Historic Tlingit photos arrive at state library

Ethnographer gained respect of villagers in Angoon, Yakutat

Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2007

There's a reason why the great archaeologist, anthropologist and ethnographer Frederica de Laguna was well-received in Angoon and Yakutat during her studies of the northern Tlingit from 1949 until her death in 2004.

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She came back year after year, and more than that, she listened.

"She was interested in everything," said Marie-Francoise Guedon, the caretaker of de Laguna's extensive photographic collection. "But she'd say the most important thing when you are studying a different culture is to study the way people think, how they see the world, how they think about reality."

De Laguna is widely lauded for her groundbreaking ethnological Alaska research, starting in 1930. She willed part of her vast photographic collection to the Alaska Historical Collections before her death in 2004.

Guedon, a former student of de Laguna's, arrived in town Wednesday afternoon with a major portion of the work. She's spent most of the last two years sorting it.


What: A reception and presentation to honor the arrival of the Frederica de Laguna Photograph Collection.

With: Marie-Francoise Guedon, professor of religious studies at the University of Ottawa, former student of De Laguna and caretaker of the collection.

When: 1 p.m. Friday.

Where: Alaska State Library Historical Collections reading room, eighth floor, State Office Building.

Admission: Free.

"Even true anthropologists forget that their way of thinking is not universal," Guedon said. "Freddy was interested in letting people speak. That's why her books are so important. They quote the old people, and they quote the teenagers. You get an idea of how people framed their world."

Frederica Annis Lopez de Leo de Laguna, or "Freddy," was born Oct. 3, 1906. Her parents were philosophy professors at Bryn Mawr College, and she accompanied them on sabbaticals to England (1914-1915) and France (1921-1922). She enrolled at Bryn Mawr in 1923.

After graduation, while studying anthropology at Columbia University, she fell under the influence of noted scholar Franz Boas. He advocated a more inclusive anthropology - an exploration of linguistics, ethnohistory and the ways in which different cultures think.

At the time, anthropologists were mostly interested in collecting objects rather than sticking around a community, Guedon said.

"She was trained in the Boas tradition as a full anthropologist," Guedon said. "She worked in linguistics; she worked in archaeology; she worked in ethnohistory, she worked in ethnography. She believed you have to study everything. You cannot just specialize and hope to have a complete picture."

Boas suggested de Laguna study the relationship between Upper Paleolithic and Inuit art. She researched the subject in France, England and Denmark. She traveled to Greenland in 1930 for six months with the legendary Arctic archaeologist Therkel Mathiassen, and it was there that she found her calling.

Her Alaska research began in 1930, during an archaeological exploration of Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet with Kaj Birket-Smith. She returned in 1931, 1932 and 1933, and published the "Archaeology of Cook Inlet Alaska" in 1934.

A year later, she led a research trip on the Yukon River to search for traces of Paleo-Indians. She ended up with a new book, "The Prehistory of Northern North America as Seen from the Yukon," which came out in 1947.

After World War II, de Laguna planned her next project: a historical, archaeological and ethnographic study of northern Tlingit culture.

"Freddy felt that from an archaeological perspective, you could look at that area there as a unique civilization, a civilization with its own character and its own absolutely unique creativity," Guedon said. "She traced a number of developments back to that hotbed of activity and trade and war and contacts and invention."

In 1949, she took an exploratory tour of Yakutat (June 8-July 13), Chilkat-Chilkoot (July 17-Aug. 4) and Angoon (Aug. 12-20). She decided Yakutat and Angoon were the best to research, and returned to Angoon June 14- Sept. 14, 1950.

De Laguna and Viola Garfield eventually wrote in 1960 "The Story of a Tlingit Village: A Problem in the Relationship Between Archeological, Ethnological, and Historical Methods."

De Laguna later traveled to Yakutat. Her studies turned into her 1972 masterwork, the three-volume "Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit."

Only 200 copies of the book were released in 1972. One of de Laguna's final wishes was to re-issue the book, and she founded her own press, Frederica de Laguna Northern Books, with this intention. "Under Mount St. Elias," with a new preface she finished a short time before her death, is scheduled for re-release by spring 2008.

De Laguna also spent years working with the notes of Lt. George Emmons (1852-1945), the famed ethnographer who studied Tlingits in the late 1800s. Emmons' 1991 "The Tlingit Indians," edited by de Laguna, is considered one of the most comprehensive books on the subject.

De Laguna and Margaret Mead were the first female anthropologists elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975.

She died Oct. 6, 2004, three days after turning 98.

Guedon worked with de Laguna in 1968 on the Copper River, north of Valdez.

"She was a great deal of fun, very compassionate and incredibly smart," Guedon said. "She was a bit of a dragon, but a very humane one."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at 523-2268 or korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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