situk heritage and history: a brief overview
Yakutat is a remote fishing town of approximately 550 people on the north coast of the Gulf of Alaska. Especially important to this community is the harvest of salmon returning home from the ocean each year to the Situk River. Yakutat is closely tied to this small but highly productive river and its salmon set-net fishery. Local use of the river is based on mutual respect and shared values despite differing uses.
The Situk River flows some twenty miles from the base of a mountain lake before reaching saltwater in the Situk-Ahrnklin estuary and continuing another five miles out to sea. In recent living memory, the Situk, Ahrnklin and Lost rivers were separate river systems. Today these rivers have merged and flow into an estuary before emptying out into the ocean. The enormous diversity and productivity of the Situk is partly a function of its unique geology and the dynamism of the forelands and glacial systems which feed it.
The Situk is situated in traditional Tlingit Teikweidi or Brown Bear clan territory, flowing through Forest Service-managed land and several Native allotments (private land).
The Situk-Ahrnklin Estuary supplies 74% of all the salmon harvested in Yakutat for food and customary use, almost all of which are taken by set nets. In 2015, 94% of households used salmon, half of which was sockeye caught primarily from the Situk. Sharing this harvest is widespread. While not cash-based, the personal salmon harvest from the Situk River is critically important to the economic survival of the majority of local families.
The Situk-Ahrnklin estuary also provides between 60-80% of Yakutat's commercial set-net fishing income depending on the year, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Between 40-60, mostly resident families fish in the estuary during salmon season, providing the means to mix a modest, but vital income with a fish camp/subsistence way of life. While commercial fishing and seafood processing drive the private sector economy, sport fishing related tourism is Yakutat’s third most valuable employer. According to long time guides, sport fishing in Yakutat began in the 1970’s, growing rapidly in the 1990’s to levels seen today. The Situk River receives almost 2,000 visitors a year. Nearly 19%*** of local wages for resident and seasonal workers are derived from visitors who come to fish salmon and halibut.
Heritage: The Five Original Clans of Yakutat
Before European contact, Alaska Native communities lived along the rugged gulf coast of Alaska, between Lituya and Controller bays. Over time, five major clans migrated to the Yakutat area. Today, Yakutat is considered a Tlingit community, though it retains a unique mix of Eyak and Athabaskan culture from these earlier settlements and intermarriage.
The Teikweidí (Brown Bear) clan migrated from Southeast Alaska and Dry Bay before moving to the Arhnklin River area (Drum House group) and settling on the Situk and Lost rivers (Bear House group). The Kwaashk’ikwáan (Humpback Salmon) clan migrated from the Copper River area over the glaciers and settled in Icy Bay. Once in Yakutat, they established a village on Knight Island before moving to Monti Bay. Their extensive clan territory extends from Icy Bay to the middle of Lost River near the end of the airfield including Disenchantment Bay and the Ankau Lagoon area. The Galyáx Kaagwaantaan (Beaver and Wolf) clan migrated to Yakutat from from the Kaliakh and Tsiu rivers area. They had a major village on the banks of the Kaliakh River as well as other settlements at Cape Yakataga and on the Bering and Tsiu rivers. They had a major village on the banks of the Kaliakh River as well as other settlements at Cape Yakataga and on the Bering and Tsiu rivers.
The L’uknax.ádi (Coho) clan settled between Dry Bay and the Italio River establishing Gus’iex, a large village, on the Akwe River. Intermarriage was among the reasons the Shunkukeidi (Thunderbird) clan journeyed from Southeast Alaska to Dry Bay via an established inland trail and trade route linking northern Lynn Canal and the Alsek River. In time, they received their own territory
The boundaries of the City and Borough of Yakutat, encompassing 9,360 square miles between Mt. Fairweather and Cape Suckling, intentionally include the bulk of the traditional homelands of the Yakutat people and their five original clans.
Yakutat Tlingit and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve: An Ethnographic Overview and Assessment
by Douglas Deur, Thomas Thornton, Rachel Lahoff, and Jamie Hebert, 2015.
Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit by Frederica de Laguna, 1972. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Yakutat Tlingit History and Culture:
A Safe Harbor
With one of the few safe harbors in the Gulf of Alaska, Yakutat saw the arrival of European explorers and traders, including Captain James Cook, in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russians built a fort in the area in 1796 but were driven out in 1804 for transgressing hunting and fishing privileges.
In addition to Norwegians who came to fish, and Filipinos and Chinese who came to work in the cannery, other outsiders to arrive included miners, missionaries, World War II military personnel, loggers, Coast Guard families and other federal government workers. Many left but some stayed, establishing families and contributing to Yakutat’s diverse cultural mix.
Even as Yakutat’s population diversifies, its Tlingit heritage continues to inform and define its distinctive character. There is a strong tradition of people sharing, respecting and helping one another despite economic or cultural differences.
World War II History
The Yakutat Base was the first airbase completed in Alaska leading up to WWII, making Yakutat the leading edge of our defense in early 1941. Our runway was the longest runway on the west coast of North America in 1941 and a tremendous struggle to build during one of the wettest summers on record. Many fighter and bomber groups were temporarily stationed here throughout the war, with the 406th Bombardment Squadron and their fleet of Lockheed Hudsons present from start to finish. By late 1943, with the Japanese pushed out of the Aleutians, the Yakutat Airbase reduced operations, but remained an important refueling stop for Lend-Lease aircraft heading to the Soviet Union.
Situk Salmon History
A salmon processor established a cannery in 1904 where the fish plant still operates today. Ten miles of narrow-gauge railroad were built to haul fish from the Situk River to the processing plant. In 1914, Libby, McNeil and Libby Company, one of the leading canning companies in the United States purchased the cannery. They operated the plant until 1951 when they sold it to Bellingham Canning Company. Today the dock and cannery is owned by the City and Borough of Yakutat and leased to the current processor.
Before the road was built in the 1970’s, catches were shipped to town on the Yakutat & Southern Railroad. The historic salmon train, the only fish railway in the world, can be seen at the crossroads in downtown Yakutat. Parts of the railroad trestle crossing the Situk River can still be seen just upriver from the lower landing access. Today fish are trucked to town.
With the advent of commercial fishing in the Yakutat area, clan leaders still acted as custodian and caretakers of their fishing territories, controlling when the nets went in and out and how many fish could be taken. Teikweidí (Brown Bear) clan leaders Situk Harry or Situk Jim would restrict fishing if they thought there was not enough fish. Situk Harry would open and close the river with a white flag. The goal was to allow enough fish to swim upstream to spawn to ensure their future return. In 1959 fisheries management was turned over to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game when Alaska became a state. In 1973 the right to commercially salmon fish was limited and privatized under a permit system.
Today commercial fishing permits are individually owned and transferable on the open market. The majority of Situk River fishermen, Native and non-Native, are Yakutat residents and part of a cohesive community who fish together, look out for one another and share a fish camp way of life.