Field notes on the ethnology of the Tlingit and Copper River Atna


Date: 1949-1960 | Size: 6 microfilm_reel(s)


These field notes, compiled by de Laguna and Catherine McClellan, include archaeological investigations, transcripts of interviews with community members and sketches. Tlingit material recorded at Yakutat, Angoon, Carcross, and Teslin, with small amount at Atlin; Ahtna material recorded at Chitina, Copper Center, and Chistochina.

Background note

A seminal figure in the anthropology of the Arctic and Northwest Coast, Frederica de Laguna produced an unparalleled body of research during a career that spanned 75 years. "Freddy" as she was known to friends and colleagues, was blessed with "a combination of spectacular intelligence, uncommon dedication, literary skill, and longevity" (Fitzhugh 4). She made significant contributions to the study of circumpolar art, Arctic and Alaskan archaeology, and Northwest Coast ethnology. De Laguna practiced a comprehensive, holistic approach to anthropology; her meticulous work utilized archaeology, folklore, ethnohistory, social anthropology, human biology, and linguistics. An effective educator and encouraging mentor, De Laguna taught at Bryn Mawr College from 1935-1975, where she built an anthropology department and started a PhD program. She also made many contributions to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology. De Laguna earned many plaudits during her career, one of the most notable of which was being elected, along with Margaret Mead, as the first women anthropologists to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975.

Frederica Annis Lopez de Leo de Laguna was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan on October 3, 1906 to Grace Mead Andrus and Theodore Lopez de Leo de Laguna, both of whom were philosophy professors at Bryn Mawr College. A bright student with an uncommon memory, Frederica graduated summa cum laude from Bryn Mawr in 1927, with a major in politics and economics. After earning a baccalaureate, she spent a year taking graduate courses at Columbia University, studying anthropology, linguistics, and folklore with Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Gladys Reichard.

In 1929, de Laguna experienced her first taste of extensive fieldwork, through a six-month expedition to Greenland with the Danish anthropologist Therkel Mathiassen. The expedition is significant for being the first scientific archeological excavation in Greenland. The Inugsuk site the two visited contained a fascinating blend of Eskimo and Norse material. Captivated by the rugged, pristine landscape; the indigenous folk that she encountered; and the intellectual stimulation of fieldwork, de Laguna remarked in a letter home to her parents, "I feel as if I had never really been alive before" (De Laguna Voyage, 101).

Upon returning from Greenland, de Laguna enrolled full-time at Columbia, reconnecting with Franz Boas. She pursued a doctorate in anthropology, earning the degree in 1933. For her doctoral dissertation, de Laguna compared Eskimo and Paleolithic art.

In the summer of 1930, she took her first trip to Alaska, studying Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. Further expeditions to Cook Inlet followed in 1931 and 1932; to Prince William Sound with Kaj Birket-Smith in 1933; and to the Yukon Valley in 1935.

De Laguna accepted her first academic position in 1935, becoming a lecturer in sociology at her alma mater, Bryn Mawr, where she taught the first anthropology course. A teaching career at the college followed: she became assistant professor in 1938, associate professor in 1949, and full professor in 1955. De Laguna chaired the joint Anthropology/Sociology department from 1950-1967, and the newly independent Anthropology department from 1967-1975. De Laguna also held several visiting professorships during her long career, at the University of Pennsylvania (1947-1949; 1975-1976) and at the University of California, Berkeley (1959-1960; 1972-1973).

De Laguna's academic career was interrupted by the Second World War. In 1942, she volunteered for the navy, serving in WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). For a year she was based at Smith College, where she taught women midshipmen naval history and cryptography. From 1943-1945, de Laguna worked in Washington, D.C., for naval intelligence, at the Alaskan and German desks.

In 1949 Frederica returned to Alaska for the sixth time, and over the next twenty years, took an additional seven trips to the field there. She pursued an ambitious archaeological, historical, and ethnographic study of the Tlingit culture. From this work, she published a three-volume monograph, Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit (1972), which remains the definitive work on the tribe. It was well received both by anthropologists and the Tlingit themselves. During this time, de Laguna worked closely with her former student, Catharine McClellan. In addition to studying the Tlingit, she also studied the Atna Athabaskans of the Copper River and Upper Tanana with Marie-Francoise Guedon.

De Laguna's work became a resource for the communities she studied. Particularly in later years, she recorded samples of indigenous speakers talking in their native language as a means of helping to preserve native culture. APS holds several of these recordings.

De Laguna took great pride in forming positive relationships with the native peoples she encountered. She saw anthropology as a "liberating and exacting discipline [that] confer[s] citizenship in the universal brotherhood of humankind" (De Laguna, "Becoming," 25). With the longevity of her career, she was able to return to the communities she studied and tap in to these relationships, witnessing the change of a culture over time. De Laguna returned to Greenland in 1979, undertaking some ethnography of the people around Upernivik. She was touched to visit with an elder who in 1930 was a small child living on the island when de Laguna was excavating.

While working with the Tlingit, the tribe adopted de Laguna as a member of their Gineix Kwaan and Luknaxadi Raven Moiety clans. De Laguna received the tribal name of Kuxaankutaan and composed a song based upon the golden-crowned sparrow to her friends. She recorded the song in 1954 as part of her field work (See: Mss.Rec.30). Returning to Alaska in 1986, de Laguna sang the song during a memorial potlatch for a clan member. In 1997, the Tlingit honored de Laguna herself with a potlatch.

Reflecting upon her profession, de Laguna noted:

Anthropology is different from any other scholarly discipline or profession: it is a way of life...[I]t involves contacts with aliens, living with aliens, adapting to them, making friends, convincing them, and getting to know something of them as individual persons--and thereby transforming one's self and fulfilling one's hitherto unforeseen potentialities...[T]he anthropologist is taken out of this ordinary life and out of himself. In the constraints and challenges of the new life in the field, he finds a new freedom and a new personality. (De Laguna, "Presidential Address," 474).

De Laguna wrote this in 1968 as the outgoing president of the American Anthropological Association. Gaining a further perspective towards the end of her life, she added the following thoughts to the above passage in an essay written for a conference of Northwest Coast ethnologists in 2000: "If only in their imagination, [anthropologists] have been forced to accept the aliens' values and concepts, and when the field anthropologists return, they must translate these into terms that their colleagues can understand. Thus they have gained dual citizenship" (De Laguna, "Becoming," 51).

In returning from fieldwork, an anthropologist "never returns as the same person to one's own native country" (De Laguna, Voyage, 12).

De Laguna left a lasting legacy both to the professional community of anthropologists and to the native peoples she interacted with. Frederica de Laguna passed away on October 6, 2004 at her home in Haverford, Pennsylvania, three days after her 98th birthday.

Collection Information

Physical description

6 microfilm reels.


Presented by Frederica De Laguna and Catherine McClellen and accessioned, 1962 (1962 2371mf). See in-house shelf list for additional accession numbers.

Location of originals:

Originals are located in the Frederica de Laguna Papers at the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Indexing Terms


  • Interviews.
  • Sketches.

Geographic Name(s)

  • Alaska -- Languages

Personal Name(s)

  • De Laguna, Frederica, 1906-2004
  • McClellan, Catharine


  • Ahtena Indians
  • Indians of North America
  • Tlingit Indians