Dena'ina roots still run deep in Southcentral Alaska

Photo/Michael Dinneen/Michael Dinneen Photography

Editor’s note: This is the conclusion in a series of articles by the Journal of Commerce recognizing the Anchorage Centennial and examining the events and the industries that have shaped Alaska’s largest city. The series is now available as a single special edition of the Journal at centennial events throughout the summer.

Until recently, few people knew much about Anchorage’s original residents, the Dena’ina.

Settlement of Southcentral Alaska by waves of gold miners, homesteaders, railroad construction workers and, finally, the development of a city at Anchorage, had a steamroller effect in pushing the Dena’ina not only off their lands but out of the consciousness of Alaskans, too.

It was as if they never existed.

Through history the Dena’ina used much of what is now the “Anchorage bowl” area for subsistence hunting and fishing and had a large and well-established village at Eklutna as well as smaller communities at Knik and other locations.

Across Cook Inlet, Tyonek was a long-established Dena’ina community, as well as Kenai and Seldovia on the Kenai Peninsula.

Most Alaskans, however, hardly knew the Dena’ina existed, had lived in and used the Anchorage area, and were numerous and, at times, quite prosperous.

The Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage, the city’s premier meeting and convention center, at least reestablished the name, but it took the Anchorage Museum’s major exhibition, “Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi, The Dena’ina Way of Living,” in 2014 to finally underscore the importance of the people in the history of Southcentral Alaska.

The museum brought together the first exhibition of Dena’ina historical artifacts and exhibits. Many artifacts were collected from around the world, loaned by museums and individuals for the exhibition. Dena’ina elders and community leaders provided important advice and assistance.


The Dena’ina were in Southcentral Alaska about 1,000 to 1,500 years ago. They are Athabascan, like Alaska Native people of the Tanana and Yukon River regions of Interior Alaska and the Ahtna people of the Copper River basin.

Aaron Leggett, the Anchorage Museum’s special exhibits curator who is Dena’ina himself, said the Dena’ina appear to have migrated in two waves, one through Rainy Pass and the Copper River area to Talkeetna and upper Cook Inlet, and a second through the upper Kuskokwim River valley to Stony River, Lake Clark and Illiamna, and then to the Kenai Peninsula.

When people migrate there are usually reasons for it, but Leggett said there is no evidence that people were being pushed out of territory in the Interior.

“It’s more likely they were attracted by the favorable climate and abundant resources in Southcentral. It’s not as cold as in the Interior, and the big salmon runs of the Kenai and Russian Rivers, and at that time the Susitna, were big attractions just like they are today for us,” Leggett said.

There were a caribou in the area at that time too, and the ocean offered a lot of beluga, clams and some seals. The Dena’ina were the only Athabascans who were able to exploit marine resources. In the Interior, in contrast, there were only land animals.

Those resources supported a larger population in the region; the Dena’ina were then estimated at about 5,000, but diseases, brought by Europeans, would later reduce the number sharply.

Eklutna, one of the longest-established villages, had a population of about 800. Diseases were to have major impacts over time but the village was repopulated several times.

Early life appeared to be quite good for the Dena’ina. There were larger settlements than in the Interior although people typically moved out to summer fish camps, including across what is now Anchorage. There were summer camps at Ship Creek and Campbell Creek, and fall hunting on the upper drainages of those creeks and the mountains, what is now Chugach State Park.

The area populated by Dena’ina extended west to the Kuskokwim and to Chickaloon in the northwest, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the border with the Ahtna region (there was a lot of movement back and forth, and intermarriages with Athna people).

The northern boundary was approximately the upper Susitna River area, about where the Watana hydro dam is now planned, although this area seemed to have been lightly used, Leggett said.

To the south, the Dena’ina had a strong presence on the Kenai Peninsula, and what is now the Girdwood area was a kind of buffer area, lightly populated and used (game was actually scarce) between the Denai’na and the Prince William Sound peoples, who were Eskimo and traditional enemies of the Denai’na.

Cook’s arrival

The arrival of the first European, Captain James Cook, in 1778, had little actual effect on the Dena’ina although the forces that Cook’s voyage set in motion were to have immense impacts later.

Cook made an impression on the Denai’na, and they on him, and the arrival of the ships and subsequent meetings, offering opportunities for trading, are noted in Dena’ina oral histories. In fact, there are incidents that are noted both in the oral history and Cook’s journal, “so we know it was Cook that the Dena’ina met,” Leggett said.

Cook was in the area only briefly, however, about six days in total. Cook named Cook Inlet (for himself), Turnagain Arm and a Kenai Peninsula land feature, Point Possession, “but he really didn’t like the area.”

“The weather was lousy, there were strong tidal currents and waves, and his boats kept getting stuck,” Leggett said. Soon it was obvious that Cook Inlet did not lead to a hoped-for Northwest Passage, and Cook pointed his ships south, to the relief of the crews.

Before he left, however, Cook sent a crew of men who landed and named Point Possession after planting the British flag and claiming the region for the King of England, although that made no impression on the Dena’ina, who met Cook and his crew there to trade, or to the exploitive Russians who showed up later, and who really took possession.

One story in the Dena’ina oral history, which matches an account in Cook’s journal, is that the Dena’ina made a trade of a dog to Cook and his men, or maybe a gift, Leggett said. For some reason, the British shot the dog.

“It may have been because it bit someone, or some other reason, but it really upset the Denai’na,” he said.

“They asked, if the dog wasn’t wanted why didn’t Cook’s men just give it back?” Dogs were valuable to the Denai’na as pack animals and for hunting.

Cook’s impact

If Cook’s visit had only minor significance for the Dena’ina, other visits by Europeans in the following years. George Vancouver, who was in Cook’s crew, came back several years later to do surveys for the British Admiralty and charted Cook Inlet as well as Prince William Sound and the coast of Alaska and British Columbia down to Puget Sound.

Leggett said the first big impact by Europeans on the Dena’ina came when the Russians showed up in 1787 and 1791, three years after Cook’s voyage. This wasn’t the relatively benign Russian government of the Russian-America Company, but companies of traders and hunters who were violent, exploiting the Dena’ina.

Three Russian trading companies moved into the area competing with each other for furs and exploiting the Denai’na. There were murders and kidnappings, and by 1798 the Denai’na had enough. An uprising at Tyonek drove out the Russians.

The Russians maintained a presence in the area after the Russian America Co. under its governor, Alexander Baranof, took control and ended most abuses. Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church had gained influence and its priests worked to modify the behavior of Russian traders.

By the 1820s things had settled down, Leggett said, and the Dena’ina were prospering with the fur trade, mostly acting as middle-men between the Russian buyers and inland Native people who were doing most of the hunting.

“This was a good time, and people were acquiring a lot of wealth,” he said.

But disease brought by the Europeans hit people hard. A smallpox epidemic that raged between 1836 and 1839 wiped out about half the Dena’ina, but those who survived still prospered on the fur trade.

Alaska purchase

The purchase of Alaska in 1867 by the United States was to bring about a huge shift in the Dena’ina world. Gold prospectors, and American traders, started showing up in the 1880s. There was no law enforcement, and in fact no laws, and some of the traders resented the influence the Russian Orthodox Church had, and some priests were harassed by the new arrivals.

“The priests were trying to provide a moral compasses, scolding the newcomers about drink and abuse of women,” Leggett said.

But by the turn of the 20th century conditions were improving in the territory of Alaska. Wealthy American sports hunters, mountain climbers and explorers started showing up, creating business opportunities for the Dena’ina in guiding and providing support to the visitors.

“People had heard about world-record moose on the Kenai,” and it was a big draw in the sports hunting world, Leggett said.

Hope and Sunrise, on Turnagain Arm, had also become small but thriving gold mining communities, and those were soon joined by Girdwood. Most of upper Turnagain Arm was not used heavily by the Dena’ina because hunting was generally poor, so there were few, if any, conflicts with the miners.

Prospecting had also spread out across Interior and western Alaska and people traveling to mining areas used trails originally established by the Dena’ina from what is now Knik and Tyonek. Relations were generally good with the Dena’ina, who benefitted from providing services to the travelers.

However, there were negative effects from other activity. Salmon canneries were being established on lower Cook Inlet and streams traditionally used for fishing by the Denai’na were blocked by fish traps.

In 1917, construction crews showed up in Anchorage to build the Alaska Railroad, and the Dena’ina started to lose access to fish camps in the Anchorage bowl.

“They were just told to move by the government,” Leggett said.

At that time the Dena’ina also had the use of what is now Joint Base Elemendorf and Richardson for hunting and fishing, and in fact a 328,000-acre “Eklutna Education Reserve” had been established by the government for their use.

The reserve began to shrink as military facilities were installed, and by the 1960s only 1,800 acres were left near Eklutna village.

Meanwhile, the Chugach National Forest had been established, which brought another level of government over many areas used by the Dena’ina. However, traditional uses of some areas hung on for years. Fire Island, in Cook Inlet just offshore Ted Stevens International Airport, was a Dena’ina fish camp until the 1980s, Leggett said.

The Anchorage’s Museum’s “Dena’ina Way of Living” was not a one-time event. With funds from the Rasmuson Foundation, smaller units of the exhibition have been travelling in Alaska, to Fairbanks and Homer, Leggett said. Portions will also permanently reside at the Kenaitze tribe’s wellness center in Kenai.

An illustrated book of the exhibition is still available, however. It can be purchased for $34.95 at the Anchorage Museum’s gift shop.

06/24/2015 - 12:32pm