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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Anthropology

Arctic Studies Center

“Our grandfathers, our uncles on your mother’s side, I thank you. We have come to your country for years to hunt and you brought me here when I was a little boy. And as you used to put the food into the fire and call your grandfathers, we ask you to be with us.”
-George Ramos, Sr.

George Ramos Sr. and Hubbard Glacier. Photo by Aron Crowell, 2011.

Oral traditions and place names record the histories of the sealing camps and can be matched with radiocarbon dates and material data from archaeological and geological research to better understand the social organization of hunting and the ecology of human-seal interaction over time. The methodologies and results of the study are relevant to questions of human adaptation and resilience and to the challenge of building coherence between indigenous and scientific knowledge systems.

It is proposed that a clan-based system of local and external access rights developed around Yakutat sealing because of its economic importance for peoples of the eastern Gulf of Alaska; that sealing camps shifted from the outer to the inner bay over time to follow the receding glacial front; and that the locations, artifact assemblages, faunal remains, and spatial layouts of camps express the cultural and social organization of hunting in different eras. The Yakutat Seal Camps project builds on Frederica De Laguna’s extensive anthropological and archaeological fieldwork at Yakutat in 1949 - 1954 (Under Mount St. Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit, Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, 1972.)

Student Patricia Wright recording artifact finds at a seal camp excavation, 2013. Photo by Emily Silber.

An important goal is to involve elders, seal hunters, young people, and other Yakutat residents in the research and to share results with the community through presentations, publications, and a feature-length documentary film. Graduate and undergraduate students from universities across the U.S. are participating through University of Alaska field schools in archaeology. Yakutat Ph.D. student Judith Ramos will base her dissertation in Indigenous Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on results from the seal camps project.

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