Tribal groups call for halt to logging at ‘sacred and culturally historic’ site near Yakutat

a snow patch surrounded by trees
Clear-cut logging site at Humpback Creek near Yakutat. (Courtesy of Defend Yakutat)

Controversy over a logging project near Yakutat in Southeast Alaska has intensified. The local tribe, an archaeologist and others say a site that’s being logged is home to centuries-old ruins that could provide clues into the history of Southeast Alaska’s Indigenous people.

Yakutat elder Victoria Demmert says her ancestors — for hundreds of years — harvested the abundant salmon that returned to Humpback Creek every summer.

“I don’t know how you could live here, grow up here and not know,” said Demmert, a council member for the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe.

Just this past August, the tribe passed a resolution calling the site sacred and culturally historic. Elders like Demmert and anthropologists say the tribe purchased the site from previous inhabitants hundreds of years ago. Tom Thornton with the University of Alaska Southeast visited the site in August and found “there is evidence of house remains and culturally modified trees and other landscape features.”

So Demmert says she was taken aback when she learned that the local Native village corporation, Yak-tat Kwaan Inc., had begun clear-cutting the forests around Humpback Creek. She says the company never publicly announced that its subsidiary, Yak Timber, planned to log the area.

“We had to find out by seeing what was going on,” Demmert said. “And then seeing some drone footage of it in addition to pictures that were being taken.”

An aerial photo of the clear-cut area annotated to show the locations of boulders and rock walls.
This is an aerial view of the logging near Humpback Creek. The yellow circles indicated boulders found at the site. The black lines represent rock walls. (Courtesy of Defend Yakutat)

In a Dec. 8 letter to Yak-tat Kwaan, the tribe called on the company to stop logging the area. The tribe wants time to investigate the site.

“We know we had a village there,” Demmert said. “And we know there are historical sites there, and we want Yak-Tat Kwaan to stop and let archaeologists get in there before everything’s destroyed.”

Now there’s physical evidence of the history, says Sealaska Heritage Institute. That’s the regional Native nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the history and culture of Indigenous people in Southeast.

A Yak Timber equipment operator found what could be several house pits and a series of parallel stone walls at the site being logged. That was at the beginning of December.

The institute announced the findings in a joint news release with the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe and Sealaska Corp. on Dec. 15. The groups called on Yak Timber to stop logging the area until it can be investigated.

“There are cultural and spiritual dimensions of it, that’s really important to us,” said Rosita Worl, the institute’s president and a Ph.D. anthropologist. “The rock wall…I’m just so curious about what, what is that? What kind of fishing occurred with that rock wall?”

A close-up photo of the tread from a piece of heavy machinery next to an old, overgrown rock wall.
Stone wall found near Humpback Creek. (Photo courtesy of Defend Yakutat)

Sealaska Heritage is working with archaeologist Aron Crowell with the Smithsonian Institute’s Arctic Studies Center. Crowell believes the Yakutat site could date back 700 years.

In the joint news release, he says “A remarkable set of cultural features related to salmon harvesting appears to be preserved. . . cultural layers at the site could provide a unique record of traditional lifeways and subsistence practices extending back 700 years. Although part of the site has been clearcut, the cultural features do not appear to have been substantially damaged, and their future preservation should be a high priority.”

Even before Humpback Creek, logging was controversial among Yak-tat Kwaan’s shareholders — so much so that Yak Timber announced on Oct. 4 that it would dissolve and sell off its assets.

But later in the fall, Yak Timber reversed course and started logging near Humpback Creek.

“Yak Timber is harvesting. We’ve been harvesting,” said Marvin Adams, CEO of Yak Timber, on December 13, two days before Sealaska Heritage announced their findings. He says the site has never been documented as historic and was approved by the Alaska Division of Forestry after they inspected it in 1975. A 2007 letter (page 12) from Sealaska Corp. discussing historic sites did not identify the area either.

After the findings were announced, Adams said he had yet to be formally notified of Humpback Creek’s cultural significance. He said the company would follow all relevant laws and regulations, but declined to say whether Yak Timber would continue logging the area.

“Obviously, we’re not going to go over some historical site to destroy it,” Adams said. “I think we all respect that. But right now, I have not been able to get any documentation from the tribe or anybody else.”

He points to the work of anthropologist Frederica de Laguna. She researched and wrote extensively about the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe from notes she gathered in the 40s and 50s.

Adams says she never mentioned Humpback Creek as a sacred site.

“If there was actually a historical site and a settlement there, I can assure you that that would have been listed and the specific house and the clan house that was supposed to be there would have been listed,” he said. “But it never was.”

But Demmert sees it differently. Though de Laguna’s work doesn’t go into detail, she says the anthropologist’s notes do mention Humpback Creek as an important salmon-harvesting site. It’s where her people Kwaashk’iḵwáan got their name, which means “people of the Humpback Creek.”

“It’s part of our history, it’s part of who we are,” Demmert said. “And to see it desecrated. . . it just hurts spiritually and physically. It just breaks our heart and brings tears.”

Worl, the Sealaska Heritage president, says the tribal groups are working with Crowell and the state to see how they can investigate the site further.

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