Yakutat has been a crossroads of sorts since its earliest human habitation. Yakutat Bay, as one of the few protected bays along the northerly edge of the Gulf of Alaska, has always attracted people coming from Southeast Alaska toward the northwest, from Prince William Sound toward the southeast, or toward the coast from inland. As the only cross-gulf stop for ships or jets, it continues to meet a similar human need in the area today.
Yakutat has a rich history of Native cultures and languages, including Athabaskan, Eyak, and inland and coastal Tlingit, with influence from the Chugach Eskimo and others. It is not known when the first Native peoples settled in the Yakutat area. The history of European-American culture in the area has made the culture even more complex, with explorers, missionaries, opportunity seekers, and alpinists coming from Russia, Europe, and the U.S., some to make a mark and leave, others to stay. In the latter part of the 1700s, when Russian explorers first came to the area and recorded information about the Native peoples they met, there were two main divisions in what is today the borough of Yakutat. These were the Dry Bay people and the Yakutat people.
The Dry Bay people likely came to the area from inland. They were partly of Athabaskan culture and language and were related to the Southern Tutchone who lived near the headwaters of the Alsek River (the mouth of which is at Dry Bay). They were intermixed with Tlingit culture and language, both inland Tlingit and coastal Tlingit from farther to the southeast. The territory of the Dry Bay people extended from approximately Cape Fairweather to the Akwe River, a stretch of coast some 50 miles long, with its eastern edge approximately equal to the current southeastern boundary of the borough.
The Yakutat people at that time were of Eyak culture and language, mixed with Atna Athabaskan from the Copper River valley. The Yakutat people controlled an area that stretched from Katalla (west of Cape Suckling) to Mt. Fairweather. These peoples had contact with Eyak, Atna Athabaskan, and Chugach peoples farther west and north, other Athabascans and inland Tlingit cultures in Canada, and the Tlingit farther southeast along the coast. These cultures influenced the borough’s cultures through trading, war, potlatches, and intermarriage.
Today, there are five major clans, or groups of relatives (also called “sibs” ) in the Yakutat area. These are all subunits of the Tlingit Eagle clan and the Tlingit Raven clan. and raven clans, which are an integral part of all Tlingit culture across southeast Alaska. Anthropologist Frederica de Laguna characterized the clans as something taken completely for granted – that is, Tlingit people are either Raven or Eagle, in much the same way people are either male or female.
The five sibs are:Teikukeidi (Brown Bear) Lunaxadi (Silver Salmon) Shunkukeidi (Thunder Bird Kwaashkikwaan (Humpback Salmon) Galix Kaagwaantaan (Beaver and Wolf) These families are based on the mothers’ lines (matriarchal, matrilineal). Each sib has its own regalia (such as dance shirts) designed with the crests of the sib itself, and of either the eagle or raven clan. These crests identify each clan (or sib itself, and of either the eagle or raven clan. These crests identify each clan (or sib) to other Tlingit clans.
Today’s organization under Yak-Tat Kwaan, Inc., the village corporation that formed as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, began in the early 1940s. The Colorado Oil Company wanted to drill exploratory wells in the Icy Bay area. The sibs formed the Five Chiefs of Yakutat, which became a corporation and received payment from the oil company in return for use of the area (Farkas 1994). Now these clans are also all represented by the Yakutat Tlingit tribe, a tribal government.
Subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering is an important part of life in Yakutat, although it is different today than it was even 40 years ago. Then, many Tlingit traveled more to different areas during different seasons, and there was perhaps more sharing of catches.
Tradition formerly held that those from a tribal family in the Eagle clan must always marry someone from a tribal family in the Raven clan, and vice versa. In the last 60-70 years, this has become less widely practiced, but the tradition is still often followed. There is no longer pressure and punishment by expulsion from the clan or even death for not following the tradition (Farkas 1994). There is also much marriage between Tlingit and Caucasian peoples.
The Teikweidi sib came from the Dry Bay area to the Ahrnklin River area several miles east of Yakutat Bay. They reportedly bought land there from a clan (sib) based in the Juneau area that is no longer represented in the area. De Laguna reported (1972) that this sib (“Teqwedi”) is essentially indigenous to the Yakutat area.
The Shunkukeidi came from the Dry Bay area. Before that, the sib reportedly came from Southeast Alaska via an inland trail then well established over passes along the Alsek River. De Laguna (1972) reported that this sib (“Cankuqedi”) was among several Tlingit sibs that came to the area from Southeast Alaska.
The Galix Kaagwaantaan sib was originally part of a migration of Copper River people. They ended up just west of Icy Bay in the Kaliakh Rivers area before coming to Yakutat. De Laguna (1972) reported that this sib (“Galix-Kagwantan”) originally spoke eyak and was from the “western gulf coast.”
The Lunaxadi sib came to Yakutat from the Latuya Bay and Dry Bay area. De Laguna (1972 reported this sib as “Tl’uknaxadi.”
The Kwaashkikwaan were part of the migration of Copper River people to the coast. The sib reportedly came over the glaciers from the interior originally and settled in the Icy Bay area in the 18th and 19th centuries. Later, they came to Yakutat Bay and settled on Knight Island. This is apparently the “K””ackqwan” sib de Laguna noted in 1972 as being originally Ahtna Athabaskan from the Copper River.