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Ancient fish trap discovered

Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2003

HAINES - While walking along the lower Chilkoot River just over a year ago, a Lutak resident noticed a pattern in some wooden stakes embedded on the bank.

Some two dozen partially eroded posts of similar width and height were spaced almost strategically.

The resident contacted local archaeologist Tom Prang, now working on contract for the Chilkoot River Corridor Working Group, who determined the stakes were likely left over from a Native village that once thrived at the Chilkoot.

He sent a stake to Florida's Beta Analytical for carbon dating.

Turns out, the resident had come upon remnants of what appears to be a 2,100-year-old fish trap.

It's the oldest known artifact discovered in the Chilkat Valley, said Sheldon Museum director Cynthia "C.J." Jones.

"We might be looking at the center or one of the ends (of the fish trap), but because we don't know how much the river has changed over time or how much things have eroded, we're only seeing a snapshot of what used to be out there," Prang said.

Jon Loring, an archaeologist who worked with the Alaska State Museum to excavate a 700-year-old Tlingit fish trap in 1991 at Montana Creek in Juneau, said fish traps were traditionally used widely throughout the region.

"(Traps) have been used all over the Northwest Coast culture area, from Yakutat down to Oregon," Loring said.

They were outlawed by the 1884 federal Organic Act, which created the District of Alaska and beginnings of a bureaucracy that instituted limitations upon Tlingits.

"There are different types of traps," he said. "The one we uncovered in Juneau was a stream trap, a basket-style fish trap. The one they found in Haines was probably intertidal. They're very effective methods for catching fish."

The oldest dated fish trap is a 5,000-year-old found near Sandy Beach in Petersburg.

Investigating the fish trap at Chilkoot is just one of Prang's tasks as leader of an archaeological project being conducted in the area by the Sheldon Museum.

The Haines Chamber of Commerce currently holds the $6,900 in funds for the Chilkoot River Corridor working group from the Alaska Conservation Foundation, which is sponsoring the archaeological project.

So far, Prang has recorded more than 200 archaeological features or artifacts.

A census taken at Chilkoot village in June 1880 recorded 120 people and eight large houses. Little other specific information on the village has surfaced, Jones said. Most recently, the Chilkoot was home to a Tlingit village. People lived there until the 1940s.

"It was one of the larger villages in this area at that time," said Mary Paddock, a Chilkoot Native. Her husband, Charles, had family who spent summers at the village.

"We do know it was a big place," Prang said. "A lot went on in the village."

Cemeteries, fish processing pits, rock and wood alignments used for fish traps, stone tools such as axes and adzes and the foundations of homes, among other evidence, are clues for people today about the goings on in the village long ago.

"It's proof we've always been in this valley," Paddock said.

The information and artifacts Prang finds will aid in the development of an interpretation project funded by a $47,700 grant from the Coastal Impact Assistance Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.



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