Yakutat Tlingit Ethnographic Study

Mt St.  Elias Dancers
Mount St. Elias Dancers

Yakutat Tlingit Tribe / Bert Adams Sr.

Yakutat Tlingit and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve: An Ethnographic Overview and Assessment

By Douglas Deur, Thomas Thornton, Rachel Lahoff, and Jamie Hebert.

Tlingit people have traditionally occupied and used the southern part of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in the vicinity of Icy Bay and Disenchantment Bay, the Malaspina Glacier and Forelands, and the present-day community of Yakutat. This baseline ethnographic report provides an overview of Yakutat Tlingit connections to Wrangell-St. Elias based on existing ethnographic and historical sources along with new interviews conducted for this project.

The main body of the report is organized into three sections.

  1. “Foundations” focuses on cultural practices of the Yakutat Tlingit and Eyak that were well established at the time of European contact and have direct bearing on park lands and resources;

  2. “Transitions” discusses the many historical forces that affected life for the Yakutat Tlingit and Eyak, and outlines some of the implications of those changes as they relate to the park; and

  3. “Modern Connections” addresses enduring Yakutat Tlingit and Eyak connections to lands and resources in Wrangell-St. Elias since roughly the time of park creation.

A conclusion section summarizes findings, but also points in the direction of additional research questions and needs for the future. The annotated bibliography developed as part of this project is available to download as a separate volume.

Yakutat Tlingit Ethnographic Overview and Assessment (pdf format, 4 MB)

Annotated Bibliography (pdf format, 1 MB)


Mt St Elias Southeast Ridge
Mount St. Elias southeast ridge


Mount St. Elias - Was'eitushaa

By Tlingit scholars Judith Daxootsu Ramos and Elaine Chewshaa Abraham with additions by Barbara Cellarius.

Located along the Alaska coast near Icy and Yakutat Bays, Mount St. Elias is the tallest and one of the most important mountains in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Rising to an elevation of 18,008 feet (5,489 m) above Icy Bay, it is the second tallest peak in both the United States and Canada and fourth tallest in North America. The mountain’s official English name was likely borrowed from the name that explorer Vitus Bering gave to a point of land he sighted on, July 20, the saint’s day of St. Elias, in 1741 (Orth 1971:825), but our Tlingit name for it is Was'eitushaa, meaning “mountain at the head of Icy Bay” or “mountain inland of Was'ei.” Was'ei, in turn, is the Tlingit name for Icy Bay (Deur et al. 2015: 34). In 1939-40, linguist and ethnologist John Peabody Harrington recorded "Yaasśeeyyík" for Icy Bay, meaning "swampy or muddy ground" (de Laguna 1972:11, 95).

Our people consider this mountain a sacred site. It is part of the historical oral narratives of the K’ineix Kwaan and is at.óow (meaning clan property, something that is “owned and paid for” and often involves non-monetary forms of payment). (The clan is also known as Kwáashk'ikwáan, a name the clan took after they purchased fishing rights at the Humpback Salmon Creek, a creek which bears a traditional Eyak place name.) In his honor, songs and chants were composed, and today, many clan members use the mountain on their regalia. One of the clan’s “houses,” a sub-lineage of the clan, is Mountain House, named for Mount St. Elias. It continues to be one of the most important symbols of our community – our dance group is named after the mountain.

Mount St. Elias has enormous cultural and spiritual significance to us and is part of our sacred homelands. We consider Was’eitushaa as another living being, human-like, with the spirit of a male. These beings, like the mountain and glaciers, had intelligence, demanded respect, and had strict moral values. According to Tlingit Elder Elaine Abraham, "Mt. St. Elias is a very strong spirit and takes care of us, by telling us what the weather will be like. Also Hubbard glacier is a strong male spirit and can hear and understand what people are talking about.… He demands respect and that is why you have to be quiet in front of the glacier and offer tobacco, and request permission to enter the bay."

The mountain is used to predict the weather. During her fieldwork in Yakutat, anthropologist Frederica de Laguna (1972:803) mentioned a flat cloud streaming from the top of Mount St. Elias one evening and was told: “In the old days they used to tell the weather from it. Sometimes it puts on a sou'wester [rainhat] and then it means a bad storm. Sometimes the cloud is sidewise, as it is tonight, and then it means a westerly wind, good weather.” During the 1931 Alaska Native Brotherhood Convention in Yakutat, a love song was composed to show how happy they were when Mount St. Elias showed his face, that is, when the clouds lifted, and the mountain was visible:

Southeast Alaska sisterhood:
you make us happy yes,
my grandparents’ mountain [1]
there for you too will also be happy
just as if you were the one that opened the world.
Mount Saint Elias, you too will also be happy.
(de Laguna 1972: 1303, approximate translation by Judith Ramos and Elaine Abraham)

In addition to being an important navigational landmark for mariners, the mountain served as a guidepost for members of the K’inei Kwaan clan on their migration to the coast. Harry Bremner told de Laguna (1972:231-232, see also 222-223) a version of this migration story in 1949. The history of the people who become the K’inei Kwaan clan began at Chitina on the Copper River. Long ago, a Raven chief (Ltakdax?) died and left behind a big dish made from a giant moose antler. Following a dispute over inheritance, a son who did not get the dish set out from Chitina with other members of the community on a voyage to an unknown and hostile land. They left behind their home and crossed glaciers and mountains all the way down to the coast. Their journey tested their strength and determination, and many people died along the way.

They got lost in the fog on the glacier. When they called to each other, “wúhú!,” the sound echoed back and forth. In the fog they became separated. Half of the group ended up at the mouth of the Copper River. The remainder of the group crossed the Bagley Ice Field and came down along the side of Mount St. Elias, eventually ending up at Icy Bay. Crossing the ice field, there was no food to eat, and they were starving. They came to “a little mountain, an island with trees on it,” [2] where they killed a wolverine to eat. Then they continued walking towards what looked like a rabbit, as Bremner described: "Pretty soon they saw a rabbit sitting on the snow, far away. They walked towards the rabbit. After two days walking they saw it was the top of a mountain, but they kept on walking anyway. Finally they came to Mount Saint Elias. It was a compass for the people so they wouldn't get lost." (cited in de Laguna 1972:232).

When they came out at Icy Bay on the coast, everything was new to them. They knew very little about their new environment. They built their first lineage house at the bay and named it Mountain House, after Mount St. Elias.


[1] The composer is referring here to clan ownership of the mountain.

[2] Possibly a nunatak, which is an exposed peak or rock formation surrounded by a glacier or ice sheet.

This article was prepared in part through a cooperative agreement between Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe.

de Laguna, F. (1972). Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit. Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, National Museum of Natural History.
https://doi.org/10.5479/si.00810223.7.2; https://doi.org/10.5479/si.00810223.7.3.

Deur, Douglas, Thomas Thornton, Rachel Lahoff, and Jamie Hebert. (2015). Yakutat Tlingit and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve: An Ethnographic Overview and Assessment. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve: Copper Center, AK.

Orth, Donald J. (1971). Dictionary of Alaska Place Names. US Geological Survey Professional Paper 567. US Government Printing Office: Washington, DC.

Additional Resource:

Watch a video about the Youth and Elder trip at Esker Stream in the Malaspina Forelands. (you tube - 1 minute, 30 seconds in length)

"On July 23rd, 2019, around Yakutat, Alaska, a group of youth and elders from the K'ineix kwáan and Galyáx Kaagwaantaan clans travelled by small plane to Esker Stream on the Malaspina Forelands, along with 3 staff members from Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and a Student Conservation Association (SCA) intern. The Malaspina Forelands are part of the traditional territory of the Yakutat Tlingit. The purpose of the trip was to provide an opportunity for elders to reconnect with their traditional homeland and for them to share their knowledge of the area with the young participants."

Mount St Elias drum with Alaska Native animals illustrations
Mount St Elias drum

NPS/Barbara Cellarius

Was'eitushaa appears on a drum to commemorate a youth and elders visit to
the Malaspina Forelands in Yakutat, 2019.

Last updated: November 20, 2023

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Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
PO Box 439
Mile 106.8 Richardson Highway

Copper Center, AK 99573


907 822-5234

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