Tlingit research specialist dies at 98

Anthropologist de Laguna kept working till the last

Posted: Sunday, October 10, 2004

An Eastern-educated anthropologist who sought the ancient origins of Angoon and was honored with a potlach by the Yakutat Tlingit for her study of their ancestors has died.

Frederica de Laguna died Wednesday night with friends at her home in Bryn Mawr, Pa., after celebrating her 98th birthday on Sunday, said Juneau resident Richard Dauenhauer.

"She had an amazing career," he said. She taught several generations of anthropologists and was doing field work "long before any of us were born," he said.

He said he and his wife, Nora, who have written books on Tlingit tradition and language, worked with de Laguna for 30 years.

De Laguna did a lot of work studying the history and culture of Tlingit people, he said.

St. Louis-based Webster University includes de Laguna in an advanced seminar concerning women's intellectual contributions to the study of mind and society. Its Web site states de Laguna was the daughter of two distinguished philosophers who taught at Bryn Mawr College where she completed her undergraduate work in 1927. She was a member of the college's faculty from 1938 until her retirement in 1975.

She studied anthropology at Columbia University to incorporate her love of humanities with a zest for the outdoors, the Webster University site states.

In 1929, she took part in the first archeological survey ever undertaken in Greenland, as told in her book "Voyage to Greenland: A Personal Initiation into Anthropology."

De Laguna did Alaska field work from 1930 to 1933, and returned for additional work from 1947 to 1949. Her study of the people of Angoon, combining archeology with traditional history and cultural study was recognized as the first such study of a Native North American society.

That was followed by her work on the Native people of Yakutat. "Under Mount Saint Elias" was a work comprehensive enough that she earns mention as a source on local culture on the community Web site.

Dauenhauer said it exceeds 1,000 pages, covering three volumes. "She connected oral archeology to oral history and natural science," he said.

The Yakutat Tlingit honored her with a potlach in 1986.

The year she retired from the Bryn Mawr faculty, she was elected to the National Academy of Science, along with anthropologist Margaret Mead. De Laguna served as president of the American Anthropological Association in 1966 and 1967.

Dauenhauer said she also wrote two mysteries in the 1930s. Recently, she was having a hard time seeing, but was able to work though e-mail by enlarging the type.

In the last week of her life, she was able to start an anthropology press.

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