Glaciers and Climate Change: Perspectives from Oral Tradition


  • Julie Cruikshank



environmental change, exploration narratives, Gulf of Alaska, Little Ice Age, oral tradition, science studies, traditional knowledge, Yukon


In northwestern North America, glaciers figure prominently in both indigenous oral traditions and narratives of geophysical sciences. These perspectives intersect in discussions about global warming, predicted to be extreme at Arctic and Subarctic latitudes and an area of concern for both local people and scientists. Indigenous people in northwestern North America have experienced climate variability associated with the latter phases of the Little Ice Age (approximately 1550-1850). This paper draws on oral traditions passed down from that period, some recorded between 1900 and the early 1950s in coastal Alaska Tlingit communities and others recorded more recently with elders from Yukon First Nations. The narratives concern human travel to the Gulf of Alaska foreshore at the end of the Little Ice Age from the Copper River, from the Alaska panhandle, and from the upper Alsek-Tatshenshini drainage, as well as observations about glacier advances, retreats, and surges. The paper addresses two large policy debates. One concerns the incorporation of local knowledge into scientific research. The second addresses the way in which oral tradition contributes another variety of historical understanding in areas of the world where written documents are relatively recent. Academic debates, whether in science or in history, too often evaluate local expertise as data or evidence, rather than as knowledge or theory that might contribute different perspectives to academic questions.