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Shuká Kaa Honor Ceremony and Science at On Your Knees Cave

Submitted to Soundings, November 10, 2008 by Terry Fifield and Dr. Priscilla Schulte.

For almost a decade Ketchikan Campus adjunct instructor, Terry Fifield and Anthropology Professor, Priscilla Schulte shared the excitement of discoveries surrounding On Your Knees Cave with UAS students. A seemingly insignificant little solution cave on northern Prince of Wales Island, the site has yielded one of the most ancient campsites on the Northwest Coast as well as the oldest human remains yet known from Alaska or Canada. Schulte and Fifield co-teach Fundamentals of Archaeology (ANTH211) annually (most years) during spring semester and use the archaeological and paleoenvironmental discoveries at On Your Knees Cave as well as the partnership between scientists, Alaska tribes, and federal agencies to illustrate many of the principles, scientific and political, presented in the class. Both Schulte and Fifield had the opportunity recently to be part of the Shuká Kaa Honor Ceremony on Prince of Wales Island.

Photo by Terry Fifield

The headstone, marking the burial site of Shuká Kaa, was commissioned by the Klawock Tribal government and funded by Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Photo by Terry Fifield)

During 12 years of study at On Your Knees Cave, paleontol-ogists and archaeologists changed our understanding of earliest Northwest Coast prehistory. Studies of stone tools, human bones, DNA, and animal and bird bones found in and near On Your Knees Cave shed light on the environment of Prince of Wales Island during and after the last Ice Age and the life of one of the first Alaskans who lived on the coast more than 10,000 years ago.

With archaeological studies nearing completion in 2006 the Klawock and Craig Tribal governments requested return of the human remains under the authority of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). In 2007 the Forest Service (Fifield is an archaeologist with the Tongass National Forest on Prince of Wales Island) transferred the custody of the remains to the tribes. It was in late 2007 that a committee was formed to plan a reburial and ceremony. The committee members represented the Klawock Cooperative Association (Tribe), Craig Community Association (Tribe), Sealaska Heritage Institute, and the Tongass National Forest. The committee worked from January through September to organize what came to be called the Shuká Kaa Honor Ceremony.

On Friday and Saturday, September 26 and 27, 2008 several hundred people from Prince of Wales Island and across southeast Alaska gathered in Klawock and Craig to honor a young man (called Shuká Kaa – “Man Ahead of Us”), the knowledge his discovery has given, and the relationships that have grown over the 12 years since his discovery in 1996.

Photo by Tim Heaton

Right: Palenontoligist, Fred Grady, shown here in the Seal Passage of On You Knees Cave, was a member of Heaton's crew for many years. (Photo by Tim Heaton)

The “Shuká Kaa Honor Ceremony” was hosted by KCA and CCA with the support of Sealaska Heritage Institute, the Tongass National Forest and nearly every educational, Alaska Native, and service organization on Prince of Wales Island. The ceremony consisted of meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinners) during the two days, at which speeches were made, awards and recognition given, and stories recounted about the history of the 12 year (and more) project. Tlingit and Haida Dance Groups from Klawock, Craig, Hydaburg, Ketchikan, and Juneau performed at the evening potlucks. Archaeologist, Jim Dixon and paleontologist, Tim Heaton accompanied by Terry Fifield, and Tlingit protocol specialist Bob Sam presented Friday and Saturday afternoon education programs at the Klawock and Craig public schools. A 28-minute video “Kuwóot yas.éin, "His Spirit is Looking Out From the Cave," produced by SHI, was shown each day. All events were well-attended. Organizers estimate over 1,500 meals were served during the two days. Dignitaries from many levels of federal, state, local, and tribal governments attended and participated.

Photos by Terry Fifield and Craig Lee

Above Left: Casts of the human remains from On You Knees Cave. Casts were produced by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. (Photo by Terry Fifield).

Above Right: Microblades, tiny slivers of stone, were used to create sharp edges on bone and ivory tools. Obsidian microblades can be matched to natural sources of the volcanic glass and allow inferences about maritime technology of 10,000 years ago. (Photo by Craig Lee).

By all accounts the events of September 26 and 27, as well as the 12 years of partnership and cooperative study that lead to the Shuká Kaa Honor Ceremony, were well received. The partners in this endeavor see the events as an important moment in history, a time when tribes, researchers, government agencies, and communities worked together to a common purpose. The story of important scientific studies conducted in a respectful partnership between scientists, Alaska Natives, and the Forest Service will be a valuable example to convey to UAS and other students for years to come.


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