INVISIBLE SPACE PLACEHOLDER
Arctic Social Science Program

" D E A R    Y O U N G    G I R L "

Glenn W. Sheehan and Anne M. Jensen

Bryn Mawr College. Bryn Mawr, PA

Barrow Map

Contact with Europeans and Yankees only started in 1825 on Alaska's Chukchi Sea coast.  Frequent face-to-face contact started as late as the 1850s, with manufactured goods, especially any types of metal, still scarce in the 1870s.  Many aspects of the Native way of life remained virtually unchanged until recently.  When I excavate a tool or even an entire house, local people can often tell exactly what we are looking at, how it was made and how it was used.  This is because they have heard detailed stories from their Elders, or because they saw these things in use, or, in some cases, because they have participated in their use.  Thus, Silas Negovanna looks at a weapon point and immediately describes the type of game at which it was propelled, the type of mount it had, and the type of retrieving line that was once connected to it.  Other Elders confirm or modify Silas' comments, and recourse to old explorers' reports and other archaeological finds can fill in details.

We don't do any archaeology up here without first talking to people about our plans and incorporating their desires and interests into our research protocols.  We plan for and invite Native participation in all aspects of the work, and young children, students and general community members often join the excavation and laboratory work.  Back in 1986, after Anne Jensen (Ilisagvik College, Barrow), Greg Reinhardt (University of Indianapolis) and I tested the site of Piñusugruk, the people of Wainwright, the nearest occupied village, encouraged us very strongly to get together a major excavation of the site.  We succeeded, with National Science Foundation/Office of Polar Programs funding, and started fieldwork in 1994.

It was in that first field season that a frozen body was discovered eroding from a bluff in Barrow into the Chukchi Sea, revealed by an end-of-season storm.  Elders of Barrow, working through the IHLC (North Slope Borough  commission on Iñupiat History, Language and Culture) asked Jensen to determine if the body was archaeological or recent.  When told that the body was of a person who died quite some time ago, the Elders asked us to save the body from falling into the ocean.  Working together, the Elders and Jensen created a research protocol agreeable to everyone:  Save the body in a respectful manner:  no press circus, no photos of the body released to the public; also, learn as much as possible about the person, why were they buried there, was the burial intentional, what could we learn about their life and times?  The Elders said "GET THE DATA," but not at the expense of being disrespectful. With the research protocols in hand, the Elders requested that the NSB through the IHLC fund the excavation.  The community participated in the work, and the fire company lent a water tanker that provided warm water to speed the thawing of permafrost and ice.  We were fortunate that the weather held.  After about a week, we got to the level of the burial and discovered the body belonged to a little girl, about the size of my six-year old daughter.  She was the best preserved body ever recovered in Alaska, and radiocarbon dating of  grave goods and of a strand of her hair all place her back to about AD 1200.

Once the little girl was revealed, it took only an hour with the fire hoseto get her out of the clear ice in which she was encased.  We took her to the Public Health Service hospital and reported to the community on the success.  The Elders requested either immediate reburial or immediate scientific study followed by reburial.  No placing of the little girl "on hold," rather she was to be treated as a member of the community.  The National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs immediately agreed to fund the analysis, and an autopsy was conducted followed by reburial in only about a week.

What did we learn?  First, Native people demonstrated their intense concern with saving knowledge of the past.  The Elders showed their willingness to trust scientists despite past abuses, and to work together toward common goals.  As a result, we have some of the most spectacular data recovered in the region:  the little girl suffered from a genetic disease that made her an invalid.  Her community cared for her throughout her brief life, and then looked after her in death.  The site itself revealed the first prehistoric meat cellars recorded in Barrow, the first residential evidence for Birnirk peoples, who were the first whalers, and the first evidence for Thule peoples (to whom the little girl belonged), the folk who settled across Canada and into Greenland out of north Alaska.  Analysis, of course, continues.  Jensen and I, along with Michael Zimmerman (pathologist, Mt. Sinai), gave the first scientific results to the Barrow Elders before releasing them to the scientific community and the general public.  We have had two more successful seasons at Point Franklin, and have begun to make preliminary reports to the people of the North Slope and to the scientific community.

We plan for and invite Native participation in all aspects of the work, and young children, students and general community members often join the excavation and laboratory work..

Picture

Taking measurements on the Ukkuqsi bluff. The Chukchi Sea is in the rear.
Photo: Sheehan/Jensen

After about a week, we got to the level of the burial and discovered the body belonged to a little girl, about the size of my six-year old daughter.  She was the best preserved body ever recovered in Alaska, and radiocarbon dating of  grave goods and of a strand of her hair all place her back to about AD 1200.

Picture

Crew members hold tarps in place while a fire hose is used to prevent erosion of the bluff face.
Photo: Sheehan/Jensen

Picture

When she was reburied, the local school children tucked a letter inside her coffin addressing her as Agnaiyaaq, or "Dear Young Girl." "You are very special and old," they wrote.  "We wonder how you lived."

For more information please contact:
Anne Jensen and Glenn Sheehan, Pt Franklin Archaeological Project, Box 577, Barrow, AK 99723

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