Posted By:
Kathy Dye
Kathy Dye
Published On: September 23rd, 2022

Free event to be offered in-person, virtually

(All Lectures)

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) will sponsor a lecture by three scholars on their analysis of Tlingit songs that were documented by Spaniards at Yakutat in the late 18th century, followed by a recreation of the songs made by a Tlingit musicologist as part of its fall lecture series.

The panel will play a synthesis of the music for lecture attendees to hear.

“It’s as if we will hear our ancestors singing to us at a pivotal moment in our history,” said SHI President Rosita Worl.

In their lecture, Voices of the Ancestors: Inquiries Concerning Tlingit Singing at Yakutat in 1791, the scholars will describe a collaborative project that begins with the Spaniards sailing under Alejandro Malaspina and José de Bustamante y Guerra for the King of Spain on the so-called Malaspina Expedition to Alaska. During the expedition, the Spaniards encountered the Tlingit in Yakutat Bay in 1791.

The Tlingit sang to and with the Spaniards on several occasions that Thaddeus Haenke, a member of the crew with musical training, and others wrote about in their journals. Haenke translated what he heard the Tlingit singing into four sheets of music.

Steve Langdon, Ph.D., presented one sheet of music in a past lecture at SHI, and following the presentation, at the request of the institute, he began a search for all four pages of the sheet music.

After contacting the Museo de Americas in Madrid, Langdon was eventually able to acquire high-quality images of the original pages, which he sent to Maria Shaa Tláa Williams, Ph.D., a Tlingit ethnomusicologist at UAA and trustee of SHI. She analyzed the musical notation and determined what kind of songs the Tlingit were singing, and she discovered that the Tlingit were singing on occasion in harmony – voices at different pitches. She programmed a musical synthesizer to see how the music sounded.

Tlingit scholar Judy Daxootsu Ramos, who is of the Yakutat Kwaashk’iḵwáan, has participated in Yakutat dance group singing since she was a girl and recalls the dance group singing in harmony when she was a child.

In this talk, Langdon will discuss the origin and development of the research, commenting on the occasions in the journals where Haenke described Tlingit singing. Williams will present an analysis of the sheet music as Haenke wrote it down and play the synthesized recreation of the music. Ramos will talk about her experiences growing up hearing harmonic music with the Yakutat dance group. The three will hold a panel discussion about the music and its place in Tlingit culture as well as future research on how it might be creatively used in Tlingit education.

The lecture is scheduled for 12 pm, Wednesday, Sept. 28, in Shuká Hít within SHI’s Walter Soboleff Building, 105 S. Seward St. in Juneau. The lecture will be livestreamed and posted on SHI’s YouTube channel. 

About the Scholars

Judith Daxootsu Ramos is a Tlingit from Yakutat, Alaska (Yaakwdáat Kwáan) and is Raven from the Kwaashk’iḵwáan clan. She is the program coordinator of Haa Yoo X̱’atángi Deiyí: Our Language Pathways, an SHI program, at the University of Alaska Southeast and was an assistant professor in the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development for the University of Alaska.

She was an advisor for the American Museum of Natural History’s renovation of the Northwest Coast Hall. She volunteers for her tribe as a member of the Yakutat De Laguna Project Committee and is an issue editor for Matrix: A Journal for Matricultural Studies.

She is completing her Ph.D. in Indigenous studies, documenting the 900-year history of Tlingit relationship to the Hubbard Glacier and seal hunting in the Yakutat Bay. She previously worked in Canada for the Council for Yukon Indian; in Ottawa, Canada, for the Assembly of First Nations; and for the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe as their anthropologist, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation (NAGPRA) officer and realty director.

Her interests include cultural preservation, traditional ecological knowledge, NAGPRA, language revitalization, Indigenous/traditional foods and traditional place names. She is a published author and a member of the Mt. St. Elias Dancers and enjoys beading and working on subsistence food.

Maria Shaa Tláa Williams was born in Tikahtnu (Anchorage), Alaska, and is an enrolled member of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska. She is Raven of the Deisheetaan clan. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in music from UCLA, specializing in ethnomusicology.

The title of her M.A. thesis was Clan Identification and Social Structure in Tlingit Music (1989), and the title of her dissertation was Alaska Native Music: The Spirit of Survival (1996). She was a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in 1998 and researched surviving ceremonial music and dance in Alaska.

She taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts from 1993-1995 and at the University of New Mexico from 1999-2011 with a joint appointment in the Department of Native American Studies and Music. She moved back to Alaska in 2011 and has been teaching at the University of Alaska Anchorage since in the Alaska Native Studies and Music Departments, where she is a full professor.

She worked with the King Island IRA (an Alaskan Inupiaq community) on a heritage preservation project in conjunction with the National Park Service in 2000 and 2004, in which their entire music and dance repertoire was recorded.

She is a published author, and her research interests include contemporary Alaska Native music and dance practices, Alaska Native history, the impact of colonialism and cultural revitalization.

Stephen J. Langdon, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he taught from 1976 until June 2014.

Over his 45-year career, Langdon has conducted research projects on many public policy issues impacting Alaska Natives. He has advocated for policies that enhance and promote rural Alaska Native communities and their cultures in such areas as fisheries, lands, tribal government, cultural heritage, customary trade and co-management.

Langdon has specialized in research on the history and culture of the Tlingit and Haida peoples of Southeast Alaska from pre-contact conditions through the historic period of 19th and early 20th century U.S. governance. He has conducted extensive research on traditional ecological knowledge and uses of salmon by the Tlingit and Haida, demonstrating the complex and rich relations between the people and salmon that sustained their cultures for centuries.

His book, The Native People of Alaska, is a widely used introduction to Alaska Native people.

The Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) selected him to give the keynote address to their 100th convention in 2012, and that year he also received the Bullock Prize from the University of Alaska Foundation for career excellence in contributions to Alaska. On Oct. 19, 2017, he received the Denali Award from the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) for his career-long contributions to Alaska Native life; it is the highest award given by the AFN to a non-Native person.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Kathy Dye, SHI Communications and Publications Deputy Director, 907.321.4636,

Caption: Photo of Steve Langdon by Nobu Koch of SHI. Photo of Maria Shaa Tláa Williams courtesy of SHI. Photo of Judy Ramos by Konrad Frank. Note: News outlets are welcome to use this photo for coverage of this story. For a higher-res images, contact

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