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Raven and Eagle: DNA Tracking Of Indigenous Clans in Southeastern Alaska

Updated on July 31, 2015
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

A descendant of Mohawk Nation and trained in anthropology, Patty has researched and reported on indigenous peoples for over four decades.

Wolf Button Blanket by Allen Ederza & Eileen Sembsmoen

Button blanket featuring Wolf Clan crest, displayed at 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics in conjunction with Four Host First Nations Pavilion arts.
Button blanket featuring Wolf Clan crest, displayed at 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics in conjunction with Four Host First Nations Pavilion arts. | Source

Clan Representations

The image above represents the Wolf Clan of the Pacific Northwest peoples, sewn into a traditionally inspired button blanket and used as a wall hanging. This one was displayed at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. The buttons are made from the shells of local sea life and sewn on by hand. Many clans exist, based on founders that possess dual personas, usually an animal-human duo, although some founders are nearly human at the beginning, like Wild Man of the Woods.

You may be familiar with the phenomenon in which modern non-tribal seekers find their "power animals" or "totem animals" or "spirit guides" in a spiritual or religious quest. Clan Founders are often used for these animals, although in many Indigenous origins, these founders are respected as shape shifters that live in a spiritual and human world simultaneously and can change shape from human to animal and back. They were not worshiped in the manner that some groups worship idols and neither are their "totem" poles.

Clan founders include dozens, but some of the more familiar are Raven, Killer Whale, Thunderbird, Eagle, Sea Bear, Grizzly Bear, and Cedar Man.

Four groups of people are indigenous to Southeastern Alaska and these include Eyak,Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. The last native speaker of Eyak died in the late 2000s and no full-blooded Eyak have been found since that time to date (June 2012). A teacher of the Eyak language is active, but he is French, so the Eyak language is officially "extinct", because it has no full-blood Eyak speakers.

Various DNA research studies are arriving at more clearly delineated relationships between Pacific Northwest peoples, based on genetics. One interesting case concerns whether the Eagle or the Raven (who brought the sun to humankind) clan arrived in Southeastern Alaska first.

The Button Blanket (Northwest Coast Indian Discovery Kits)
The Button Blanket (Northwest Coast Indian Discovery Kits)

Power animals are sometimes depicted on traditional button blankets.


Origins and Creation Stories

Each clan of the Pacific Northwest maintains its own foundation story about how and when it was begun by a legendary animal or spirit-person.

Probably to the non-native, the most famous of the clan founders are Wolf, Turtle, Eagle, and Raven. Their images are seen on T-shirts for sale across the United States, Canada, in casinos and state fair tents, and online.

The Kwakiutl groups have the greatest number of foundation stories among any nation or tribe I have known about so far. These stories are specific and distinguish each small group (band or community) within the Kwakiutl from the others.

Clan founders are also present among Native American Nations all the way to the East Coast. Entire workshops and study groups make a business of aiding individuals in finding their "spirit guides" from among these founders.

The Alaskan Panhandle and BC

Copper River Delta, Alaska:
Copper River Delta, Chugach National Forest, Alaska, USA

get directions

Ketchikan, Alaska:
Ketchikan, AK 99901, USA

get directions

Haida in Canada:
Haida, BC V0T, Canada

get directions

The Haida also populate part of the Alaskan Panhandle.

The Genographic Project: Molecular Genetic Analyses of Indigenous Populations of North America

The Sealaska Heritage Institute, concerned with Indigenous Peoples and cultures in Alaska as well as the environment, agreed to support a DNA study of aboriginal descendants of the Eagle and Raven clans in Southeastern Alaska.

Some anthropological opinions at Sealaska Heritage Institute are that the Ravens came to Southeastern Alaska (the Panhandle) first. I think that if the opposite is true, then foundations stories may be altered to explain why Eagle lived in darkness and how he did so until Raven brought the sun.

In conjunction with or parallel to the efforts of National Geographic researchers in a grand long-term DNA study, the Alaskan study includes people from three Indigenous Nations: Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. This is all controlled under the auspices of the Department of Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania and began during annual Celebration of the Native Alaskan peoples in June 2012.

The Genographic Project: Molecular Genetic Analyses of Indigenous Populations of North America‚ÄĒUniversity of Pennsylvania is directed by Dr. Theodore G. Schurr. The study will help to determine the migration patterns of Raven and Eagle clans from the Eastern Hemisphere across the Bering Strait and down into Southeastern Alaska or through whatever paths they actually took in history.

Further, results of the study will be applied to a recent theory that the Raven and Eagle clans are not related (other than by distant ties). All this makes researchers wonder more than ever about the origins of Pacific Northwest peoples that arrived first. Who are they and where did they come from?

Dr. Schurr has been writing about the link with the people of Altai that I supposed was true some years ago and he has provided convincing evidence for that link and many others that outline the migration of humankind around the world. See the links below for more information.

Clan house at Mud Bay in the Panhandle. Totem Bight State Park.
Clan house at Mud Bay in the Panhandle. Totem Bight State Park. | Source

© 2012 Patty Inglish MS


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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      6 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      It's fascinating to me as well. If the Raven and Eagle clans are genetically different enough from each another, this might indicate at least two waves of migration from across the Bering Straight. I just learned that the same endangered languages are present on the Russian Coast as well as the Western Alaskan Coast and this tells more of the story. I'll be writing a little about the languages.

    • Laurinzo Scott profile image

      LJ Scott 

      6 years ago from Phoenix, Az.

      Very interesting, and informative hub. Thank you for writing this. Love history and culture.


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