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Scientists and indigenous leaders join forces to protect seals and an ancestral way of life in Yakutat, Alaska — Naharnet

By Aron L. Crowell, Smithsonian Institution and Judith Dax̱ootsú Ramos, University of Alaska Southeast

Five hundred years ago, in a mountain-lined fjord in southeast Alaska, Tlingit hunters armed with bone-tipped harpoons navigated their canoes through drifting ice and pursued seals near the Sít Tlein (Hubbard) Glacier. They must have looked nervously up at the looming, jagged glacier wall, aware that ice masses could crash down and endanger the boats – and their lives. As they approached, they asked the seals to give themselves to the people as food and spoke to the spirit of Sít Tlein to release the animals from his care.

Today, Tlingit elders in the Alaska Native village of Yakutat describe their ancestors’ daring hunt for seals, or “Tsaa,” and the people’s respect for the spirits of the mountains, glaciers, seas, and animals of their subarctic world.

Long ago, it is said, migrating clans of the Eyak, Ahtna and Tlingit tribes settled in Yakutat Fjord as the glacier receded. Over time, they moved their hunting camps to stay near the breeding ground of the ice floes where the animals give birth each spring. Clan leaders regulated hunting to avoid premature harvest, overhunting or waste, which is consistent with indigenous values ​​of respect and balance between people and nature.

Today, the 300 Tlingit people of Yakutat continue this lifestyle in a modern form, catching over 100 different species of fish, birds, marine mammals, land game and plants for their own consumption. The most important animals are seals, whose rich meat and blubber are prepared according to traditional recipes and eaten at everyday meals and potlatch feasts.

But the community is facing a crisis: the dramatic decline of the seal population in the Gulf of Alaska due to commercial hunting in the mid-20th century and the lack of recovery due to warming oceans. To protect the seals and their way of life, residents are turning to traditional ecological knowledge and time-honored conservation practices.

We are an Arctic archaeologist studying human interactions with the marine ecosystem and a Tlingit tribal historian from the Yakutat Kwáashk'i Kwáan clan. We are two of the leaders of a project examining the historical roots of the situation.

Our collaborative research, involving archaeologists, environmental scientists, Tlingit elders, and the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, was published as a book, Laaxaayík, Near the Glacier: Indigenous History and Ecology at Yakutat Fiord, Alaska. In it, we detail the changing lives of an Indigenous people and their evolving relationship with their glacial environment over the past 1,000 years, combining Indigenous knowledge of history and ecology with scientific methods and data.

Ancestral sealing

According to oral tradition, the village of Tlákw.aan (“old town”) was built on an island in Yakutat Fjord by the Ginex Kwáan, an Ahtna clan from the Copper River who migrated over the mountains, intermarried with the Eyak, and traded ceremonial copper shields for land in their new territory. They subsisted on the abundant resources of the fjord and hunted at the seal colony near the receding glacier, then located several miles to the north.

Today Tlákw.aan is a cluster of clan house foundations in a quiet forest clearing and our excavations there in 2014 aimed to learn more about the lives of the inhabitants and their use of seals before western contact.

Radiocarbon dating shows that Tlákw.aan was built around 1450 AD, which aligns oral traditions with geologists' reconstruction of the glacier's position at that time. Artifacts confirm the Ahtna and Eyak identity of the inhabitants. Seal items found at the site include harpoon points, stone oil lamps, skin scrapers and copper scraping knives. Seal bones are common, with more than half coming from pups captured at the colony.

The site reflects Aboriginal conditions – a large seal population, dependence on seals for meat, oil and fur, and sustainable hunting in the glacier colony.

Effects of commercial sealing

The United States purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 interrupted the traditional seal hunt in Yakutat. To meet the increasing global demand for seal skins and oil, the Alaska Commercial Company supplied Alaska Natives with rifles and recruited them to kill thousands of seals.

Yakutat was an important hunting ground for the new industry from about 1870 to 1915, and each spring the entire community moved from their winter village to hunting camps near the glacier. Men shot seals and women prepared the skins, smoked the meat, and made oil from the blubber. In the fall the men paddled in seaworthy canoes loaded with seal products for trade to the Alaska Commercial Company's base in Prince William Sound.

We compared historical data and elders' accounts from this period with archaeological finds from Keik'uliyáa, the largest camp. The scale of the operation is evident in photographs from 1899 showing long rows of canvas tents, smokehouses, sealskins drying on racks, stranded hunting canoes, and women searching piles of seal carcasses. In the rock outlines of the tents, we found glass beads, rifle cartridges, nails, glass containers, and other trade goods that reflect the changing culture of the community and its incorporation into the capitalist market system.

Commercial hunting overwhelmed the seals' ability to reproduce, causing the population to collapse in the 1920s. This cycle repeated itself in the 1960s, when world prices for fur soared and hundreds of thousands of seals in the Gulf of Alaska were killed by local hunters, exceeding sustainable yields. The seal population declined by 80–90%.

Although commercial sealing was ended in 1972 by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the seal population has never recovered. The days when the ice floes were “black with seals,” as Yakutat elder George Ramos Sr. recalled, are over, perhaps forever. Warming oceans caused by global climate change and an unfavorable cycle of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation have reduced fish populations that are an important food source for the seals, dimming prospects for their return.

Caring for seals and the community

In response, the Yakutat indigenous people changed their diet and severely restricted hunting. In 2015, they killed 345 seals – about one per person – compared to 640 in 1996. Hunting has now become almost non-existent in the ice floe breeding grounds, allowing the seals to raise their young undisturbed.

The community works with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission to monitor and manage the herd, bringing their indigenous expertise on seal behavior and ecology. They have also been active in efforts to protect the seal colony from disturbance by cruise ships.

The Yakutat people are recommitting themselves to the ancient principles of responsible care and spiritual respect for seals, seeking to ensure the survival of the species and the continuation of the life-sustaining indigenous tradition of seal hunting.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here:

Anna Harden

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