Ice, Seals, and Guns: Late 19th-Century Alaska Native Commercial Sealing in Southeast Alaska

Aron L. Crowell

Abstract

Starting in about 1870, indigenous residents of southeast Alaska intensified their traditional hunting of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) in order to produce surpluses of skins and oil for trade with the Alaska Commercial Company. The most important hunting ground was the head of Yakutat Bay, where thousands of seals were taken annually in June and July at the ice floe rookery near Hubbard Glacier and processed on shore at Keik’uliyáa sealing camp. Firearms obtained in trade were essential tools for mass harvesting. A multisource study of Keik’uliyáa and the historical ecology of 19th-century sealing at Yakutat was undertaken during 2011 and 2013 by the Smithsonian Institution in collaboration with the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, employing oral history, archaeology, archival sources, and photographic documentation from the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition. Economic, social, and ecological dimensions of this historical mode of production are examined and compared with both earlier and later eras.

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