Sealaska Heritage to collect migration stories, songs of Tlingits

Posted: Friday, July 08, 2005

When Clarence Jackson Sr. is alone at the wheel of his seiner, he sometimes turns on a recording of his grandfather's voice and listens once again to stories about Tlingits returning to Southeast Alaska after an absence.

Jackson's great-grandfather, who was 100 in 1948, also talked about migrations down the Taku, Stikine and Nass rivers. One story speaks of elders rafting on a river under a glacier to get to the coast.

"As they went, they sang a mourning song for themselves as they disappeared under the ice," Jackson said.

It's not clear when these migrations took place - hundreds of years ago or thousands of years ago.

But Jackson said the stories spoke of people noting natural landmarks, such as a cliff that looked like a nose, that they had heard about but never seen. That suggests they were returning to their ancestors' lands.

Sealaska Heritage Institute recently garnered a $40,000 grant from the National Park Service to collect stories and songs about origins and migrations from eight clans. The oral information will be transcribed into written Tlingit and English.

"We think in this work we're going to be able to show a relationship to scientific theories that are now emerging about a coastal migration into Southeast Alaska," said Rosita Worl, Sealaska Heritage's president.

In the stories, the first people migrated here by boat along the coast, Sealaska Heritage officials said. Later migrations included people from the Interior of Alaska who may have traveled south through what is now Canada and then into Southeast Alaska.

There's a lot of linguistic evidence for multiple migrations, said Terry Fifield, the U.S. Forest Service's archeologist for Prince of Wales Island.

"At one point in time, there were no people in the Americas," he said. "There's a lot of different ideas when people came to the Americas and how people got here."

For a long time, scientists thought the first Americans were hunters following big game such as mastodons and camels across a 1,000-mile-wide grassy land bridge from Siberia, Fifield said. That would have been about 13,000 to 17,000 years ago.

But archeologists now think there's evidence to show migrations across the Atlantic or the Pacific, or along the southern coast of the land bridge, as well as over the bridge.

Some artifacts in North America and South America have been dated at periods long before ice-free corridors ran through Canada, Fifield said.

It's possible that Southeast Alaska was first peopled by Asians who traveled along the southern coast of the land bridge and then along the Pacific Northwest coast and into the interior of North America through river valleys, Fifield said.

Scientists used to believe that glaciers ran down to the coast during the Ice Age. But archeological work in caves in Southeast Alaska shows some coastal areas free of glacier ice 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, Fifield said.

In a cave called On-Your-Knees on Prince of Wales Island, paleontologists in 1996 found human remains dated to 10,300 years ago.

Artifacts supported the idea that the earliest known Southeast Alaskans were already adapted to life on the coast, Fifield said.

A DNA analysis of the remains by a graduate student in California, Brian Kemp, suggests affinities with populations in China, North America and South America, Fifield said.

The migration stories that Sealaska Heritage collects may refer not to the very first migrations of Asians to Alaska but to a time when people were identifiably Tlingit and were arranging themselves over the landscape, Fifield said.

For that matter, people continue to move around. Jackson said his family is scattered in Europe and the United States. He lives in Kake.

Jackson is chairman of Sealaska Heritage's Council of Traditional Scholars, one of the sources the institute will turn to for migration stories.

"It just goes on and on," Jackson said. "Migration is probably one of the subjects that cannot be put to rest. It just goes on and on, yet it's a rich part of our history."

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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