Documentary Explores Ancient Tlingit Rock Formations

Ancient burial cairns scattered among Alaska's coastal range are the subject of a new documentary. Photo: Bill Hunt
Ancient burial cairns scattered among Alaska's coastal range are the subject of a new documentary. Photo: Bill Hunt

Parts of south Alaska’s inland, alpine landscape are dotted with mounds of artificially stacked rocks that are closely tied to Tlingit culture. These structures, known as rock cairns, are the focus of Cairns Uncovered, a soon-to-be-released documentary that explores Tlingit oral traditions surrounding the structures, as well as archaeological research into their origins and purpose.

Peter Stegen filming on a ridge in Alaska for his upcoming documentary, Cairns Uncovered. Photo: Peter Stegen
Peter Stegen filming on a ridge in Alaska for his upcoming documentary, Cairns Uncovered. Photo: Peter Stegen

Last summer, with the support of the National Science Foundation, Peter Stegen, a videographer and production associate at Nebraska’s Public Broadcasting Station affiliate NET, spent several weeks in Alaska filming interviews with Tlingit elders and capturing a multidisciplinary scientific team collecting data to explain the rock cairns.

“We really wanted to show the importance of these rock piles and what they are to Tlingit culture and their story. The Tlingit passed on their culture through stories and dance. Some of the stories about the beginning of their history have to do with these rock piles. And we wanted to show that,” Stegen said. “We also wanted to go up there and study and potentially date the cairns. So, it’s also a very science-based documentary.”

A Brief Introduction to Cairns in Tlingit Culture

Some Tlingit oral traditions speak of an ancient great flood that drove people from their coastal homes and into the mountains. According to the stories, as the flood waters rose the Tlingit took to small rafts and used the rock cairns to anchor and save themselves.

Some cairns also may have other significances, such as territorial boundaries, shamanic sites, territorial markers, wayfaring landmarks or signaling sites.

Exploring Culture through Film

The idea for the documentary took root when Michael Farrell, Stegen’s boss at NET, met a researcher with a pilot study called A Multidisciplinary Exploratory Study of Alpine Cairns, Baranof Island, Southeast Alaska, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and headed by William Hunt at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

From there Stegen connected with Tom Thornton, a cultural anthropologist and human geographer from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, who works on the Hunt project. Thorton was responsible for the oral historical and ethnographic documentation and contextualization of the rock cairn sites.

Stegen did most of the filming for the 15-minute documentary in Juneau, Angoon and Sitka while working with Thorton and other members of the research team to interview members of the Tlingit community.

“Tlingit oral history is rich and it is best captured by orators themselves, especially where clan elders, the keepers of these traditions, can be featured. But we also interviewed young people who were familiar with these sites, and some who had heard about them, and could describe them vividly, yet had not seen them personally,” Thorton said. “To get a perspective on this, it is always better to record the oral history from the living tradition bearers. Peter greatly facilitated this process, and I was grateful to have him along.”

Striking a Balance

In addition to documenting interviews with Tlingit elders, Stegen also filmed archaeological data collection at cairn sites on False Island. Situated near Barnoff Island in southern Alaska, False Island is home to more than 40 cairns, many of which had never been documented prior to this expedition.

“The challenge for me was balancing the culture and the science in the documentary,” Stegen explained. “There’s a great quote in the film from a Tlingit elder that I really like. He basically says that they [the cairns] are very spiritual, and scientists don’t want to believe in the spirituality, but it’s something that we strongly believe in.”

What’s Next?

Stegen, a first-time documentary maker, is currently working with other film professionals to put the final touches on Cairns Uncovered. He will unveil his work in early March 2014 to the Tlingit community, the researchers he worked with, the National Science Foundation and a broader viewing audience.

“I think the results [of the documentary] will enhance the project greatly and also be an important record and resource for the Tlingit themselves,” Thorton said. “One of our interviewees remarked on how knowing these stories of survival can be a source of strength for present and future generations.”

The Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau will feature the film, and Stegen is planning to build a website about the project, as well as host several screening events at the University of Nebraska later this spring.

“There are also talks of airing a shorter rendition of the film on a running NET program called ‘Nebraska Stories,’ which is an educational, character-based series on people in Nebraska.” Stegen said.

A Rewarding Experience

Stegen found that telling the story of the area’s rock cairns from both the cultural and scientific perspectives was an exciting challenge, one that had some unexpected and unforgettable rewards.

“These aren’t stories Tlingit elders just tell anyone, so it was a humbling experience for me to hear these stories that have been passed down for generation upon generation. They were proud to tell me these stories and took so much pride in their history and culture,” Stegen recounted. “It was a very rewarding thing to sit back and listen to these beautiful stories told straight from their mouths. To me, it was like poetry.” —Alicia Clarke