Frederica de Laguna and Her Reunion Under Mount Saint Elias

By: Steve Ferzacca

Originally Published in 1998

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Anthropologist Frederica de Laguna (“Freddy”) began her anthropological career almost seven­ty years ago (Fig. 1). In 1930 she led an archaeological and ethnological reconnaissance of Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet in southern Alaska for the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Fig. 2). In fact, much of her research throughout the years was with the support of the Museum. Her work in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet is considered definitive for an understanding of the archaeological record of southern Alaska (McClellan 1989). In 1949, she continued with her work among the cultures and peoples of southeastern Alaska, conducting research that combined the approaches of archaeology, history, and ethnography among the northern Tlingit communities of Yakutat, a village that lies in the shadow of Mount Saint Elias, and Angoon.

In 1996 Professor de Laguna returned to Yakutat to attend a gathering given in her honor by the Tlingit people among whom she had conducted research nearly fifty years earlier (Fig. 3). Her invitation was sponsored by the Yakutat Camp of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, acting for the Yakutat tribe.

Frederica de Laguna began her academic career at Bryn Mawr College in 1938 as a lecturer; she became an assistant professor in 1940. In 1967 anthropology split from its association with sociology and de Laguna, who had been the chair of the combined program, contin­ued as chair of the newly founded Department of Anthro­pology. She taught in that department until her retirement in 1975, and from that time to the present she has been the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor Emeritus of anthropology. Several of the current faculty in the department felt her return to Alaska should be docu­mented, not only for de Laguna’s sake, but—because of her stature in the field of anthropology—for the disci­plinary record as well. This was the genesis of the “Freddy Project.” The research project is designed to capture the particular history of this “brilliant feminine pioneer” (McClellan 1989:771) and to follow her travels through the landscapes of her anthropo­logical past in this living archive. The reunion under Mount Saint Elias served as a starting place for this documen­tation.

Laura Bliss Spaan, a filmmaker with whom de Laguna had worked before, captured the events of her return, creating, with support from Wenner Gren Foundation and other sources, Reunion Under Mount Saint Elias: The Return of Frederica de Laguna to Yakutat, Alaska (1997). The film, combined with de Laguna’s comments and conversations with those who accompanied her and those she encountered along the way, is a rich and deeply moving oral and visual transcript of anthropo­logical history in the making.


De Laguna’s professional activities and contri­butions to the discipline are well known and have been outlined elsewhere (McClellan 1989; and see editor’s note, p. 17 above), but several of her accomplishments should be mentioned. Her field experience and research in anthropology began in 1929 as Dr. Therkel Mathias­sen’s first assistant in his systematic survey of the archae­ology of Greenland. In 1975, she and Margaret Mead were the first women anthropologists elected to the National Academy of Sciences. All along the way de Laguna was a trailblazer, practicing anthropology in oftentimes poorly charted and rough territories, travel­ing by precarious forms of transport, discovering cul­tures never before systematically studied (see Levine 1994 and McClellan 1989).

De Laguna was president (1939-1940) of the Philadelphia Anthropology Society, and she has served as president of the American Anthropological Associa­tion (1966-1967). In 1986 she was selected by the American Anthropological Association for the Associa­tion’s Distinguished Service Award. Her response, recorded in a scribbled note to Bryn Mawr’s president at the time, Pat McPherson, was, “They are crazy, but I’m very pleased.” President McPherson replied in a letter, “They are not at all craiy-they are in fact very much in their right minds.”

And indeed, it is clear that the members of the Association were very much in their right minds to honor this last student of Franz Boas and friend and admirer of A.L. Kroeber and A. Irving Hallowell, as well as of J. Alden Mason and Linton Satterthwaite at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. One has only to consider de Laguna’s accomplishments as a teacher and scholar: a body of work that includes sixteen books and over a hundred other publications, and her important collections housed at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and in Bryn Mawr’s Department of Anthropology. The film itself bears witness to perhaps the East of a breed in American anthropology.


In the film Professor de Laguna refers to her­self as “an old-fashioned anthropologist,” one who believes that everything about a people should be stud­ied. She remarks that her study in Yakutat was a “combi­nation of archaeological and ethnological work,” an approach which she feels “is still an ideal way of under­standing a people” (Fig. 4). In her presidential address to the American Anthropological Association, de Laguna lamented “the increasing specialization and sep­aration . . . of the different subdisciplines” that charac­terizes contemporary anthropology (1968:469).

Her interest in the Yakutat Bay began with observations that similar archaeological cultural traits were found in such widely separated areas as the prehis­toric sites discovered at Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound and the great sites of the Gulf of Georgia and Lower Fraser River region in southern British Columbia discovered a generation earlier. She believed that these similarities represented historical contact and the exchange of objects and ideas between groups. In de Laguna’s estimation, Yakutat Bay appeared to be the most obvious stopping point for migrating groups and trading parties of Native Americans, a kind of crossroads for the exchange of cultural practices, artifacts, and ideas. She became intrigued with conducting an ethno­graphic study of a functioning Tlingit community among the archaeological sites of their ancestors, a study that would allow her to “trace the development of the emergence of a Tlingit cultural pattern from its early beginnings” (interview, Reunion out-takes 1997).

Like many American anthropologists of her time, de Laguna felt, as she says in the film, “everything, if you look at it maybe closely enough, or save it, will have some kind of meaning.” She, like many of her col­leagues, felt the urge to record and so preserve, if not salvage, the disappearing lifeways of native peoples (McClellan 1989). Her insatiable holism and a vision of irrecoverable loss that were also common concerns for early American anthropology found friendly support from museums (see Hallowell 1960). And so de Laguna collected objects and artifacts that are the stuff of muse­um collections, along with the games, songs, dances, myths and legends, cures and medicines that made up the social and intellectual world of the Tlingit of Yakutat. This great regard for data, material and imma­terial, was necessary for understanding the inner histori­cal developments of particular cultures, as well as tracing contacts between them that could outline the boundaries and reaches of “culture areas.”

The University of Pennsylvania Museum holds considerable collections that she assembled: specimens from Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound (1931— 1933) (Fig. 5) and from the middle and lower Yukon Valley (1935) (Fig. 6); and other objects from the Tlingit (1950, 1952-1954) and the Copper River Athabascans (1954, 1958, 1960, 1968). Eighty percent of Bryn Mawr’s collection of archaeological and ethnographic objects was established under her guidance, and repre­sents a collection not only for scholarly use, but for teaching purposes as well.


The film is narrated by Elaine Abraham, the daughter of the late Olaf and Susie Abraham, who at the time of de Laguna’s initial study were respected elders of the village and her teachers (Fig. 7). As well as being a straightforward chronicle of de Laguna’s reunion with the Tlingit of Yakutat, the film also captures her holistic expertise as she figuratively and literally meanders through present and past geographies. She identifies topographic and environmental features of both archae­ological sites and 20th century villages, and discusses the ecological and historical significance of these features for the Tlingit. De Laguna moves easily from commen­taries on the material conditions of life for the Tlingit to explanations of the meanings given in Tlingit myth and song to physical features of their environment.

Professor de Laguna and her travel companion, Catharine (“Kitty”) McClellan, a former student who became a colleague as well as a formidable anthropolo­gist of North America in her own right, visit the old vil­lage site where they worked together many years ago (1952). They examine gravestones and reminisce about past fieldwork associations, places, villages, and clan houses now long gone (Fig. 8). At the grave of another close native friend and key informant, Minnie Johnson, de Laguna speaks about her desire to write Minnie’s life history. Minnie’s grave arouses memories of songs and stories and de Laguna’s relationship with Minnie’s grandchildren as “joking relatives.” A complex picture of Tlingit social organization, past and present, emerges in conversations about Tlingit shamanism, life in the old village, the gender of glaciers, stories of childbirth, songs and dances, and mythological charters of clans.

Her research on Yakutat and its people is embodied in her three-volume monograph, Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit (1972). In the film, Elaine Abraham remarks that de Laguna “collected so much information during her early fieldwork here that it filled three huge books . . Almost everyone [in Yakutat] has a set. And almost everyone here wants her to sign them.” This points up the meaning her books have for the Yakutat Tlingit: they find them credible accounts of their rich culture. Abraham testifies to the role de Laguna’s work has played in contemporary constructions of Tlingit identi­ty. She comments that many in the community are “deeply interested in figuring out what it means to be Tlingit,” and they want to honor de Laguna “for her part in helping them find their answers.” Professor de Laguna’s work, says Abraham, represents the “greatest gift anyone can give a culture.” The deeply felt respect and affection that the anthropologist, “Grandma Freddy,” and the people she worked with have for each other reverberates throughout the film, in the gifts she is given by fourth graders, in the dance and ceremony given in her honor.

Another theme heard over and over again in the film, and one found in de Laguna’s own work, is a “note of sadness for the extinction or wrenching changes expe­rienced by once flourishing native American cultures” (McClellan 1989:772). The urge to salvage an under­standing of a people from the fragments of what was once a coherent, rich culture continues to be of some concern for de Laguna. However, she is not a romantic primitivist, nor does she entertain the notion of a histo­ry or culture of a people as static and unchanging. In her address given at the reunion, de Laguna remarks: This is the most extraordinary and delightful surprise to find that the people I knew are far from vanishing. They’ve got a new lease on life. There’s new vigor and I’m particularly happy and proud of all the new artists among the Tlingit, among the Yakutat people; a rebirth of pride among themselves.


Reunion Under Mount Saint Elias has been shown in several Alaskan venues and has met with criti­cal acclaim in and outside of Alaska. It has received a Bronze TELLY in the documentary category, an Award for Excellence from the National Videographer Awards, and was honored at the American Indian Film and Video Festival held in Oklahoma City (Junes 1997).

The filming of Professor de Laguna’s return, and the film itself, represent the first phase of the pro­ject. The design for the second phase of research is still in progress. There remains a great deal of unused rough-cut film footage with which to work. Also planned is a more focused consideration of de Laguna as a senior anthropologist with a history that will further examine her “old-fashioned” anthropology from a broader per­spective, as part of a history of American anthropology. For Bryn Mawr’s Anthropology Department, the “Freddy Project” continues a long-standing research concern in the anthropology of Alaska that is still active today. The project also reflects the pedagogical value the department places in its curriculum on the knowledge of the history of the discipline, a tradition de Laguna her­self established along with the department.

STEVE FERZACCA  is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College. His research has focused on the medical anthropology of chronic disease in Java, Indonesia, and in the United States. He is cur­rently working on a book entitled Healing the Modern in a Javanese City. Steve teaches the history of American anthropology and anthropological theory at Bryn Mawr College, and plans a hook on anthropological theory as history that in part will come out of the “Freddy Project.”


I wish to thank Wenner Gren Foundation, Historical Archives Program, for their remarkably expeditious response to our grant proposal and for their support (Gr. HAP-6); Janice Newberry for her aid in preparing the grant proposal; Phil Kilbride and Rick Davis for their support and departmental backing of this project; and Tamara Johnston and Laura Smith for their assistance in the research and preparation of this article. I thank Lucy Fowler Williams for supplying the captions to Figs. 5 and 6. I would also like to thank Laura Bliss Spaan for her tireless efforts on the Alaska end, without which the film and the Project itself would not be possible. The Wenner Gren funds covered the filming in Yakutat; additional funding from several sources—the Alaska Humanities Forum and the National Endowment for the Humanities—and technical support from Weston Productions allowed Laura to turn the rough-cut footage into a finished film. Also one, the Alaska end thanks to Elaine Abraham, the narrator and advisor for the film project, and to Russ Weston, the photographer and editor. Finally, my most deeply felt thanks to Freddy, the Tlingit Yakutat, and the people of Yakutat, Alaska, who remind us what it is to be human and have history.

Cite This Article

Ferzacca, Steve. "Frederica de Laguna and Her Reunion Under Mount Saint Elias." Expedition Magazine 40, no. 3 (November, 1998): -. Accessed June 17, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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