Berg Bay lies on the western shores of Glacier Bay about 20 miles northwest of Gustavus. (Photo courtesy of National Park Service)

A tribe in Southeast Alaska has won permanent protection for the site of an historic Tlingit village whose descendants claim centuries old ties to Glacier Bay. Complex negotiation secured 150 acres that had been eyed by commercial developers.

Berg Bay lies on the western shores of Glacier Bay, made famous to the outside world by the writings of 19th century naturalist John Muir.

But centuries earlier it had been a major Tlingit population center. Then huge ice sheets forced its inhabitants to relocate south to Chichagof Island to what’s now modern day Hoonah.

“It has a tremendous cultural significance to the Hoonah Tlingit and most specifically to the to Chookaneidí Clan,” said Bob Starbard, tribal administrator of the Hoonah Indian Association, the 1,200-member federally recognized tribe.

Much of the Chookanhéeni site is encompassed on a 150 acre parcel that was an original Native allotment belonging to the St. Clair family. In 1980 most of the land around it became a national park. 

Two years ago the family put the acreage up for sale. The asking price: $1.7 million. Starbard says the tribe had to act.

We knew that there were some development interests, on the part of lodge owners running a particular commercial venture,” Starbard said. “And that was a use that we felt was incompatible with both the tribes interests, the clan’s interest in the park’s interests.”

But financing such an expensive purchase proved difficult for the tribe. The National Park Service was also interested. But park officials say the federal agency found that the asking price exceeded what the government considered “fair market value.”

That’s when the The Conservation Fund got involved. It’s a Virginia-based nonprofit that buys land and deeds it over to agencies for conservation. 

There was quite a bit of head scratching early on about how we we’re going to accomplish this,” said Brad Meiklejohn, the fund’s Anchorage-based senior Alaska representative. “But we heard clearly from the park that they wanted to find a creative way to make this happen because of the history of the use of the park by the folks from Hoonah. So there was a pretty concerted effort to be accommodating.”

The fund partnered with the National Park Foundation — another nonprofit with a similar mission — to buy the property outright for an undisclosed sum. It’s since deeded the 150 acres to the federal government to be added to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

But that’s not the end of the story.

The tribe will get special access,” said Philip Hooge, superintendent of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. A formal agreement codifies special rights for the tribe to gather plants, fish and build a smokehouse and other cultural structures for ceremonies.

“Glacier Bay was the homeland of the Tlingit and who were driven out by the ice moving out of the bay,” Hooge said. “And it’s been a long road to return that sense of homeland and have the Park Service recognize that.”

Formal plans will be worked out between the tribe and park service each spring. But it’s unlikely anything will be built soon. 

The grassy valley and 2,200-feet of beach along Berg Bay will be for both tribal members and park visitors to enjoy. The agreement makes clear the tribe will respect public access for all park visitors.

Bob Starbard, the tribal administrator, says the area known as Chookanhéeni — of which the Chookaneidí Clan takes its name — has a bond that predates modern civilization, and it’s something to celebrate and share.

The St. Clair family put the 150 acres up for sale in 2018. The asking price was $1.7 million. (Screenshot by Jacob Resneck/CoastAlaska)

We’re not necessarily offended by visitors,” he said. “As long as they respect our rights in history there.”

No hunting will be allowed. Or commercial activity. But, according to the terms of the conservation easement, the Hoonah’s tribe’s special rights are — in the document’s legalese — “forever.”