A crossroad and a bridge

Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2010

The three volumes of anthropologist Frederica de Laguna's masterwork, "Under Mount Saint Elias, The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit" could properly be called tomes - their heft and bulk the reader's first indication that de Laguna's conception of thoroughness redefined the term in her field.

Frederica De Laguna Photograph Collection, Asl-P350-33-129
Frederica De Laguna Photograph Collection, Asl-P350-33-129

And yet, when Dr. Marie-Franoise Guédon introduced the second edition of the book to a Juneau audience last week at the state library, she called the work "a beginning."

A beginning in part because describing a culture within the pages of a book is an impossible one, Guédon said. Culture exists in the minds of the people. It's contained in language but also in words that have no translatable meaning. It is expressed in dances and stories and songs but also in subtle body language and muscle memory. It is implied in truths so self-evident they are unarticulated. It is in history and objects but also in how the past informs the present and feeds the future. It is in motion.

"Its not because you speak a few words that you are actually fluent in that language, " said Guédon, professor of religious studies at the University of Ottawa, and former student of de Laguna's. "It's not because you finally learn to distinguish good ice from bad ice and you can tell the tides (that you can) say you know the ocean. It takes an intimacy that's born of many years, of just experiencing things and listening to stories."

But the attempt to understand another culture, and to transmit that knowledge, as de Laguna did with "Under Mount Saint Elias," is well worth making, Guédon said, and de Laguna was unusually well-suited for the work.

"The problem is, it takes time. It takes an enormous amount of time. It's a whole lifetime."

De Laguna, known to her friends as Freddy, was working up until the day she died, at age 98 in 2004, assigning tasks to Guédon from her bed, still trying to unpack the vast stores of information about the Tlingit she had amassed over a lifetime of study.

"I figured out I need at least 900 years (to get it all done)," Guédon said, laughing. "Freddy was so miffed when she died. She was not finished."

"Under Mount Saint Elias," published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1972, took de Laguna 20 years to write and was groundbreaking in its scope. It combined archaeological studies of Yakutat and other parts of the state with an extremely detailed ethnography based on field notes collected in Yakutat in 1949, 1952, 1953 and 1954, as well as other research. De Laguna's work pushed the limits of this wide-ranging approach, attempting to encompass every aspect of everyday life.

Guédon studied Atna culture with de Laguna in the Copper River area in 1968, and said she was taught to record everything in her notebook - from dreams to passing impressions to noises to smells - and to include all the disciplines - anthropology, , musicology, linguistics, philosophy, sociology and others.

"It's a crossroad, Freddy used to say, a crossroad between all the different approaches. And a bridge," Guédon said.

The same could be said of the book itself. It's a bridge not just between an ethnographer and the people who are the focus of her work, but also between two cultures, and, perhaps most importantly to de Laguna, a bridge within Tlingit culture itself - between past and future.

De Laguna wanted a second edition of her monumental work to be printed before she died for that very reason, so that younger generation could access the material gathered from their elders.

Amanda Bremner, apprentice Tlingit language teacher with the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, said that de Laguna's goal of reaching younger members of the Yakutat community has already begun to be achieved. The first edition was not widely owned by Yakutat residents, she said, and the copies that did exist weren't easily accessible to younger people, usually kept in private collections. When Guédon presented the second edition to the community of Yakutat last week, she brought copies that were quickly claimed. Many more residents ordered copies for their households, Bremner said.

"I know there will always be one on my shelf for my kids," she said.

Bremner, 24, said she met de Laguna on her last visit to Yakutat in 1996, when Bremner was in sixth grade, and treasures the memory. De Laguna's impact has been huge, she said.

"What's contained in these books is the truth for us," Bremner said. "It's extremely valuable and we're very grateful for the work she has done."

De Laguna decided not to update the new text, or change the orthography of Tlingit words to reflect more modern usage, because she thought such changes would have been a barrier to the reader's understanding of the culture as it was expressed at the time of her research, Guédon said.

When a publisher for the second edition could not be found - the work was too long, too dense - de Laguna started her own publishing company, Frederica de Laguna Northern Books, giving her complete control over the new printing. 

One of the last students of famed anthropologist Franz Boaz, de Laguna began her field studies in Greenland in 1929, and quickly became fascinated by circumpolar cultures. By 1930 she was in Alaska, in Prince William Sound. She also worked in the Copper River and Yukon River areas. Tribes she worked with in addition to the Tlingit included the Eyak, the Atna and the Chugash. In between all her field work she established the anthropology department at Bryn Mawr, where she taught from 1938-75, and impressed upon her students, including Guédon, the need to look at the whole picture.

Such complex absorption and broad focus takes not only time, Guédon said, but also a two-part approach. On one hand, you must move into the learning process with the eagerness and openness of a child. And on the other, the ethnographer must also bring with them their own inner integrity, knowledge of community, and respect and love for their own culture.

"You cannot pretend to learn what you don't have," she said. "If you want to learn about respect, you have to come with some notion of what respect is, even though the kind of respect you're going to get here is totally different in content and in attitude than the respect you get somewhere else."

The experience of immersing yourself in a different culture from your own is life-changing, she said, forcing you to question your own conceptions of the world, and leaving you without a real certainty of who you are or where you belong.

"I think that's why Freddy was so proud on the one hand and so grateful on the other hand that the people of Yakutat did take her in. Because once she was there, she could belong. And serve. You don't belong by taking, you belong by being part of the process. For her, writing 'Mount Saint Elias' was her contribution to the place."

Yakutat was chosen in part because of its central location, believed by some anthropologists to have been a stop-over place for migrating tribes and trading parties. De Laguna's focus was both on individual families and clans and on the larger context within which the individuals moved.

But Yakutat was also chosen, Guédon said, because Freddy fell in love with it. Though she came to feel a part of the community, she kept her objectivity by being completely honest in her assessments, Guédon said, attempting to present a picture of the community members through their own eyes.

"Being objective doesn't mean being detached, being objective means being aware of yourself," she said.

"You cannot study another culture without being shaped by it. You wouldn't have the right to talk about it if you weren't shaped by it."

In 1997, a film "Reunion Under Mount Saint Elias," directed by Laura Bliss Spaan, documented de Laguna's return to Yakutat nearly 50 years after her first visit. Her joy in the visit is clear, as is the respect she gained from the community.

Elaine Abraham, whose parents, Susie and Olaf Abraham, helped de Laguna with her field work in the 1950s, narrated the film.

"There are few people in her profession that have made such an impression with the people she wrote about," Abraham said in the film. "She became part of us. She became our grandma."

During Guédon's visit to Yakutat last week, a potlatch was held and the gathering watched a slideshow of images. Bremner said the slideshow was extremely valuable, partly because the elders present were able to name people in photos that had not previously been identified.

"It was pretty amazing," Bremner said.

Guedon had the same reaction.

"It was my first time in Yakutat and what an introduction!" she said. "I started crying at one point because it was so moving. Moving is the wrong term. It was becoming part of something and I was so grateful for people to let me be part of that."

Guédon, like de Laguna, loves her work as an anthropologist, and believes that preserving cultural diversity is essential. There is one language dying in the world every week, she said, and villages all over the world succumbing to the effects of global change. And yet, she finds hope in the fact that just one ordinary person making an extraordinary effort can turn the tide.

"On the other hand you see community after community somehow picking itself up against all odds," she said. "I've seen villages where one person will do it. One."

For more on Northern Books, or to order a copy of the second edition of "Under Mount Saint Elias," visit fredericadelaguna-northernbooks.com.

Contact Arts editor Amy Fletcher at amy.fletcher@juneauempire.com

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