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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Anthropology

Arctic Studies Center

Glacial Movements and Migration

Yakutat Bay is an ecologically rich, mountain rimmed-fiord in southeast Alaska. The bay is 60 km (36 miles) long, flanked on its north side by two massive glaciers, the Malaspina and the Hubbard. The inner third of the fiord is known as Disenchantment Bay. At the end of the Neoglacial Period about 900 years ago, the Hubbard and Malaspina glaciers were one, filling the entire bay. As temperatures warmed and the ice withdrew, seals began migrating to Yakutat, followed by the arrival of indigenous groups. Settlements and hunting camps shifted farther up the bay over time to remain close to the retreating glacier’s edge, where the seal rookery is located. Yakutat Bay became a crossroads of cultures and languages as new groups arrived from north and south along the Gulf of Alaska coast. Old hunting camps dot the shores of the bay, providing an archaeological perspective on this richly interwoven history.

Ice scattered along the shore of Disenchantment Bay with Hubbard Glacier in the background, 2013. Photo by Emily Silber, 2013.
Settlements and seal camps with estimated dates. Sites occupied by the earliest peoples to arrive at Yakutat Bay are located near its mouth because the bay was still filled with glacial ice.

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"When they got there it was a foreign country. They didn’t know what to eat or how to live so the spirits of that place adopted them. They adopted the humans by showing them how to hunt seal. The humans became part of that glacier. They became friends of the spirit of the glacier. That is why we have a special connection with the glaciers and the mountains in all that area."
-Elaine Abraham, speaking about the arrival of the Gineix Kwáan at Yakutat Bay.

Yakutat seal hunters in 1899. From George B. Grinell, 1901, “Natives” in Harriman Alaska Expedition, Volume 1, edited by C. Hart Meriam, pp. 158-165. Doubleday, Page, and Co., New York.

Oral traditions, descriptive place names, and archaeological evidence confirm a history of multicultural migration and interaction. Eyak clans known as the Laaxaayík Teikweidí and the Hmyeidi may have arrived first, settling at the mouth of Yakutat Bay at the time when Hubbard and Malaspina glaciers were just beginning to retreat. Other oral accounts suggest that Sugpiaq people from Prince William Sound were the earliest inhabitants. Some centuries later, the Ahtna-speaking Gineix Kwáan migrated from Chitina on the Copper River. At the peak of the Little Ice Age Tlingit clans including the L’uknax.adí and Teikweidí migrated north to Yakutat, arriving in the mid-18th century and occupying settlements along the Yakutat foreland from Yakutat Bay to Dry Bay. All were drawn to Yakutat by its exceptional resources, including thousands of seals and sea otters.

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Sealing Camps

Yakutat is among the top five harbor seal harvest communities in Alaska, where almost every Native household reports the consumption of seal meat, blubber, and/or oil for subsistence. The hunting season begins in late May as soon as the pups are weaned from their mothers and begin to swim independently. During the 19th and early 20th centuries nearly the entire Yakutat population would move from the village to spring sealing camps in Disenchantment Bay, and in earlier eras to sites that were closer to the bay mouth. Adults and juvenile animals of both sexes are taken, each prized for particular qualities of its meat, fat, and hide. Interviews conducted in 2011 - 2013 with Yakutat elders and hunters describe the equipment and techniques, processing and use, social roles, spiritual practices, and other cultural dimensions of contemporary and traditional sealing.

George and David Ramos preparing to cut up a newly-shot harbor seal on the beach in Disenchantment Bay, 2011. Photo by Judy Ramos.

Elders have pointed out the distinction between male “hunters’ camps” located close to the glacial front and “family camps” situated farther away. The family camps, occupied by women, children and older members of the community and intermittently by the hunters, were composed of canvas tents, bark-covered huts, and smokehouses. At these camps the women flensed and butchered the seal carcasses, rendered oil from the blubber, dried and smoked the meat, and stretched the hides.

Left: Sealing camp near Point Latouche, June 1899 – Washington State Libraries.
Right: Jennie Abraham flensing a seal hide at Keik’uliyáa seak camp north of Point LaTouche, 1899.

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