Longtime anthropologists give back to Alaska

Photo by Catherine West, courtesy of the Alutiiq Museum.
Don Clark looks for archaeological sites on Chirikof Island in 2005.

By Sam Bishop

Annette Clark was visiting Fairbanks one winter in the 1980s when she had a chance social encounter with a self-described “poor starving grad student” working on a doctorate in anthropology through the University of Michigan.

Clark, a well-known anthropologist in Alaska, then returned to her home far to the east in Ottawa. There, she and her husband, Don, held positions at what is today the Canadian Museum of History.

But she apparently didn’t forget the encounter.

“A few months later, I started getting boxes of books,” said Amy Steffian, the doctoral student she’d met in Fairbanks. “I was a poor starving grad student, and suddenly I was getting cardboard boxes full of important tomes for my graduate research.”

The Clarks’ unsolicited support for a student was no one-time fluke. Annette and Don Clark, who died respectively in 2016 and 2018, left $2.5 million to UAF for an endowment to fund scholarships. The gift was completed in August 2023, and the first scholarships will help students this academic year.

Steffian, today chief curator at the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, said she saw Don Clark’s dedication to young anthropologists again many years after she received her boxes of books in Fairbanks.

Don Clark, who grew up in Kodiak and graduated from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks in 1956, returned to his home state each summer following his retirement from the Canadian museum in 1992. In Kodiak, he participated in the Alutiiq Museum community archaeology projects. He would excavate sites alongside volunteer high school students, Steffian recalled.

“He would get down in the dirt with us. He would spend a couple weeks with us in the mud,” she said. “He was a great trowel. That man could move dirt.”

In addition to the UAF gift, the Clarks’ estate also provided about $1.6 million to the Alutiiq Museum. The Kodiak History Museum, just two blocks away, received a similar amount. George Washington University, where Annette earned degrees, was granted an amount similar to UAF.

And the Clarks weren’t done giving away books, either.

“He sent us his entire library – all his Alaska books. And the estate paid to ship them to the museum,” Steffian said. “The donation of his library probably added a thousand volumes to our holdings and a huge number of related materials.”

The museum dubbed the collection the “Clarkive.”

‘You need to be an archaeologist’

See caption and credit below image for description
Photo by Amy Steffian, courtesy of the Alutiiq Museum.
Don Clark holds a fishnet sinker at an archaeological site near the outlet of Buskin Lake, a few miles northwest of the city of Kodiak, in 1999.

Donald Clark first arrived in Kodiak as a 9-year-old when his parents, Dorothy and Basil Clark, moved there during World War II. His parents had a gas station and auto shop in downtown Kodiak.

“I had no desire to go into the automotive business,” Clark once told an interviewer. “Repairing cars was not the most pleasant thing, because everything on them was rusted up. You didn’t just undo nuts and bolts — you heated them up with a torch and chiseled them off.”

Clark’s interests turned to Kodiak’s wild lands instead. He said he found his first archaeological treasure at age 11 or 12 after winter storms exposed artifacts on a beach. Later, he was frequently joined by Gerald, his younger brother.

“On his peregrinations around, I would often accompany him,” Gerald Clark said. “I found that a very interesting thing to do.”

The brothers also prospected for minerals on Kodiak Island. They found traces of tungsten and mercury ores, but nothing that was commercially viable, he said.

Don Clark took notes about everything he found.

“We have notes that he took before he was a trained archaeologist, and they’re fantastic,” Steffian said.

After graduating from UA, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in geology, Clark served briefly in the Army and returned to Kodiak in 1960. There, he volunteered on a multiyear anthropological study led by William Laughlin.

“He grabbed Don by the collar and took him back to the University of Wisconsin and said ‘You need to be an archaeologist,’ or words to that effect,” said Karen Workman.

See caption and credit below image for description
Photo courtesy of Alutiiq Museum, Don Clark Archive.
Don Clark, third from left, stands with an archaelogical field crew at Rolling Bay, on Kodiak Island's southwest coast, in 1961.

Workman’s husband Bill, who met Clark in Wisconsin, later spent decades as an anthropology professor at the Alaska Methodist University and the University of Alaska Anchorage. He died in 2021.

“They were best of friends, they really were,” Workman said. “My husband worshiped Don Clark.”

In Wisconsin, Clark and Bill Workman were fellow students with Richard Nelson and Allen McCartney, who also would go on to prominent careers in Alaska anthropology. Nelson, McCartney and Workman drove to Alaska together in 1964, while Don Clark flew. It was the summer after the Great Alaska Earthquake.

The tsunami from that quake, on March 27, 1964, severely damaged the Clark family’s gas station in Kodiak, and his parents moved back to Portland afterward.

The path back to Alaska

Shelley Kamin, the Clarks’ daughter-in-law, said the couple first met at the University of Wisconsin.

In 1966, Annette had earned a master’s from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. There, she was a student under Jack Campbell, a faculty member already well known for his archaeological work at Anaktuvuk Pass in Alaska’s Brooks Range, Karen Workman said.

See caption and credit below image for description
Photo courtesy of Shelley Kamin.
Annette and Don Clark show their whimsical side for an undated Christmas portrait probably taken in Ottawa.

At Wisconsin, Don Clark earned a doctorate in 1969 with a dissertation on the archaeological evidence left by ancient cultures on Kodiak Island. Meanwhile, Annette earned a doctorate in ethnography while studying Alaska Native cultures in the upper Koyukuk River region.

“I think Jack Campbell must have gotten her interested in that,” Workman said.

Workman said she believes Don Clark then followed his wife to the region. “I know that he would have gone up there because of her,” she said.

Annette had adopted a child, Raoul, while in a previous relationship, and the new family moved to Ottawa around 1969, Workman said.

Kamin, who met Raoul in Ottawa in 1972 and remained his partner there until his death in 2001, said the Clarks returned to Alaska frequently, often to the Koyukuk area.

“They both were interested in sub-Arctic peoples,” Kamin said. “That’s really the area they devoted their professional lives to.”

Work in the remote region required expertise with not only trowels but also sometimes firearms.

Patrick Saltonstall, curator of archaeology at the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, said Don Clark once told him a story about shooting a black bear that was behaving aggressively toward Annette during a visit in the summer of 1971.

“They butchered it up, and everybody ate the bear,” Saltonstall said.

See caption and credit below image for description
Photo courtesy of Alutiiq Museum, Don Clark Archive.
Children enjoy eating a black bear that Don Clark shot after it attacked his wife, Annette, during their anthropological and archaeological work along the Koyukuk River in 1971.

The obsidian connection

Workman said Annette Clark’s studies also might have introduced her husband to what became a prominent element of his Alaska archaeological career.

“She may have been aware of the obsidian,” Workman said.

Obsidian, a glass-like rock with exceptional qualities for certain stone tools, was found in the Koyukuk region at a deposit called Batza Tena. Don Clark, sometimes in collaboration with Annette, published numerous articles and a book about the deposit, which supplied obsidian to Indigenous people across Alaska.

“He was trying to track it down and worked with geologists to do chemical analysis,” said Chuck Holmes, a long-time Alaska archaeologist and UAF affiliate research professor.

Holmes said he once visited the Clarks in Ottawa so he could look at material from the Koyukuk region that overlapped with his work at Lake Minchumina, almost 200 miles south of the Batza Tena deposit.

The chemical analysis showed that “over 90 percent of the obsidian that I found out there originated from the Koyukuk,” Holmes said.

Workman said Don Clark’s work on the Batza Tena deposit became an important feature in Alaska archaeology.

“Everybody was sending their obsidian in (to Clark) to see where it fit (in Alaska),” she said.

Building the next generation

Saltonstall, the Alutiiq Museum archaeology curator, worked with Don Clark on numerous digs in the Kodiak area from the early 1990s through 2008, the last time they met in person.

In addition to helping with the museum’s community projects, Clark served as the resident scholar at Dig Afognak, a project to create a full history of the Afognak Bay area just north of Kodiak Island. He also joined Saltonstall on survey work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the national wildlife refuge that much of Kodiak’s land lies within.

See caption and credit below image for description
Photo courtesy of Alutiiq Museum.
Don Clark, at right, and a field crew arrive at Chirikof Island, in the Gulf of Alaska about 80 miles southwest of Kodiak Island, in 2005. From left are Mark Rusk, Catherine West and pilot Rolan Rouss.

They visited sites that Clark had first investigated almost 50 years earlier while working on fish weirs for the Territory of Alaska. That job had brought him to remote areas, such as Olga Lakes on the southwest end of Kodiak Island.

“He first wrote about that before he went to grad school or anything, as a high school student, basically. He was into archaeology on his own, even then,” Saltonstall said.

Clark also would assist the Alutiiq Museum with its publications after his retirement from the Canadian Museum of History.

“He was an incredible scholar,” said Steffian, the museum’s chief curator. “We were always debating with him. He was often right — maybe not for reasons we had, but he was often right.”

Clark once helped review a draft book the museum had produced to document an archaeological excavation at Karluk, a village site on the western side of Kodiak. His comments filled eight single-spaced pages.

“But about a month later, here comes a $500 check to help with the cost of publishing the book,” Steffian said.

Despite such previous assistance, Steffian said, the $1.6 million gift from the Clarks’ estate was shocking.

“Nobody knew he had that kind of money,” she said.

Kamin, who works as a tax attorney in Ottawa, said she understood why the Clarks’ wealth wasn’t well known.

“They were very kind and generous with their time if approached, but they were very private people,” she said. “They were private people who spent their time in the mud dressed in clothing that looked like it came from the Salvation Army. They didn’t put on airs.”

Gerald Clark, who also became an archaeologist in Alaska, confirmed that his older brother was “an extremely private person.” (Gerald, who now lives in Eugene, Oregon, worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Juneau from 1975-1996 after earning his doctorate at the University of Oregon.)

“I think Don was very frugal, and I think he was probably very perceptive in making investments,” he said.

Karen Workman, Don and Annette Clarks’ longtime friend, also observed that the couple “didn’t spend a lot.”

“And I dare say the museum paid both of them fairly well, especially Annette because she was in the administration,” Workman said.

Steffian, whose acquaintance with the Clarks began with the cardboard boxes of books, said the gift to Alutiiq Museum was “amazingly reinforcing” and “really felt like a pat on the back.”

“He was underwriting the next generation of work and scholarship,” she said.

And scholarship was always Don Clark’s passion, Saltonstall said. The gifts from his estate demonstrated that.

“He wanted to support other people to do the same thing,” Saltonstall said.

Clark often left gear in Saltonstall’s barn in Kodiak between visits. One year, he left a backpack and a pair of boots, Saltonstall said. On the boots, Clark left a note: “Fill them if you can.”