Did Tlingit and Haida people eat sea otters during the pre-contact period? An issue of intellectual property and cultural heritage

Sealaska Heritage Institute's Sustainable Arts Program provides training to Sout
Sealaska Heritage Institute's Sustainable Arts Program provides training to Sout
Photo: Jeremiah James in Sitka, AK, teaching a Skin Sewing Workshop - part of SH
Sealaska Heritage Institute (photo: SHI)

Sea otters were once common around the North Pacific but were eradicated from southeast Alaska by about A.D. 1830 due to the commercial fur trade. In the 1960s, sea otters were re-introduced to selected areas in southeast Alaska and now their populations are rapidly increasing and expanding into new areas.

The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA, 1972) authorizes any Alaska Native who resides in Alaska and dwells on the coast of Alaska to harvest sea otters for subsistence purposes or the creation and sale of “authentic native articles of handicrafts and clothing” provided that the taking is not accomplished in a wasteful manner. Only Alaska Natives can buy and trade raw pelts or other sea otter parts between each other, and make and sell traditional handicrafts out of sea otter fur and other parts for sale to non-Natives. The MMPA does not define what are traditional subsistence uses of sea otters.

Some in the environmental community, who view the reintroduction and expansion of sea otters as one step in the restoration of the area’s marine ecosystem, believe that Tlingit should consume the animals as food in order for the harvesting of sea otters to not be considered wasteful. Contemporary Tlingit do not eat sea otter. By arguing that this condition should be met before Alaska Natives should be entitled to harvest sea otters, these environmentalists are attempting to define traditional Tlingit subsistence practices related to sea otter consumption. Who has the authority to define traditional subsistence use and who determines if a harvest is “wasteful”? Should not the Tlingit be the ones to define “subsistence purposes” according to their traditional practices? These are fundamental questions of indigenous cultural knowledge.

In their zeal to conserve sea otters, well-meaning regulators and environmentalists are on the cusp of placing additional restrictions on Alaska Native use of sea otters. Yet such negotiations are proceeding with virtually no consideration of the long-term history of the relationship of Tlingit people to sea otters. It seems likely that Tlingit people have been managing sea otters as part of larger marine ecosystems for thousands of years.

This project explores the history of sea otter use, through zooarchaeological study, in order to better understand the relationships between Tlingit ancestors and sea otters over the long period of time in which the two have been interacting.  The project was developed by Chuck Smythe and Rosita Worl (SHI) and archaeologist Madonna L. Moss (University of Oregon). Moss traveled to the Hearst Museum at University of California, Berkeley, which houses a significant collection of pre-contact sea otter bones from two sites (Daax Haat Kanadaa and Yaay Shanoow) in Southeast Alaska, to identify cut marks on the bones indicative of butchery and/or skinning. She examined 940 catalogued faunal remains and recorded cut marks and modifications on both sea otter and seal bones. The intent is to compare seals to sea otters, because we know that the Tlingit used sealskins, ate seal meat, and processed seal blubber for oil. Moss suspects that the three-part typology that zooarchaeologists often use (skinning, disarticulation, filleting) is too simplistic to capture traditional Tlingit butchering techniques. Moss is studying patterns of skeletal representation and cut-marks, and will consult with Tlingit sea otter hunters and sea otter fur processers in July 2016 to help decipher the function of the cutmarks.   

From these analyses, we will learn whether the residents of Daax Haat Kanadaa and Yaay Shanoow skinned sea otters for their fur, butchered them for food, or if they did both. The results will provide new information about an ancient cultural practice that has never before been documented in the Tlingit region. Although this study will not reconstruct the entire history of the relationship between Tlingit people and sea otters, it can shed light on a single question: did Tlingit and Haida people eat sea otters during the pre-contact period? This information will supplement traditional environmental and ethnographic knowledge of these practices.

Sealaska and other Tlingit and Haida organizations will use this data to establish the range of what are considered traditional cultural practices related to the subsistence use of sea otters. Archaeological data can provide information that help restore the knowledge of ancient Tlingit practices to tribal entities to use to defend their interests in response to state agencies (federal and State of Alaska) that are attempting to control and manage sea otter use. This new information can help Tlingit and Haida groups regain control over their resources and re-establish their long-term relationship with sea otters. It is hoped that this research can become a model of how modern zooarchaeological work can contribute to the decolonization of subsistence regulations and to respecting cultural rights and traditional knowledge.

The products of this study include an interim report to Sealaska, and a public lecture presented at Sealaska headquarters in Juneau, as well as scholarly presentations and journal articles.

The Sealaska Heritage Institute has been an IPinCH Partner Organization since IPinCH was first conceived in 2004.

Photos: Sealaska Heritage Institute's Sustainable Arts Program provides training to Southeast Alaska Natives in sewing sea otter skins to produce art for traditional use and for the sale of handicrafts.  This program supports both cultural sustainability and cottage industries that allow tribal members to remain in their villages which have few economic opportunities and are characterized as economically depressed; Jeremiah James in Sitka, AK, teaching a Skin Sewing Workshop - part of SHI's Sustainable Arts Program (photo by James Poulson, courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute); The Sealaska Heritage Institute (photo: SHI).

Research Themes

Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) methods engage communities in all aspects of the research process. 

George Nicholas
American Anthropological Association Conference, Session: Reversing the Legacy of Colonialism in Heritage Research (Montreal, Quebec)