For thousands of years, Alaska Natives have been using oral traditions to record the passing of time. Now, a respected Tlingit anthropologist is working to use those stories and legends as a way to return Native lands to their original owners.
Anthropologist Ken Austin has dedicated much of his professional life to researching and documenting Native oral traditions. In a talk he gave last week to Holly Cusak-McVeigh's ethnohistory class at Kenai Peninsula College, Austin described how Native stories can be directly linked to actual historical events.
"It's not guessing, it's something we can pinpoint," Austin said.
Austin's work has focused on Glacier Bay National Park and the surrounding area. He said that when the area was made a park, the Indians living there were told they were no longer welcome.
"My people could not go back there," said Austin, who is originally from Hoonah.
The government claimed the land was now considered a national park, Austin said. But in reality, Northwest Pacific coast Indians have been living in the area for at least 10,000 years, he said.
However, since there is no written record dating that far back, Natives have traditionally been denied any sort of land claim to the area.
Austin wants to change that. He's documented a number of stories and legends that seem to support the Natives' claims.
He said the area around what is now called Glacier Bay has actually had several names over the years.
At one point, the bay was known as Anax ka yaawa Leexi Ye -- "where the snow mass broke through" -- in Tlingit. Austin said that name dates back to the last ice age, when the glacier filled the bay with ice.
Later, Glacier Bay was called, "xaatl tu," or "the place among the icebergs."
Austin said this coincides with the retreat of the glacier, which has been documented as taking place around 1740.
Finally, the area took on the name, "Sit Eeti Geeyi" -- "the bay in place of the glaciers." The implication is that the names have changed as the geology of the area has been reshaped. Since most of this far predates any European settlement near the bay, Austin believes the oral tradition can be used as a basis for returning the land to its original inhabitants.
"It coincides with geologic time," Austin said.
To further illustrate his point, Austin told the class a Tlingit story about a young girl named Kaasteen. It was tradition that when a girl entered puberty, she should be placed in seclusion. While in seclusion, Kaasteen taunted the glacier, which made it angry. The glacier moved forward rapidly, threatening to destroy the entire village.
The people of the village were forced to move, but Kaasteen stayed behind. Austin said that to this day, Tlingit hunters pay respect to Kaasteen by leaving gifts in the glacier.
Although the story might not be entirely factual, Austin said, it shows that the inhabitants of the area do indeed have a record of the advance and retreat of the glacier. Because of this, he believes the land should be returned.
"That is a way of saying it's our land claim," he said. "That validates our right to our ancient homeland."
Austin's work is new and potentially groundbreaking in the field of Native land claims. It's his hope that by researching and documenting the stories and legends, he can convince the government that Natives do indeed have valid claims to the land.
"I'm going to take what I've written to legislative liaisons to change federal law," he said.
For him, it's not necessarily a question of land ownership, but of the right of people to have access to their traditional homes.
"For us, a name is a breath of life, it continues forever," Austin said following his talk. "We look at it as the place where our livelihood is."
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