A tiny native village in Alaska copes with urban encroachment

Members of the Dena'ina Athabascan tribe, completely surrounded by metropolitan Anchorage, struggle to preserve their language and culture.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Julia Cooper and Dorothy Cook, the Eklutna native village president, stand outside the tribe's rustic community center.
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    Ancient oasis: The St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, framed by the Chugach Mountains, sits on the grounds of Eklutna Village, one of the nation's more unusual tribal territories.
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Outside in the crisp fruity air, traffic on the Glenn Highway emits its usual roar. Inside the log-hewn community center, surrounded by a forest of stunted spruce and golden-leafed birch, a dozen villagers attend the weekly elders' lunch and speak of times when this tiny enclave seemed a world away from Alaska's largest city.

Many decades ago, the fish were so thick in the Eklutna River that you could practically walk on them, says Julia Cooper, who grew up as one of a dozen children in a two-room cabin nearby. In the 1960s and '70s, homes were heated by wood stoves and residents hauled water from a spring across the highway, says Irene Chilligan, another local.

Unlike most native villages in Alaska, which are scattered over the roadless bush and isolated from urban areas, the Dena'ina Athabascan village of Eklutna – home to about 60 people – is located within the municipal borders of Anchorage. Just 26 miles to the west loom the imposing downtown buildings that house oil company executives, lawyers, and other blue-suited titans.

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The near-urban setting has its obvious advantages – access to jobs, medical and social services, shopping, and schools.

But the remaining 250 or so tribal members, most residing outside the village, also worry about the erosion of life that dates back centuries. Now one of the nation's smallest native tribes is fighting back to preserve its culture – and making notable progress.

Their efforts are low key, as befits a tribe that shuns self-promotion. But they are pushing to revive a language that has almost disappeared and to garner more recognition from an outside world that, until recently, was barely aware of the tribe's existence.

Things have changed dramatically since he was growing up, says Aaron Leggett, the 26-year-old Dena'ina cultural historian at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. "You'd say you are Dena'ina, and people would say, 'What's that?' " Now, he says, his great aunt, the Eklutna tribe president, gets almost weekly requests to perform a Dena'ina ceremony. "I told her it's not long before you're going to be called to do Dena'ina blessings for weddings and bar mitzvahs."

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Eklutna does offer a small slice of bush Alaska in the big city. The tribal headquarters office, clinic, and support buildings are mostly a collection of trailers. In typical rural Alaska fashion, old vehicles and machines that can be cannibalized for parts lie scattered about. A few sagging couches and easy chairs perch in the woods. It's all in sharp contrast to the well-heeled suburbs just to the east.

At the heart of the village is St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Anchorage's oldest structure, a weathered wooden building erected here in the 1870s. It encompasses a cemetery where traditional native "spirit houses" – dollhouselike structures painted in family colors – are topped with Orthodox crosses. A wooden chapel just big enough for one person sits nearby. All reflect Eklutna's status as a stronghold for Orthodoxy during Alaska's Russian period.

The faith is not a thing of the past here. Adjacent to the historic church, which holds icons of saints considered so fragile that flash photography isn't allowed inside, stands a modern Orthodox church built a century later. It is used for special religious and family events. The Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska maintains the facilities, conducts regular tours, and has even established a new monastery here.

Historically, Eklutna's Dena'ina people made their home over a much bigger area. The indigenous residents moved up and down the coastline and into the surrounding Chugach Mountains, following the ebbs and flows of fish and game. At what is now the Eklutna Lake campground in Chugach State Park, they hunted sheep on the mountain slopes. From the now-prestigious downtown Anchorage address of Third Avenue and K Street, Alex Vasily – the famous Dena'ina tribal chief and shaman – ran his smokehouse.

At Ship Creek, the waterway on which modern-day Anchorage was founded as an early 20th-century tent city, the ancestors of today's Eklutna villagers hauled in huge catches of stickleback, a dietary staple.

To this day, Eklutna Dena'ina have struggled to keep their identity from being overwhelmed by the outsiders who have transformed their homeland into Alaska's dominant city. "It was hard for us because we lost our language," says Dorothy Cook, president of the Eklutna native village. "If we were more remote, we would have held onto it."

Still, efforts are under way to revive the culture, starting with the local dialect. "Chi'an, Gu Ninya," says a wooden sign by the churchyard, which translates to "Thank you, you came here." Tribal members are excited that Anchorage's new convention center, now under construction, will bear the Dena'ina name. That is the result of a warm relationship with Mayor Mark Begich, who locals say has made special effort to recognize the indigenous culture.

The state-owned Alaska Railroad has struck a deal with village elders to return a pair of cultural icons to the Eklutna people. Two geologic "knobs," initially quarried during World War II to supply gravel for the railroad without permission from the natives, are central to the tribe's cultural identity.

Overlooking a branch of the Cook Inlet, the knobs were used as lookouts for fish and game and possible invaders. They were also critical landmarks for travelers. "When you saw those two knobs – and you saw them way before you saw the Eklutna River – you knew you were getting home," says Curtis McQueen, chief executive of the native-owned Eklutna Inc.

In a departure from the past, a corporation set up to make money for the Eklutna people is increasingly promoting the tribe's culture as well. Eklutna Inc. is a for-profit corporation created by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Like other native corporations in the state, Eklutna Inc. operates separately from its tribal counterpart.

While the company's mission is to make money for its native shareholders, the tribal government's mission is social. The company is the biggest private landowner in Anchorage. The village government owns no land. Even the venues of the two entities are starkly different: While the tribe operates out of rustic buildings in the village, Eklutna Inc. is headquartered in a Comet-clean business park in an upscale suburb.

To help preserve the tribe's heritage, the corporation is likely to lease rather than sell land in the future – particularly parcels near the Eklutna Village. "They don't want to sell the land. Once it's sold, it's gone," says Jim Arnesen, Eklutna Inc.'s land manager.

The corporation is now focusing on a hoped-for buyout of land long held by National Bank of Alaska and its successor company, Wells Fargo. That is an important berry-picking and food-gathering site for villagers, who fear it will be developed into some subdivision.

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Despite the proximity to supermarkets, shopping malls, and drive-by espresso stands, Eklutna tribal members still rely on local woodlands and rivers as an important source of food. The village's surrounded-by-a-city status merits it a special "educational" fishing permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for personal harvests.

Where do these "educational" harvests take place? On a sun-splashed late fall day, Ms. Cook, the tribal village president, kibitzes with other tribal members at the spare community center. She is, not surprisingly, mum about the whereabouts of the harvests. After all, she doesn't want more civilization encroaching on their ancient culture – in this case in the form of masses of urban sport fishermen.

"We get our fish," is all she will say.

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