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1972: Rivers that Flow Back to Mountains

Posted on: September 24, 2019


[This essay originally appeared in Alpinist 67 as part of a Mountain Profile about Mt. Hubbard, Mt. Alverstone and Mt. Kennedy in the St. Elias Range of Alaska and Canada. Alpinist 67 is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 67 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

The north buttress of Mt. Kennedy as seen during the 1935 National Geographic Society Yukon Expedition. At the time, Bob Bates wrote that he hoped the peak would be called Mt. Washburn. It was known as East Hubbard until it was renamed for President Kennedy in 1965. In his years as director of the Boston Museum of Science, Washburn hung an enlarged version of this photograph on his office wall. [Photo] Bradford Washburn, Bradford Washburn collection, Museum of ScienceThe north buttress of Mt. Kennedy as seen during the 1935 National Geographic Society Yukon Expedition. At the time, Bob Bates wrote that he hoped the peak would be called Mt. Washburn. It was known as East Hubbard until it was renamed for President Kennedy in 1965. In his years as director of the Boston Museum of Science, Washburn hung an enlarged version of this photograph on his office wall. [Photo] Bradford Washburn, Bradford Washburn collection, Museum of Science

EARLY EUROPEAN EXPLORERS to both North and South America often considered themselves the "discoverers" of new lands, even though Indigenous people had occupied the "new world" for thousands upon thousands of years. When Europeans and Americans traveled to what is now known as the Wrangell-St. Elias region of Alaska, they weren't the first to see or inhabit that breathtaking area. There were already remarkable people and cultures thriving there. The Indigenous people of that time referred to that region as Tlingit and/or Yakutat country.

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Tlingits lived near coastal and vast, mountainous inland areas. They created elaborate legendary histories about their majestic surroundings. Those stories were sometimes related to a subsistence hunting and gathering culture. Tagish elder Angela Sidney recounted one of these tales in Julie Cruikshank's book Reading Voices: "Then the caribou came with its young one— / by that time, they had young ones. / Then came the sheep. / All that were born, they sat on the swing. / Then the wolf came and sang his song."

There were also landscape myths such as this one, recounted by an Inland Tlingit, Elizabeth Nyman, in which the mountains were once giants who fought a ferocious battle. One giant tore the heart out of another and created an island that became the "heart of the Taku River." This is where the King Salmon, after years of wandering the sea, fought and swam their way back to their river home. And it's where Raven brought the sun to the people. He took it from a Chief who held it in a box, hidden away from all. When Raven escaped through a smoke hole in the Clan house, his feathers turned black like the night.

Along with their myths, the Tlingit developed considerable trade relations that required travel through the Wrangell-St. Elias and other ranges. The Yakutat Tlingit exchanged goods with the Eyak—their coastal neighbors to the west—with the Athabascan or Dene to the north and with groups that included the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations (Southern Tutchone speakers). Traditional Tlingit territory encompasses what is commonly called southeast Alaska, and it also extends into Canada's Yukon territory and British Columbia. Today, the Tlingit still occupy coastal regions of Alaska named both for the physical spaces and the humans inhabiting them, including Galyax Kwaan (People of Controller Bay), Laaxaayik Kwaan (People of Icy Bay) and Taant'a Kwaan (People of Prince of Wales Island). The Inland Tlingit also have three Canadian villages (Carcross and Teslin in the Yukon territory, Atlin in British Columbia).

The 1968 National Geographic Society map of the massif of Mt. Hubbard, Mt. Alverstone and Mt. Kennedy, directed by Bradford Washburn. [Image] NG Image CollectionThe 1968 National Geographic Society map of the massif of Mt. Hubbard, Mt. Alverstone and Mt. Kennedy, directed by Bradford Washburn. [Image] NG Image Collection

It should be noted that the Wrangell-St. Elias range spreads into Canada. Back in the day, the Tlingit wandered across those vast mountains all the way to their northern end. In 1999 hunters discovered the remains of a nineteen-year-old male First Nations traveler who died somewhere between 300 and 500 years ago. He was found frozen in a glacier area in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in northwestern British Columbia. He was claimed by the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, whose members called him, Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi, Long Ago Person Found. The traditional Tlingit hat that he wore was made from two weaving styles—those of the Tlingit and the Haida. His ground-squirrel clothing contained sinew from moose, as well as from blue whale and humpback and mountain goat. His main diet appeared to have consisted of salmon and shellfish. Though the Long Ago Person Found was not from Yakutat, he was likely a Tlingit who had relatives from both the Champagne/Aishihik area and also from Carcross/Tagish, which is sixty-five miles inland from Skagway. DNA tests have confirmed that possibility.

The location of Long Ago Person Found aptly displayed the far-ranging network between the traditional Tlingit and their inland relatives. Contrary to Western colonial thought, areas such as Wrangell-St. Elias were not an empty wilderness devoid of civilization. Indeed, the Tlingit had developed a culture that had layered their land with profound meaning. This creative process included the Yakutat people who lived near the peaks of the St. Elias that flowed into the sea and into rivers where they fished for salmon. They traded and created artwork such as totems (kooteeya) that told stories about their relationship to their landscape and to their sea and to their S'itak River, where they pulled salmon from nets and prepared them as food. This is a place where once even the salmon, who swam those icy river waters that flowed back to the mountains, were a kind of God.

[This essay originally appeared in Alpinist 67 as part of a Mountain Profile about Mt. Hubbard, Mt. Alverstone and Mt. Kennedy in the St. Elias Range of Alaska and Canada. Alpinist 67 is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 67 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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