Groundbreaking ceremony held for new Tlingit longhouse in Haines

A groundbreaking ceremony and blessing was held for the new Tlingit Park longhouse on Sunday June 13, 2021 (Photo courtesy of Karen Taug)

A groundbreaking ceremony was held last week in Tlingit Park in Haines to celebrate the start of construction on a new traditional Tlingit longhouse pavilion.

Jan Hill, former mayor of Haines, was part of the group that blessed the site, and part of the committee directing the project.

“We wanted to make Tlingit Park more Tlingit,” Hill said. “It’s been on our hearts and minds for many, many years that we need to have a traditional gathering place and a longhouse.”

The borough project is funded by a $350,000 grant from the National Park Service. It will include the longhouse pavilion and new trails connecting Tlingit Park to Front Street and the waterfront in the Southeast Alaska community.

“Many of our long-ago elders are buried there, in the little cemetery, and that’s a special place for all of us, I think,” Hill said.

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Haines Borough Director of Public Facilities Ed Coffland said the borough applied for the grant several years ago. Once it was approved, his office took it on and formed the steering committee with Assembly Member Gabe Thomas and members of the Chilkoot Indian Association. He said it’ll also be an opportunity for tourists to learn more about Tlingit culture.

“It’ll be something where people can see the culture of the Tlingit tribe,” Coffland said. “And then longer term, the purpose of this building is also to house Tlingit art. So it’s one more step in putting together a solid trail system and something that will be appealing to tourists as well as those who live here in Haines.”

Chilkat Custom Contractors and Northwind Architects LLC are designing and constructing the longhouse according to traditional standards.

The longhouse will be located at the south end of Tlingit Park, facing the water according to custom. Sections of the exterior walls will be removable to allow for an open gathering place in good weather.

It’ll serve as a community gathering space and for performance and arts. Hill is also a member of the Chilkat Dancers, which could perform here in the near future.

“Our dance group will use it for traditional performances and probably for practices,” Hill said. “I think you might see other groups using the stage area. You might hear music concerts. I think the door is wide open. But the bottom line is it’s another part of our Tlingit culture that needs to be represented, and there’s no better place than where we’re putting it.”

Hill said they hope to find more grant funding for additional Tlingit artwork and painting. That work will be ongoing, she said, and the real celebration will be the grand opening, expected early this fall.

“We will do traditional blessings of all four corners of the building, and we will incorporate more of our elders into the process and into the blessing part of this celebration, and you’ll be hearing singing and drumming all over the Chilkat Valley when that happens,” she said.

Tlingit Park is still open to the public this summer, though the south end is closed while the longhouse is under construction.