Search for heritage in cave

Archaelogical intern delves into Native past

Posted: Friday, April 28, 2000

The archaeological interns put the sediment in bags of mosquito netting, soak them, knead them to work out the silt, then dry the remaining dirt and pick through the fine grains.

They're looking for the smallest flakes of tools or bone from a cave on northern Prince of Wales Island. Yarrow Vaara, a Tlingit whose family is from Klawock, is looking for who she is.

Vaara, a 25-year-old anthropology student at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, has spent three summers as an intern at the archaeological site known as On Your Knees Cave.

One summer was paid for by a National Science Foundation grant and the others by Sealaska Corp., the Juneau-based Native corporation for Southeast.

A logging environmental-impact survey crew found the cave in 1993. Excavations have uncovered animal bones at least 40,000 years old and many stone and bone tools. The site yielded, in 1996, some bones from a young man who lived 9,200 years ago, scientists say.

They are the oldest human remains found in Alaska or Canada and are among the 15 oldest in the Americas, Vaara said. She thinks of them as she would an uncle, and the man they came from could be one of her ancestors.

``I just couldn't help get the notion he was kind of fulfilling his duty as an uncle, teaching us about things we might not have known,'' Vaara said. ``He's still teaching us, 10,000 years later. We're still learning from him.''

Vaara said she first felt uncomfortable digging into what may be her people's history.

Disturbing a burial site in particular -- even that of an accidental death, as this seemed to be -- could be seen as a desecration.

``It was really awkward for me at first,'' Vaara said.

But she talked with local elders and generally they supported the archaeological work, which is now touted as a good partnership between scientists, federal officials and tribal groups.

Vaara was struck by the almost exclusively seafood diet of the man, which was revealed through carbon tests of the bones. She said she thought of subsistence, a way of life that still exists and is part of who she is.

And the presence of the man and the tool-rich hunting site so many years ago seemed to match Tlingit oral history, which speaks of human migrations from flooded areas as glaciers melted in what we now call the last ice age.

Some people have discredited Native oral history, Vaara said. ``This is a really interesting way of supporting the stories with scientific evidence.''

It's a difficult position for a Native to be an anthropologist, said Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation. Worl is also an assistant professor of anthropology at UAS, where Vaara is her assistant.

``You have to step outside your role at times. Instead of only participating at a ceremony, you have to step aside and record it,'' Worl said.

But Native people can bring to anthropology an understanding of Native cultures from within, she said.

Other anthropologists have to shed themselves of their own cultural biases to study Native cultures, but Natives have to become conscious of their world view, Worl said.

Terry Fifield, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist on Prince of Wales Island, said if Natives managed cultural resources they would be able to do more than he does now.

``There's issues of trust,'' he said. ``There's things that people won't tell me because I'm not a member of the culture, on what's important to the culture, they might more freely tell a Native, who could make management decisions that people could be happy with.''

When Vaara was invited to speak at an Anchorage meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association in 1998, she felt intimidated. ``I didn't know what I had to offer as a student,'' she said. ``I started thinking about what I knew that they didn't.''

Vaara also presented a paper on ``Studying My Ancestors'' in March at the 30th International Arctic Workshop, in Boulder, Colo. She's partway through a bachelor's degree program at UAS, including learning Tlingit, and plans to study anthropology in graduate school.

``Education is power,'' Vaara said. ``You got to know who you are and where you're coming from. This is the modern world and you have to have an education, or you don't get any respect.

``I'm an American. I like American things. I want to have a job and drive a car,'' she said. ``But at the same time, the cultural identity of my people is important to me. Balancing those goals is like a teeter-totter.''



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