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Frederica de Laguna Ph.D.

Photo of Frederica de Laguna Ph.D.

Frederica Annis Lopez de Leo de Laguna was the first of two children born to Grace and Theodore de Laguna. Her formative years were spent in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, where her doting, devoted father provided her education at home until age nine. He regaled “Freddy” with the delights of distant people, places, and languages. During his visits to Japan and the Philippines, he had become intrigued with linguistics and translated and wrote songs in a dialect of the Pilipino language. Freddy thrived on his stories.

Freddy’s parents were professors of philosophy at Bryn Mawr College (BMC). Reading and critical thinking were elemental in the family. Adventure and travel stories were favorites and Freddy immersed herself in the literature of the North, especially inspired by narratives of famous European explorers such as Knud Rasmussen, Peter Freuchen, Therkel Mathiassen, and Kai Birket-Smith. Freddy occasionally acted upon what she read. Catharine McClellan, a student and later collaborator with Freddy during her Alaskan studies, wrote that Freddy sent Commander Donald MacMillian, who made over 30 expeditions to the Arctic, a letter in which she offered to chew his boots if he would take her on his next expedition. Not only did books transport her to tantalizing lands of adventure, but, possibly, they provided solace during the many illnesses that plagued her childhood.

In this family of educators one can almost imagine the stimulating conversations, probing questions, and challenging responses between Theodore, Grace, and resident and visiting philosophers; and, on the sideline, young Freddy listening, learning, and developing critical and analytical thinking skills. These abilities provided a solid foundation for her future and the academic career that awaited her.

Freddy entered Bryn Mawr College in 1923, planning to major in economics and psychology, yet health problems caused her to drop the psychology major and, she discovered, economics was not compelling. She struggled to find a career that combined her love of the outdoors, of adventure, of foreign cultures, and of travel with sufficient mental challenges and excitement.

In 1927 Freddy graduated summa cum laude from BMC yet a career eluded her. Although she had won a European Fellowship, she delayed the trip at her parents’ suggestion. They had heard Franz Boas lecture about anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and thought that Freddy, too, might find him stimulating. She did and entered Columbia University in 1928 to study under him. At that time, Boas was one of the foremost influential anthropologists in America.

Boas didn’t disappoint. Slowly Freddy moved toward anthropology and, that same year, after activating the European Fellowship, joined the American School of Prehistoric Research field party, traveling widely and meeting leading anthropologists on the Continent. At Boas’ suggestion, she visited Copenhagen to view a collection of Eskimo artifacts at the Danish National Museum. There she met Therkel Mathiassen and Kaj Birket-Smith, Danish anthropologists famous for their explorations with the Fifth Thule Expedition. Meeting them changed her life.

Mathiassen was preparing an archaeological reconnaissance trip to Greenland and invited Freddy to join him. What was to last six weeks lasted six months and Freddy found her calling. She wrote in Voyage to Greenland. . . . “Unexpectedly, the trip led on to a great voyage across the North Atlantic to Arctic Greenland. But more important, it was a journey into a new life, and for me a new way of looking at the world. Having once set foot in Greenland. . . , I could not turn aside from that long journey or that vocation, even though I had to give up the man I loved.” (Freddy broke her engagement and never did marry.)

So into the male-dominated discipline of American anthropology came Freddy in 1930 and until the end of her formal field research in Alaska in 1968, she was quite often the pioneer archaeologist in a region, and certainly, the pioneer female archaeologist. As a woman, she was able to interview Native women and record their stories, a privilege seldom available to male anthropologists at that time.

In 1930 Kaj Birket-Smith, the Danish anthropologist whom she had met in Copenhagen, was to co-lead an expedition, with Freddy, to Prince William Sound yet illness prevented him from doing so at the last minute. With support from the University Museum in Philadelphia, Freddy came north without him, conducting her first independent archaeological field expedition. She was 24 years old.

It was a question and the search for its answer that brought her to Cook Inlet. At the University Museum, Philadelphia, where she worked as a curator, Freddy had seen a stone lamp and believed it to be of Eskimo-origin, not of Dena’ina Athabaskan Indian origin as believed. In the 1930s, the Dena’ina occupied most of the Cook Inlet coast, although Eskimo Alutiiq people lived in the villages of Port Graham and English Bay (today Nanwalek), near the mouth of Cook Inlet. Had an Eskimoid people preceded the Dena’ina on inlet shores? Dr. Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology, Kenai Peninsula College, Soldotna, states that Freddy was one of the first problem-oriented archaeologists.

As a student of Boas, she had learned that a holistic approach to anthropology was paramount–don’t just study the people, study their environment, their food, their transportation, their games, everything that contributes to the creation of their unique culture. And, document it well with photographs. Freddy followed his advice as evidenced in her many publications of Alaska’s peoples.

As Freddy’s skills in anthropology developed, so too did her skills in photography. Many publications are beautifully illustrated with her images. Because Freddy felt strongly that all people should be able to benefit from her Alaskan photographs, taken between 1932 and 1968, she willed them to the Alaska State Library in Juneau. Co-author Klein spent eight months with Freddy at Bryn Mawr College, compiling, chronologically organizing, labeling, and preserving, in archival materials, 4000 photographs.

From Prince William Sound Freddy traveled to Anchorage where, during the summers of 1930, 1931, and 1932, she surveyed the shores of Cook Inlet in a little gas boat, the Dime, run by Jack Fields, a Seldovian, who boated her to many archaeological sites, particularly in Kachemak Bay. Her family provided some financial support and her brother, Wallace, and mother, Grace, joined her as field assistants for several years in Kachemak Bay and Prince William Sound. Tragically, her father died unexpectedly in September 1930, as Freddy learned when returning from Alaska to Pennsylvania.

After obtaining her PhD at Columbia in 1933, Freddy returned to Bryn Mawr and for the next 40 years taught anthropology classes. From 1950-1966 she co-created and chaired the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, which became the Department of Anthropology in 1967. Mandatory retirement in 1975 ended her formal teaching career but not her passions for learning, writing, exploring. Her zest for life persisted throughout her 98 years.

World War II refocused Freddy’s life temporarily. In 1942 she joined the military, hoping for an overseas appointment. Disappointingly, she was posted to Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C. where she worked at the Alaskan desk for a while. At war’s end, as a lieutenant commander, she left the service yet retained an active interest in naval history.

After the brief hiatus in the Navy, Freddy returned to Bryn Mawr College and teaching. She taught during the academic year and, as often as possible, spent summers in the field. Her professional field work in Alaska, albeit sporadic, spanned 1930 to 1968. While participating in field research in Arizona, she also developed a passion for Southwest peoples and their cultures.

After mandatory retirement from BMC in 1975, Freddy continued learning and teaching through her writings and her lectures. When traveling, she often sought knowledge of the indigenous peoples of her destination. Her travels brought her back to Yukon Island in Kachemak Bay 48 years after her initial visit and to Greenland and Denmark 50 years after her initial visits there. When interviewed by co-author Klein in 1992, Dr. William Workman, then professor of anthropology, University of Alaska Anchorage, said, “Without question, she is one of the most distinguished living North American anthropologists.

Although her passion for the arctic lured her away from Bryn Mawr, she resided there from shortly after her birth in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1906. When an apartment became available in Haverford, near Bryn Mawr, Freddy moved in and resided there until her death on October 4, 2004, the day after her 98th birthday. She died in her sleep at home in her apartment. Before she went to bed, she told her friend and fellow anthropologist, Dr. Marie-Francoise Guedon, that she wanted to write a book about the many animals she knew and loved.

Freddy was a member of several environmental organizations and practiced basic conservation in her life, such as carrying groceries in canvas tote bags long before such bags were in vogue. When 89 years old, she was still swimming numerous times a week and ate three full meals a day, preferably one as a picnic, if nothing more than sitting on a bench outside of the anthropology building on campus, enjoying sunshine, bird song, and company.

Freddy’s life-long passion and fascination with northern peoples never diminished. She was compelled to convert her abundant field notes and photographs into publications, to preserve the stories of the cultures she had studied. To that end, before her death Freddy created a scholarly press, Frederica de Laguna Northern Books. Marie-Francoise Guedon, fellow anthropologist, former field collaborator, and executor of her estate, was tasked with maintaining the press and issuing books, when possible. The first release after Freddy’s death was a new edition of her three volume masterpiece, Under Mount Saint Elias: the History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit, long out-of-print. The next publication, which Freddy and Marie-Francoise were writing at the time of her death, was to be about the Ahtna people of Copper Center.

The awards and honors bestowed upon Freddy are too many to recount. Most meaningful to her were those from the Native Alaskans with whom she had worked. During her studies in Yakutat in 1949 and the early 1950s, she was invited and greatly honored to share the Tlingit name of Mrs. Katy Dixon Isaac: Kuxanguwutan. Like her father, Freddy had an innate talent for languages and in 1952, she tape recorded songs of the Yakutat people, inadvertently stimulating renewed interest and pride in Tlingit music. When she returned to Yakutat in 1954, she composed a song for the people in their language. It was remembered and sung at a potlatch 32 years later which Freddy attended as a revered elder and guest. She was also recognized as one “who had written a big book about Yakutat.”

Awards from her colleagues were also important. She served many positions, including that of president, with the American Anthropological Association, was one of the first Fellows of the Arctic Institute of North America, and was selected in 1975 to be one of the first female inductees into the National Academy of Sciences, along with Margaret Meade.

Her active inquiring mind, developed and nurtured in an academic environment with strong family support, appears to have sustained this vital woman who contributed so very much to the world of anthropology, most especially, to Alaskan anthropology. Two years after her passing, the distinguished international scholarly journal, ARCTIC ANTHROPOLOGY, honored Freddy’s life-long achievements in northern environments with an issue devoted solely to her. Even after death, Freddy’s legacy lives on. Like her parents, she willed her remains to science.

Select Publications:

Each of Freddy’s major explorations in Alaska resulted in a book or in the writing of the preliminary papers that, eventually, would result in a book. By 1989 Freddy had published more than 100 papers and book reviews. The following publications provide a rough timeline of her travels and archaeological or ethnological field research in Alaska.

Expedition: summers 1930-1932, explorations briefly in Prince William Sound and then throughout coastal Cook Inlet, most especially Kachemak Bay where she discovered, described, and named the Kachemak Culture, today the Kachemak tradition.

De Laguna, Frederica

1934       The Archaeology of Cook Inlet, Alaska. University of Pennsylvania Press for the University Museum.

1975       Reprinted by Alaska Historical Society, Anchorage. 

1930 exploration of Prince William Sound with her brother, Wallace. 1933 with Danish anthropologist, Kaj Birket-Smith.

Birket-Smith, Kaj and de Laguna, Frederica

1956       Chugach Prehistory, The Archaeology of Prince William Sound, Alaska.

Birket-Smith, Kaj and de Laguna, Frederica

1938       The Eyak Indians of the Copper River Delta, Alaska

Expedition: built boats near Nenana and ran the middle Yukon River in 1935.

De Laguna, Frederica

1947       The Prehistory of Northern North America As Seen from the Yukon.

Expedition: worked with the Yakutat Tlingit in 1949, 1950, 1952, 1954 often joined by Catharine McClellan.

1972       Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit. 3 volumes.

Expedition: 1954, 1958, 1960. Studies of the Copper River Ahtna with Catharine McClellan.

De Laguna, Frederica and Catharine McClellan

1981       ”Ahtna,” Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6, Subarctic.

Emmons, George Thorton. De Laguna editor and contributor

1991       The Tlingit Indians.


ARCTIC ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 43, No. 2. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, c2006. NOTES: compilation of articles dedicated to Frederica de Laguna.

De Laguna, Frederica. Voyage to Greenland: A Personal Initiation into Anthropology. 1977. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Klein, Janet R., compiler. Frederica de Laguna, A Summary of Her Life and Her Work. For the Alaska Humanities Forum, Anchorage. Unpublished. NOTES: timelines of her personal and her professional life; biographical sketches; select bibliography; photographs.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech


Frederica de Laguna was a pioneer in anthropology whose contributions to understanding indigenous peoples stand as the definitive work for many Alaskan cultures. Her career spanned almost four decades, 1930-1968, and included research in Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, the middle Yukon River, Copper Center and Yakutat. Her three-volume tome, Under Mount Saint Elias remains the definitive description of the Yakutat Tlingit who honored her with a clan name.

After graduating with honors from Bryn Mawr College in politics and economics, de Laguna took her Ph.D. at Columbia University under Franz Boas, her friend, mentor and father of American anthropology. In 1929, fieldwork in Greenland with the great Danish anthropologist, Therkel Mathiesen, launched her lifetime fascination with the Arctic.

A carved stone bowl with a human figure enticed de Laguns to travel to Cook Inlet where she conducted archaeological fieldwork 1930–1932. Describing, defining and naming the Kachemak Culture (Kachemak tradition), resulted in her first book, The Archaeology of Cook Inlet, Alaska, which remains the definitive description of the Kachemak people.

de Laguna was brilliant, curious, fearless, dedicated and persistent. She was a gifted writer and photographer as evidenced in many professional papers and books published (1934-2004). Her writings focused on archaeology and then ethnography when understanding the lives of living Natives became her passion. As a woman, de Laguna interviewed Native women, a privilege usually not available to male anthropologists.

At Bryn Mawr, de Laguna founded and chaired the anthropology department, teaching for 40 years, mentoring and inspiring others, especially young women. She demonstrated that women could be scholars and leaders in the male-dominated field of anthropology. In a career full of honors and awards, receiving the life-long achievement award in 1993 from the Alaska Anthropology Association was especially gratifying.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech