People of Lake Clark

View of a mountain ridge with a long glacial lake and islands in the distance.
Qizhjeh Vena (Lake Clark) is the ancestral homeland of the Dena'ina Athabascan people.

NPS Photo/E. Kramer

Lake Clark is rich in human history. The first human settlers came more than 10,000 years ago. An abundance of salmon, caribou, moose, and edible plants attracted people to this area. Many plants and animals are still harvested today.

Dena’ina Homeland

The Dena’ina Athabascan people have lived in the Lake Clark region for thousands of years. Before this area was part of Lake Clark National Park, it was called Qizhjeh Vena meaning 'a place where people gather lake' in the Dena’ina language. Qizhjeh Vena (Lake Clark) is the ancestral homeland of the Dena’ina people. The land and water continue to support, shape, and sustain the Dena'ina culture.
Image of children swimming and playing in a lake.
Qizhjeh (Kijik) is a sacred place where inland Dena’ina families gather. Bill Trefon, Jr. recalls “What Kijik was a long time ago, winter village … they all gathered there for the winter ... I remember Kijik when I was a kid. And dog teams – it was a lot of fun."

NPS Photo

A Bustling Village

For nearly 900 years, Kijik was one of Alaska’s longest year-round native villages. Kijik is the English adaptation of Qizhjeh, which means 'place where people gather' in the Dena'ina language. People traveled between Qizhjeh and surrounding villages along well-established routes to trade and connect with each other. In the late 1800s explorers, trappers, traders, and cabin builders came to the areas around Qizhjeh. With outsiders came spread of disease. Residents of Qizhjeh fell sick with a flu-measles epidemic in 1902. Many residents died. By 1909, survivors left Qizhjeh for other villages including Old Nondalton. This area still holds great cultural importance to local Dena'ina people.
Young student learns to use traditional Dena'ina tools
A student learns how to use traditional tools at a Dena'ina outdoor learning camp called Quk' Taz'un, which means 'The Sun Is Rising' in the Dena'ina language.

NPS Photo

Travelers on the Coast

Ancestral trails and travel corridors branched out from Qizhjeh to the north, west, and east. The trails to the east went to the Cook Inlet coast, where both the Dena’ina and the Alutiiq people (a group of maritime people, originating in the Kodiak archipelago), travelled and traded. For at least 3500 years trails and small settlements along the coast have been used for hunting, fishing and trading. Those who passed by left their mark on the landscape. Materials, such as stone tools, as old as 10,000 years have been discovered in some of these sites.

Image of several vibrantly colored sockeye salmon fillets hung out to dry on a fish rack.
“Fish Camp is important because that’s where we put up our fish for the winter, for our winter supply of fish…that’s the only time that we could put up our dry fish, and canned fish, and salt fish, freeze fish, and that’s the important thing” - Olga Balluta

NPS Photo/L. Rupp


The Dena’ina people still depend on hunting, fishing, and gathering to put food on the table. In Alaska, this is called subsistence. Access and knowledge to get wild foods means food security. These communities are not connected to Alaska’s road system. People must use what is available in this remote place. For Dena’ina people, passing on the traditional values of living off the land means the survival of their culture. Traditional values include sustaining (never taking more than is needed) and respect for the natural environment. For thousands of years sockeye salmon have been important for food and survival. Today, many local residents, not just Dena’ina people are connected to the fish and wildlife through subsistence practices.
Sockeye Salmon hanging in Smokehouse as sunlight comes through.
Sockeye salmon, or K'q'uya in the Dena’ina language, hang in a smokehouse at fish camp.

NPS Photo/T. Vaughn

Continuing Traditions

Despite extreme changes to land ownership and technologies, the Dena’ina people remain connected to their traditional lands. Many of the people whose ancestors lived in Qizhjeh continue to live in villages within and around the park. For many generations, the Dena’ina people have passed down the values and techniques to carry on their culture and way of life.
Image of a woman making a fire in a fire pit, along a lakeshore.
The English translation for Dena’ina is ‘the people’ and Ełnena translates to ‘land.’ Dena'ina Qut'ana, or the Dena'ina People and the Land, are deeply interwoven.

Photo Courtesy D. Dharm Khalsa

Place Names

Places in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve have different meanings to many people. Most places in Lake Clark have Dena’ina place names that predated any other names assigned to them. Original place names tell the story of the Dena’ina people’s relationship to that place and remind us that people have been part of this place for a long time. The Dena’ina give names to places to better remember them, to help document what they find or events that once happened there. Traditionally, the names were part of the maps people held in their memories that that helped with travel and finding places.
Image of five palms filled with blueberries.
“The names are very important. It’s about our history and what we’ve done.” - Olga Balluta

NPS Photo/B. King

Here are some examples of Dena’ina place names with their English translations:

Chayi ch’k’edlesht ‘where we cooked tea’

Dilah Vena ‘fish swim in lake’
(Telaquana Lake)

K’qineyaht ‘where they pick berries’
(Pile Hill in Pedro Bay)

Lake Clark National Park & Preserve

Last updated: September 15, 2021