Reconstructing Yakutat Bay’s Cultural Landscape

An oral history interview with George Ramos Sr., Tlingit elder and project advisor, about the names and locations of traditional seal camps. Yakutat, 2011. Photo: Aron Crowell Yakutat Bay in southern Alaska has long been a melting pot for many Alaska Native groups who established villages and seal hunting camps along its shores as early as 1,000 years ago. Today, Yakutat is still a multi-cultural area of Alaska whose residents are eager to help scientists reconstruct the region’s past.

A research team leaves by landing craft for archaeological investigations at Tlaxátà seal camp in Yakutat Bay. Photo: Katherine House

Aron Crowell is the Alaska director for the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Anchorage. He is also an anthropologist leading a project to explore Yakutat’s ancient and contemporary landscape by gathering oral accounts of the area’s history alongside archaeological and geological data. The National Science Foundation supports this work.

Yakutat Bay is a Special Place

Situated in the Gulf of Alaska, the Yakutat Bay is rich with resources, including seals and fish.

“Yakutat is a great resource area, and has been for hundreds of years. Because of this, it attracted Alaska Native groups to migrate there and take advantage of these great food resources,” Crowell explained.

Geological features of the landscape, such as glacial moraines, tell another story. Glaciers filled the bay until they began retreating roughly 900 to 1,000 years ago. As the glaciers receded, the seals came and then the people followed. Four primary groups of Alaska Natives settled in the area—the Eyak, Sugpiaq, Ahtna and Tlingit.

These characteristics led to a special cultural landscape where people established villages and forged lifestyles that were dependent on the resources.

A Three-pronged Methodology

From left, Rosie Bryson, Mark Luttrel, and Timothy Johnson excavate inside an 1880s bark house or tent (Structure 2) at Keik'uliyáa seal camp, Dinsenchantment Bay, 2013. Photo: Emily Silber

Crowell and his colleagues from several universities are studying Yakutat Bay’s history of settlement from all angles.

For the past two years, he has worked closely with village elders to interview and record their oral accounts of the region’s past. Crowell combines what he learns from these oral histories with on-the-ground archeological surveys.

Once a potential site is identified, Crowell goes to work using trowels, brushes, electronic measuring instruments, metal detectors and fine-tuned archaeological methods to find traces of long-buried settlements. To date he has located, mapped and initiated excavations at camps settled as early as 1200 A.D. to more recent sites dating to the 1880s.

Geological research is the final layer to this three-pronged approach. Looking at the geological recorded is important because the scientists need to trace the retreat of the glaciers to understand more about when and how settlements were established over the last 1,000 years.

“The overall goal is to put these different ways about knowing the past, these different research approaches, together in one coherent picture of how this diverse group of people lived in a very dynamic and changing environment.” Crowell said.

A Rich Oral History

The residents of the Yakutat Bay are helping Crowell piece together the history of their community and how the people lived off the land. Elders are sharing stories about Yakutat settlements that have been passed down for generations.

And in one particular case, oral tradition and archeological evidence may be perfectly in step with one another.

The Ahtna people migrated to Yakutat Bay 500 years ago from the Copper River area farther north. Interestingly, Ahtna oral tradition recounts--with great detail--where the edge of the glacier was located then and describes their first settlement at Knight Island. Initial excavations at Knight Island turned up artifacts dating to around the year 1500 A.D. Geological findings suggest the location of the glacier 500 years ago was just as it was recorded in Ahtna oral tradition.

Although further study is still needed, Crowell is excited about the direction of the findings.

“I believe that what’s in their tradition will match the archaeology and geology,” Crowell said. “And that’s exciting! It’s an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the history of Yakutat Bay.”

More Upcoming Archaeological Digs

A custom-built solar array provided electrical power to the base camp, eliminating the need for a gasoline-powered generator in this protected wilderness area. Disenchantment Bay, 2013. Photo: Mark Luttrell

This summer Crowell completed the second field season of this project, excavating a large seal camp used in the 1880s. This field camp is one that is very well remembered by the people in the community today. It is also recorded in the photographs and writings of the explorers with Harriman Alaska Expedition in June of 1899.

“We found and excavated several of the dwellings where people lived. So we were excited to find those. They had never been found before,” Crowell said. “People knew this camp was there but the last time it was photographed was in 1899. We are now putting our finds together with what we know from history and oral tradition.”

Next year’s field season, the third and final of the study, may hold more exciting findings. This time Crowell’s efforts will focus on the oldest sites in the bay, some dating back to 1200 A.D.

Sharing Yakutat Bay’s Story

A turquoise-blue trade bead found inside an 1880s family dwelling at Keik'uliyáa seal camp, Disenchantment Bay 2013. Photo: Emily Silber

Once Crowell has unearthed pieces of Yakutat’s 1,000-year-old past, studied the glacier history and recorded the oral histories of Yakutat’s residents, he will begin to tell the region’s story.

The findings from this project will be shared in all they typical forums, such as scholarly publications, but Crowell is wants to ensure the story of Yakutat’s cultural landscape is heard well beyond the academic world. He hopes to work with partners at the Smithsonian to produce a documentary film.

“We’ve actually been filming now for three years and are proposing this as a feature documentary on the Smithsonian Channel. We’re hoping that this will evolve in to a unique way to tell this complex story and history,” Crowell said.

To learn more about Aron Crowell and his work to uncover the cultural landscape of Yakutat click here.  —Alicia Clarke