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Genetic researchers hope to trace Raven and Eagle lineages

Mike Dunham
Sealaska Heritage Institute volunteers gather DNA during Celebration 2008. A new DNA drive this week hopes to match genetic markers with family histories to reveal something about the migration of people into Alaska.
Photo by Brian Wallace
Eagle- and Raven-themed totem poles in downtown Anchorage.

Alaska Natives in Juneau for this week's Celebration gathering are being asked to participate in a DNA study that may help determine which came first -- the Raven or the Eagle?

Southeast Alaska tribes are identified as members of two moieties, sometimes called clans, named after those two iconic birds. People do not typically marry within their clan, and children assume the clan of their mother. The practice is widespread in the Pacific Northwest, and its ancient origins are obscure.

Some indigenous groups have resisted taking part in genetic studies for various reasons, but this DNA drive is sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, a tribal organization dedicated to perpetuating and enhancing Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.

"By and large, our people have been supportive," said Rosita Worl, president of the institute.

Worl pointed to a traditional value expressed in the Tlingit words "Haa Shagoon." Strictly translated as "our ancestors," they have "a deeper meaning than that," she said. The phrase denotes "maintaining ties to our ancestors and obtaining knowledge for future generations."

"I recall a meeting where one elder stood up and said, 'I like this (DNA) work. It proves scientifically that we've been here since time immemorial.' "

But one clan may be more immemorial than the other.

Worl, an anthropologist, has hypothesized that the two moieties sprang from two distinct groups that arrived on the coast of Alaska and British Columbia at different times. "I'm not the first one to develop this idea," she said, but she's made a careful study of available evidence.

She was able to link all of the Eagle clans through oral histories, she said. "But I couldn't find ties that would link Ravens into a single group."

She examined thousands of items in the Smithsonian Institution and discerned that Raven art was somewhat more complex than that found on Eagle clan hats and other objects. "I looked at the crests and noticed that the Ravens had taken the most important resources in their designs, including the salmon. The Eagles had birds, octopus, killer whale."

It all suggested to her that Ravens had settled the coast before Eagles migrated into the area.

"I'm an Eagle, and the Eagles weren't happy with me," she said with a laugh. "But the Ravens liked it."

A few weeks ago, she learned of research under way in the village of Hoonah by Theodore Schurr, principal investigator for a University of Pennsylvania study titled "The Genographic Project: Molecular Genetic Analyses of Indigenous Populations of North America."

Schurr's project is multinational in scope and aims to help determine migration patterns by which early humans spread across the globe, including through North America.

The Sealaska Heritage Institute had participated in previous DNA studies. The group took 200 samples from participants at Celebration in 2008, Worl said. But they neglected to gather family histories until afterward.

Schurr, Worl discovered, was collecting oral histories at the same time as the DNA, a more time-consuming approach but one with the potential of providing critical data.

"I was pleased to see how thorough his process was," Worl said.

"What is fascinating to me about Dr. Schurr's work is that he was able to distinguish between members of the Eagle and Raven moieties based on their (mitochondrial) DNA haplogroup," which helps establish the matrilineal inheritance of an individual. Clan membership is also traced through mothers.

Before agreeing to support the study, Sealaska reviewed its purpose, process and consent forms to protect the privacy of participants and ensure that there would be no commercial use of the information gleaned, among other concerns.

Schurr began collecting family stories from volunteers and swabbing their cheeks for DNA at Centennial Hall in Juneau on Wednesday. He will continue the work through the end of Celebration on June 9.

The event draws thousands of people of Southeast Indian heritage to Alaska's capital every two years. "It's a real opportunity to meet a lot of people from different communities in Alaska and Canada," he said. "They represent a pretty broad diversity."

Schurr said he hopes to get information that will help define the relationship between the interior and coastal Tlingit, or even the northern and southern portions of the coastal populations, perhaps even the connection between Tlingit and Haida groups, whose cultures are nearly identical but whose languages are unconnected.

"Hopefully it will let us see a bigger picture," he said.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

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