HOONAH, Alaska — In a former auto shop beside Hoonah High School, three carvers are busy restoring signs of Huna Tlingit ancestry, genealogy and history to the land cleared by an advancing glacier more than 250 years ago. Every weekday, Gordon Greenwald, Herb Sheakley and Owen James work on a house that will represent all four of Hoonah’s founding clans. The house is bound for Bartlett Cove, in Glacier Bay National Park.
People from the Hoonah community drop by to see how progress is going. Elders stop by to see the stories they’ve told Greenwald, the lead carver, come to life. High school students drop by to work on their own projects.
The house is named Xúna Shuká Hit: Xúna for the Huna people; “Hit” means “house,” and “Shuká” is a word Greenwald said doesn’t quite translate to English but can be interpreted to mean ancestry, genealogy and history.
“It (the house) has been a pot of deer stew boiling for many, many years,” he said.
Greenwald, James and Sheakley have carved interior screens and four house poles (totems, except these are inside).
All the wood is red cedar from Prince of Wales Island, milled in Hoonah by Icy Strait Lumber, and the carvers do all the work by hand.
Each house post took between 4 ½ and 5 months to carve, with all three men working together. The four house posts - totems - represent the four original Hoonah clans. Five clans left Glacier Bay after the glacier advanced, Greenwald said, but it’s unknown where the fifth ended up. (Now, many more clans live in Hoonah.)
The four original clans are the T’akdeintaan, (Raven), Wooshkeetaan, Chookaneidí and Kaagwaantaan (all eagle moieties). The central pole carvings are a goat, a shark, an octopus and a wolf, respectively. Each image tells the history and stories of a particular clan. Marbled murrelets whirl at the top of one; rock cairns tower at the tops of mountains in another.
The red cedar door into the house will be round, as is traditional, with a rectangular, western option for handicapped access. Open hands near the door represent welcome. Greenwald designed everything after listening to stories from elders.
“The figures are kind of like chapter titles ... and some chapters are 100 pages,” Greenwald said. “The elders have been very entrusting ... they said okay, you know the history, you know the story, now let’s see what you can do with it.”
Other images on the panels include a copper shield representing the value of Huna Tlingit culture and history. A bentwood chest is a box of knowledge. Spirit faces of ancestors and future generations gaze down from the outer edges.
“We didn’t need the present, because when we’re there, there we are,” Greenwald said.
“The future generation - they’ll know we were thinking of them,” Sheakley said of the spirit faces.
Sheakley began carving in 2006. Regalia, he said, is “not just for sad times; it’s for happy times, too. ... I want you to see my ancestors through me when you see my regalia.”
The shop is filled with projects: a Thunderbird staff, headdresses, paddles, a bentwood box.
James used to watch his grandfather carve in Kake. “That’s how I started getting into carving, is watching him carve,” he said. “I’m still learning.”
Even on his deathbed, his grandfather would use crutches to bend over his work, carving, James said. James said, in working on the project, he saw an opportunity to put a piece of himself into something lasting.
Both men expressed gratitude to Greenwald. “This all goes back to Gordy,” Sheakley said. “How he’s unselfishly showing you every single piece... you can become a better person, carving.”
Greenwald is a first-generation carver. He began learning how to carve in the early 70s, while teaching at Hoonah High School. Around eight mentors helped him, he said.
Hoonah Indian Association Tribal Administrator Bob Starbard said construction of the house is currently out to bid. On April 12, the four principal clans and others will travel to Bartlett Cove for a ground blessing. Construction on the physical structure of the house is slated to begin this spring and end in fall 2015. It will be dedicated in spring 2016.