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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Anthropology

Arctic Studies Center

Oral Tradition

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Elaine Abraham interviewing Lena Farkas in Tlingit about the history of the Gineix Kwáan clan. Photo by Judith Ramos, 2011.

Knowledge of Yakutat Bay’s human and environmental history is carried forward in oral traditions and place names. The Yakutat Seal Camps study has included interviews in Tlingit and English with Yakutat community scholars, tradition bearers, and hunters. Elaine Abraham, Gineix Kwáan scholar and senior researcher for the project, shared memories of living at seal camps when she was a girl, as well as oral traditions about the migration of her own Ahtna ancestors. Other Yakutat elders and educators who have contributed interviews include George Ramos, Sr. (L’uknax.adí ), Lena Farkas (Gineix Kwáan), Ted Valle (Galyák Kaagwaantaan ), and Raymond Sensmeier (Gineix Kwáan). Bert Adams, Sr., Sheri Nelson, Ingrid Shodda, Ronnie Converse, Jeremiah James, and Eli Hanlon have added much additional information.

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Indigenous Knowledge of Seal Hunting

George Ramos, Sr. described how seal hunting was carried out when he was young and by generations before. The hunters would use small dugout canoes to approach the seals among the ice floes, killing them with barbed spears and later (by the 1890s) with guns. In order to approach silently, they employed small underwater paddles or wore waterproof gloves made from seal skin and seal oil to trap in heat. Today’s hunters travel in motorized skiffs and use small caliber, low-noise rounds to first pick off the “watcher” or sentry in a group of sleeping seals, and then continue hunting the rest of the unguarded group.

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David Ramos hunting seals in the ice pack, 2011. Photo by Judith Ramos.


A safe and successful hunt requires extensive knowledge of local currents, tides and weather in order to navigate through the moving ice pack. In the days of canoe hunting, getting trapped and crushed in the packed, shifting ice was a constant danger. The hunters would watch for signs of a recurring strong current out of Russell Fiord that can split the pack open, a process known as “breaking open,” giving access by boat to the seals in the center of the ice field.

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Place Names

Indigenous place names (toponyms) derive from observation and direct experience and often refer to the character of the surrounding land, natural processes that have shaped the environment, human activities conducted at the site, historical occurrences, and the social foundations of territorial claims. They encode critical cultural information and therefore tend to persist for long periods of time. Hundreds of Eyak and Tlingit place names have survived and evoke Yakutat’s rich culture, landscape, languages, and history. Gary Holton (Alaska Native Language Archive, University of Alaska Fairbanks) and Judith Ramos are organizing a comprehensive listing of the names provided by elders. The correlation of sealing camp names with datable archaeological sites will allow the age of these linguistic forms to be determined. Toponyms are most likely older toward the mouth of Yakutat Bay because of migration history. By linking place names to the evolving cultural landscape, the project offers an unusual opportunity to establish a chronometric framework for linguistic invention and change.

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Archaeology

Archaeological field studies are being undertaken to locate and date sealing camps of the last 900 years. As archaeological sites, seal camps may include house depressions, rock circles or other dwelling footprints; cultural middens built up over generations of use; distinctive assemblages of hunting and domestic artifacts; concentrations of charcoal and oil from seal processing; and abundant seal bones, if preserved. Archaeology can provide material and spatial evidence of social organization and activities in camps used by different groups at various dates and locations.

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Potential archaeological remains to be found at old sealing camps, based on a Harriman Expedition photograph of a Yakutat Tlingit seal camp in 1899. Photograph by Edward Curtis, courtesy of the University of Washington.
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Archaeological excavation of a rock circle marking a bark-covered sealing camp shelter or canvas tent dating to the 1890s. The structure may be one of the dwellings seen by the Harriman Expedition at Keik’uliyáa sealing camp in Disenchantment Bay. Photo by Emily Silber 2013.

Excavations in 2013 of dwellings at the Keik’uliyáa seal camp have produced hundreds of artifacts indicative of life in an 1880s seal hunting camp. Rifle cartridges in 19th century calibers (such as Winchester 32-40 and 25-20) and lead for reloading; bones, seal oil, and fire-cracked rock from seal processing; iron implements and nails; children’s toys (a doll, clay marbles); and somewhat surprisingly, large numbers of tiny glass beads from projects that the women worked on in camp. Tlingit beadwork is strongly associated with clan regalia worn at ceremonies, rather than everyday clothing, and so the beads may represent preparation for future potlatches. Quartz crystals from the house floor, spiritually associated with the glacier, could have been hunting talismans. Elders will help to interpret the collection.

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A late 19th century “seed bead” from a seal camp house. Photo by Emily Silber, 2013.
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A 44 caliber rifle shell from the floor of Structure 1 at the Keik’uliyáa seal camp site. This round was probably for bear hunting rather than sealing. Photo by Emily Silber, 2013.

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