Sealaska Heritage

NEWS_Tribe, SHI and Sealaska urging cessation of logging of historic site

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Area is ancient homeland of the Kwaashk’iḵwáan clan

Dec. 15, 2022

(Oral Tradition on Humpback Creek) (Archaeological Interpretation)

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), Sealaska Corporation and the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe are calling on Yakutat’s Native village corporation to stop logging an area that is a known and important cultural and historic site, until an assessment can be conducted and mitigation plans put in place.

The area, known as Humpback Creek (Kwáashk’ Héeni) in Yakutat Bay, is the ancient homeland of the Kwaashk’iḵwáan clan and where they obtained the humpy salmon crest. The area is so significant that it’s memorialized in clan names, crests, history and identity. “Kwaashk’iḵwáan” literally translates as “people of the Humpback Creek.” 

This month, the tribe learned that Yakutat’s village corporation, Yak-tat Kwaan, was logging the site through its wholly owned subsidiary, Yak Timber. While logging, an equipment operator near Humpback Creek discovered an archaeological site reported to consist of several house pits and a series of parallel stone walls laid across a dry creek bed. 

Oral traditions tell of Humpback Creek, but until now, no physical evidence of the site had been discovered. Frederica de Laguna, an American ethnologist, anthropologist and archaeologist who studied Native culture in Yakutat extensively, reported local knowledge of a former settlement at this location occupied by the Hmyedi, an Eyak clan, but did not find any physical traces of it. Because of its known historical significance, the reported village and surrounding land were claimed by Sealaska Corporation under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, but the claim was denied due to the lack of supporting archaeological evidence, said archaeologist Aron L. Crowell of the Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution.

Melenda Lekanof-Baker (Du Keíl) of the Yéil Naa (Raven Moiety), K'ineix Kwáan (People of the Copper River Clan), Tsisk'w Hit (Original Owl House), Kwáashk’ikwáan Clan (People of the Humpback Creek) recalls listening to her grandmother and friends talking in Lingít about Humpback Creek.

“As I listened, I imagined what my people’s village looked like. This is how I know there was a village there because a long time ago my people came from this place, and the village would put up so much salmon, berries and medicines. So being able to evaluate this area and this stone wall that was newly discovered is just a peek of what is out there,” said Lekanof-Baker, who works in sacred sites management for the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe as the Lands And Cultural Resources Director.

“It’s like a gift from our ancestors, reminding us they are here still,” she said. 

The site has sacred and spiritual dimensions as well has historic significance, said SHI President Rosita Worl.

“As a village site, it is highly likely that it contains ancestral human remains as well as shamanic burials on the periphery of the village site. Tlingit belief systems hold that we have a duality of spirits — one part that remains with the human remains even after death while the other transfers to the spirit world,” said Worl, noting that Sealaska, when it founded SHI, charged the institute with protecting Native historic and sacred sites.

“SHI has taken that responsibility very seriously,” she said.

Sealaska Corporation has looked to document and care for Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian sacred sites from the very beginning of its 50-year history. The original Sealaska board called for significant research on documenting these sites, and its research included interviewing Elders and traditional scholars in all communities about sites that were known to them.

“We have prioritized attaining as many sacred sites as possible within our own land selections, and we have partnered with our tribes and SHI to make sure these sites are protected. Our own forestry practices require 300-foot buffers around all known sacred sites, and we stop work if we find undocumented sites and immediately survey the area,” said Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott.

“While Sealaska does not own all the sacred sites we’ve identified, we have partnered, again, with SHI, village corporations, and our local tribes to protect all known sites no matter who the landowner is – the Forest Service, the state, or others.  We look forward to the value of the cultural and scientific information that comes from studying this specific sacred site because of the depth of the oral history that pertains to the location,” Mallott said.

The Humpback Cove Village site is potentially one of the most important cultural resources in Yakutat Bay, with strong links to clan histories recounted in oral tradition, said Crowell.

“A remarkable set of cultural features related to salmon harvesting appears to be preserved, and cultural layers at the site could provide a unique record of traditional lifeways and subsistence practices extending back 700 years. Although part of the site has been clearcut, the cultural features do not appear to have been substantially damaged, and their future preservation should be a high priority,” said Crowell, who wrote a summary of traditional knowledge and a preliminary interpretation of the site this week after SHI reached out to him for assistance. 

Oral Tradition on Humpback Creek (Kwáashk’ Héeni)

This text is excerpted from a paper written by archaeologist Aron L. Crowell of the Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution.

Although the physical remains of a village at Kwáashk’ Héeni are a new discovery, the site is richly documented in Yakutat oral tradition. The creek was the scene of a dispute over fishing rights between Eyak clans residing in the area (the Hmyedi, Koskedi, or Łuẋedi) and members of the newly-arrived Gineix Kwáan, an Ahtna clan that migrated to Yakutat from their homeland on the Copper River. The conflict at Kwáashk’ (the Eyak word for pink or humpback salmon; Thornton 2012:21), which took place about 500 years ago, was peacefully resolved when the Eyak transferred ownership and use rights for all of eastern Yakutat Bay to the Gineix Kwáan in exchange for a treasure of tináa, engraved ceremonial shields made of native copper (Crowell 2022, 2023:204-208; De Laguna 1972:231-242; Swanton 1909: 347-368). According to the late Lena Farkas of Yakutat, the Eyak people said, “There is more copper in that canoe than this little creek (Kwáashk’) is worth, so we’re going to give you all of Tłaxatà (Yakutat Bay)” (L. Farkas, 17 June 2012; Crowell 2023:207).

In commemoration of this land acquisition, the Gineix Kwáan adopted a new clan name, Kwaashk’iḵwáan, meaning the “people of Kwaashk.’” Secure in their ownership of the area, the Kwaashk’iḵwáan and affiliated Galyáx Kaagwaantaan (an Eyak clan they encountered at Icy Bay during the migration) built the large village of Tlákw.aan (Tlingit, “old town”) on the south shore of nearby Ganawás (Knight Island). This took place sometime in the decades just before or after 1500 AD, based on radiocarbon dates from the Tlákw.aan archaeological site, YAK-00007 (Crowell 2022; De Laguna et al. 1965). Tlákw.aan was inhabited until the late 18th century, and its residents almost certainly continued to use Humpback Creek for subsistence fishing, based on the large quantities of anadromous fish bones in the Tlákw.aan midden and the creek’s prominence as the nearest spawning run for pink and coho salmon, Dolly Varden trout and steelhead trout (Alaska Department of Fish and Game 2022). Oral tradition also indicates that a fishing camp or summer settlement was located at the creek and that Yaa Xooda Keit, a Kwaashk’iḵwáan clan leader who died in about 1880, sometimes stayed there (De Laguna 1972:64-65). 

A detail from the Kwaashk’ story may be important for interpretation of the stone walls reported at the site. The territorial dispute began when the Eyak discovered a Gineix Kwáan man fishing at the creek with a salmon harpoon, which they took away and broke. Spawning salmon were traditionally taken with barbed harpoons as the fish schooled below barricades built across watercourses. Large box traps made of wooden stakes were also constructed in rivers, their mouths flanked by bank-to-bank weirs, and an example of this type was found in 1997 at the Lost River (historical site YAK-00079). Stone tidal weirs placed across the mouths of streams were another type of trap, designed so that salmon passed over the top of the rock wall when the tide was high but were blocked behind it as the water receded (Emmons 1991:102-121; De Laguna 1972:381-391). It is suggested that the parallel stone walls that cross the dry creek bed at YAK-00014 could be tidal traps of this type or possibly stone weirs that flanked a box trap, in which case a central opening should be visible. 

Archaeological Interpretation

This text is excerpted from a paper written by archaeologist Aron L. Crowell of the Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution.

Oral tradition indicates that Humpback Creek was an Eyak fishing site and probable settlement at the time that the Gineix Kwáan arrived in Yakutat Bay after their migration. The earliest radiocarbon dates from Tlakw.aan are about 1450 cal. CE (Crowell 2022, 2023), and the Humpback Creek site (YAK-00014) should therefore be older. Malaspina and Hubbard glaciers began retreating from the mouth of Yakutat fiord in about 1200 AD and had pulled back almost to Point LaTouche by 1450 AD, so the Humpback Creek/ Humpback Cove area could have been ice-free as early as about 1300 AD, suggesting a maximum site age of about 700 years. The village was used until the mid to late 19th century, based on its association with Yaa Xooda Keit. Cultural strata could therefore include dates and artifacts from the Eyak, Ahtna, and Tlingit phases of Yakutat history (Crowell 2023), and the uppermost levels probably include Russian and American trade artifacts such as glass beads, ceramics, metal items, and firearms.

Cultural features reported at the site include five house pits adjacent to a dry stream bed (Fig. 2). Five rock walls (Fig. 1) extend across the old stream, with parallel lines of evenly spaced boulders between the walls. As suggested above, the rock walls may be the remains of weirs constructed to trap salmon on high tides or direct them into traps, and the boulders could also be related to this fishing technique although their purpose is unclear.

Today the site is no longer adjacent to an active creek and is above tidal range, suggesting that uplift of the shoreline has occurred. This would have shifted the site both upward and inland away from the present shore and may also be responsible for rerouting the watercourse so that it now longer flows past the old village. The great earthquake of 1899 caused tectonic shifts in land levels all around Yakutat Bay but there was little or no vertical displacement at Humpback Cove (Tarr and Martin 1912) so that isostatic rebound – the land slowly rising after the great weight of glacial ice was removed – is therefore the likely cause. Isostatic uplift at the North Knight Island Village site (YAK-00205) was calculated at approximately 2 m since 1500 CE, so a similar or greater rise (causing decline of relative sea level, RSL) may have occurred at Humpback Creek, which is seaward of Knight Island and deglaciated earlier (Crowell 2023). As suggested by Richard Vanderhoek (the Alaska state archaeologist), the multiple rock weirs at YAK-00014 may have been built one after the other as RSL declined in order to keep the trap system at the proper level in relation to the tides. The older walls would be the highest ones. It is suggested that in surveying the site the elevation of datum be measured in relation to mean lower low water (MLLW); this will allow direct comparison to uplift at YAK-00205.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Amanda Bremner, Yakutat Tlingit Tribe Capacity Development Director,; Aron Crowell, Archaeologist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History,, 907-229-8369; Kathy Dye, SHI Communications and Publications Deputy Director, 907.321.4636, kathy.dye@sealaska.comPhotos courtesy of Defend Yakutat. Note: news outlets are welcome to use these photos for coverage of this story. For a higher-res version, contact