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Laaxaayík, Near the Glacier: Indigenous History and Ecology at Yakutat Fiord, Alaska

Fiord glaciers of southern Alaska reshape landscapes as they advance and retreat in response to climate cycles, influencing coastal ecosystems by enriching marine food webs with minerals carried in meltwater and ice floes. On land, biodiverse forest ecosystems grow and mature as glaciers withdraw, connected to the sea by glacially fed rivers and lakes where salmon spawn.

For millennia, Alaska Native peoples have lived and thrived in these highly productive cryogenic biomes, harvesting bounties of plant and animal foods by employing complex ecological knowledge, adaptive technologies, and lineage-based social patterns of cooperation and resource sharing. A longitudinal study of the 1,100-year cultural ecology of Yakutat fiord in Southeast Alaska was conducted during 2011–2014 by the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Studies Center and the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe to document Little Ice Age glacial retreat; settlement of the emerging fiord by migrating Eyak, Ahtna, and Tlingit clans; and utilization of the fiord’s marine and terrestrial habitats by past and present residents.

Applying principles of knowledge coproduction, this study joins oral ecological and historical knowledge shared by members of the community with scientific data from archaeology, archaeofaunal analysis, marine and terrestrial ecology, glaciology, subsistence surveys, and historical archives. Information and cultural perspectives from interviews conducted in English and Lingit with community scholars, hunters, and artists are presented alongside results of archaeological investigations at former villages and camps dating from the thirteenth century to the 1960s. Special emphasis is placed on hunting and consumption of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), a cultural focus and principal subsistence species throughout Yakutat history. The study demonstrates the centuries-long construction and modification of a cultural niche, or integrated human role, within the ecosystem of Yakutat fiord.

Publication Date: March 15, 2024

Availability: Electronically