The Tongass is the nation's largest national forest at almost 17 million acres. It covers most of southeast Alaska from Yakutat in the north to the islands south of Ketchikan.
Secretary Schafer was a keynote speaker for a ceremonial dinner and tribal dance to honor Shukaá Kaa, or "Man Ahead of Us," whose remains were found during a paleontological survey at a cave within the Tongass in 1996. The remains were determined to be 10,000 years old.
"I am deeply honored to be with you this evening," Schafer said. "This is an historic and deeply meaningful ceremony."
Tongass NF archaeologist Terry Fifield and Tribal Relations Program Manager John Autrey worked together with tribal governments and leaders on Prince of Wales to complete the repatriation and reburial of the remains. Their collaboration was a key factor in the remains being identified through DNA testing, and their being repatriated in 2007 under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.
"The Forest Service and the Tongass National Forest have acted as the stewards for much of Southeast Alaska for more than 100 years," Schafer said, "But tonight we pay tribute to you, the traditional stewards of these lands and your most ancient ancestor we honor tonight, Shukaá Kaa. As advanced as our country and society have become, it has taken a man more than 10,000 years old to bring true understanding and partnership to the cultural and resource management here on the Tongass National Forest."
Schafer concluded his remarks with "gunalcheesh" ("'thank you" in Tlingit), repeated three times as a sign of deep and heartfelt thanks. His remarks and his attendance at the ceremony brought a standing ovation from about 400 tribal and community members who attended the ceremonial dinner.