one specific group can affect the laws governing another.

The realization of the Natives’ sustainable practices in studies exemplifies to environmental historians how preservation of culture within national parks leads to appreciation of that culture without compromising the mission of the NPS. Though the empty wilderness ideal led to the exclusion of Natives from national parks, as Catton describes, the NPS later rejected the notion, turning instead to the concept of a “storied wilderness.” As scholar Thomas F. Thornton describes, this concept, which relates to the return of Native history to parks, is now more appealing to the public.[28] With this new direction, the NPS can continue to preserve national parks and the history of the indigenous people who once inhabited it simultaneously, representing to historians a change in the ideal wilderness preferred by the public and therefore the park service. To park management, the change in the Tlingit presence at Glacier Bays shows that a balance between preservation and subsistence is possible, and that cooperation between Natives and the park management creates a stronger and more welcoming community, where tourists, Natives, and management can all benefit. And ultimately, to the public, the continued interactions between the Tlingit and the NPS emphasize that indigenous culture is still relevant in today’s society and the understanding of it can foster change for the better.


[1] Forest Service, The Subsistence Lifeway of the Tlingit People: Excerpts of Oral Interviews, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 1984, pp. 28-30.

[2] “Tlingit Place Names of the Huna Káawu,” Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, National Park Service,, accessed 1 Dec. 2019.

[3] “Glacier Bay as Homeland,” Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

[4] Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 16 U.S. 703-712 (1918).

[5] Theodore Catton, Land Reborn: A History of Administration and Visitor Use in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, National Park Service, 1995, pp. 191-214.

[6] Theodore Catton, Inhabited Wilderness: Indians, Eskimos, and National Parks in Alaska, University of New Mexico Press, 1997, pp. 215-220.

[7] Catton, Land Reborn, pp. 180.

[8] Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 16 U.S. 703-712 (1918).

[9] “Timeline of Historic Events,” Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

[10] U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Natural Resources, Huna Tlingit Traditional Gull Egg Use Act: Report (to Accompany H.R. 3110), 113th Cong., 2nd sess., 2014, H.R. Rep. No. 113-393.

[11] “Huna Tribal House,” Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

[12] Catton, Inhabited Wilderness, pp. 1-20.

[13] Catton, Inhabited Wilderness, pp. 215-220.

[14] Mark David Spence, “Crown of the Continent, Backbone of the World: The American Wilderness Ideal and Blackfeet Exclusion from Glacier National Park,” Environmental History, vol. 1, no. 3, 1996, pp. 29-42.

[15] “Alaska Indians,” The Friend; A Religious and Literary Journal, 5 Jul. 1890, pp. 388.

[16] “The Peoples of Fur-Land,” Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, Jan. 1889, pp. 114.

[17] John Muir, "The Discovery of Glacier Bay," Century Illustrated Magazine, Jun. 1895, pp. 234-247.

[18] Natalie Curtis, “The People of the Totem-Poles: Their Art and Legends,” The Craftsman, 1 Sep. 1909, pp. 612.

[19] Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 16 U.S. 703-712 (1918).

[20] Proclamation No. 1733, 26 Feb. 1925.

[21] The Subsistence Lifeway of the Tlingit People: Excerpts of Oral Interviews, pp. i-20.

[22] Steve Langdon, Traditional Knowledge and Harvesting of Salmon by Huna and Hinyaa Tlingit: Final Report, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2006, pp. vi-105.

[23] Daniel R. Engstrom, editor, Proceedings of the Third Glacier Bay Science Symposium, National Park Service, 1993, pp. 270-308.

[24] Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Harvest of Glaucous-Winged Gull Eggs by Huna Tlingit in Glacier Bay National Park: Environmental Impact Statement, National Park Service, 2010, pp. i-x.

[25] U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Natural Resources, Huna Tlingit Traditional Gull Egg Use Act: Report (to Accompany H.R. 3110), 113th Cong., 2nd sess., 2014, H.R. Rep. No. 113-393.

[26] Kate Siber, “The Long Way Home,” NPCA, Spring 2017,, accessed 11 Nov. 2019.

[27] Jerry J. Frank, Making Rocky Mountain National Park: The Environmental History of an American Treasure, University Press of Kansas, 2013, pp. 1-25.

[28] Thomas F. Thornton, “A Tale of Three Parks: Tlingit Conservation, Representation, and Repatriation in Southeast Alaska's National Parks,” Human Organization, vol. 69, no. 2, 2010, pp. 115.