Building in an Ashen Land: Historic Resource Study
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AT THE BEGINNING of the historic period (ca. 1760), the northern Alaska Peninsula people were living in the interior, east of Naknek Lake, and along the Katmai coast with key settlements at Katmai, Kukak, and Savonoski. The people occupied seasonal camps as well. To some degree, this was the continuation of earlier habitation patterns. People have been living in the Katmai region for thousands of years. Archaeological excavations along the Brooks River indicate that people were living in the area, at least on a seasonal basis, almost continuously since 4,500 years ago. Other habitation sites, dating to less than 500 years ago, have been found along the Savonoski River and at Lake Grosvenor.

Archaeological investigations in the southeast section of the park reveal that human occupation began as early as 6,000 years ago on Takli Island. Other habitation sites that include house pits have been found along the shoreline of Shelikof Strait, including (from south to north) Dakavak Bay, Kaflia Bay, Kukak Bay, Cape Chiniak, and Kaguyak. Evidence at most of these sites indicates occupation dates more recent than 1,000 years ago.

When the Russians set foot on the Alaska Peninsula coast, there were two groups of people living in the region: 1) the Savonoski people living east of Naknek Lake in several small settlements and 2) the Sugpiat/Alutiiq living along the coast. The following is a brief introduction to the Native Katmai people as well as an explanation of the terms selected for use in this study.

Savonoski People

The multi-village complex located east of the Iliuk Arm of Naknek Lake was known in the Alaska Russian Orthodox Church records variously as Severnovsk, Ikhiak, Ikhagmiut, Nanmiut, and Kanigamiut. [1] The people also lived in semi-subterranean houses, constructed from local cottonwood and spruce logs. Like the coastal Suqpiat/Alutiiq, the Savonoski people maintained a community house called a kazhim or qasgiq. [2] They established seasonal camps and subsisted primarily on salmon, caribou, and bear.

Brooks River barabara
The Brooks River barabara is a reconstruction of the original prehistoric house depression dated to A.D. 1200 to 1300. Based on the work of archeologist Don Dumond, the dwelling was left in skeletal form for visitors to see into the interior. It is located at Brooks Camp. NPS photo.

The native word(s) for the people living around the eastern Naknek Lake region is unknown. The Russians called the villages Severnovsk or Severnovskoe settlements and the inhabitants the Severnovskie Aleuty or Severnovsk Aleuts. The inhabitant's ethnic and linguistic affinity is not clear. While the literature shows inconsistent references to Savonoski's population as either predominately Aglurmiut or Sugpiat/Alutiiq, there are a few other clues. The Russian application of the term Severnovskie, which means "northerners," explains that these were the northernmost "Aleut" (meaning Alutiiq or Sugpiat) speakers. This makes sense as the people maintained strong trading ties with Katmai village from pre-contact times through 1912. The people preferred to take the more strenuous route over Katmai Pass instead of the easier Naknek River route to the settlement of Paugvik. Paugvik was the main Aglurmiut settlement during the Russian period; located near the mouth of the Naknek River and about sixty-two miles from Savonoski. There are stories of hostility between the Savonoski and Paugvik people, which could account for their limited interaction. Some anthropologists believe that during the late 1700s, the Savonoski people were displaced by the Aglurmiut from the lower Naknek River drainage. [3]

The Savonoski people had connections with Douglas, a village located on the coast and at the end of a portage route from Bristol Bay. [4] The Savonoski people along with some Katmai villagers contributed to the Douglas settlement's population. [5] There were some linguistic differences between the people of Katmai and Savonoski; however, as Spurr noted from his 1898 visit, there was a "marked difference in the speech." [6] Dumond and VanStone concluded that the Savonoski people, and those of Ugashik, were "native speakers of some form of Alutiiq...and they contrasted with the Central Yupik Aglurmiut of Paugvik." [7] Morseth suggests that the Severnovskie people, like the Ugashik people, spoke some form or dialect on the language continuum between Central Yup'ik and Sugtestun. [8]

During the early American period, the village located near Iluik Arm of Naknek Lake became known as Savonoski. [9] This Americanized spelling was placed on maps and it fell into general use. For purposes of this study, Savonoski will be used to provide continuity about the village's population and geographic location as it has been known in recent generations.

The Coastal Sugpiat/Alutiiq

The Sugpiat/Alutiiq inhabitants lived along the Shelikof Strait in settlements at Katmai, Kukak, and probably further north, and established seasonal camps as well. It is believed that village locations were selected in relation to an adequate wood supply used for building houses and boats and for heating purposes. The people built semi-subterranean houses, which were built partially in the ground, supported by wooden posts and had log cribbed roofs. The structures were then covered with mud and sod. [10] The coastal Natives had a land and sea subsistence orientation. They were, however, skilled sea mammal hunters using kayaks and dart weapons.

The Sugpiat/Alutiiq were related to the Kodiak Island people, [11] as Langsdorff noted in his 1805 visit to Kukak:

The customs, habits and, in part, the clothing, even the language of the inhabitants of Alaksa [Alaska Peninsula], are the same as in Kodiak. Only in food is there a noticeable difference, since the peninsula is connected to America where there are quantities of reindeer and wild sheep. The inhabitants usually hunt them in the fall for use as food and clothing. [12]

Various terms have been applied to the upper Alaska Peninsula people. The Russians applied the generic term Aleut, as well as the more specific Aliaskentsky and Aliaskan. Additional terms that have been used include Koniag, Kaniaga, Kad'iak Aleuts, Pacific Eskimo, and Pacific Yup'ik. Native speakers pronounced the term Aleut as Alutiiq, with Alutiiqs (an Anglicized plural) being the term which many contemporary descendents use today. The early people are considered to be Sugtestun speakers. The pluralized word Sugpiat (meaning "the real people") was the term traditionally used and has recently gained popularity. [13] For purposes of this study, Sugpiat/Alutiiq will be used to indicate some continuity in language, ethnic, and cultural heritage of the upper Alaska Peninsula inhabitants.

Native Americans in kayaks
"Katmai Village Natives in their Kayaks or Bidarkas" Photo courtesy of the Erskine Collection and the Kodiak Historical Society.

Prehistoric Properties Listed on the National Register

Eight of the early habitation sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are significant for what they tell us about Katmai's prehistoric occupants.

Brooks River Archaeological District (AHRS Site No. XMK-051). Listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1993.

Old Savonoski (XMK-001).

Savonoski River Archaeological District (XMK-053).

Archaeological Site 49 MK 10 (XMK-049), near Dakavak Bay.

Takli Island Archaeological District (XMK-052).

Kukak Village (XMK-006).

Archaeological Site 49 AF 3 (AFG-001), near Cape Chiniak.

Kaguyak Village (AFG-043).


1 Dumond, Don E., Demographic Effects of European Expansion: A Nineteenth-Century Native Population of the Alaska Peninsula, 16.

2 Hussey, Embattled Katmai, 74.

3 Dumond and VanStone, "Paugvik," 2-3, 6. Dumond and VanStone also noted that the Paugvik Aglurmiut traded at Katmai.

4 Hussey, 233, citing Petroff's Report, Tenth Census, 1883.

5 Russian Orthodox American Messenger 2(17):508-509, 1898, translated by Richard Bland, May 1999.

6 Spurr, A Reconnaissance in Southwestern Alaska in 1898, 1900, 93.

7 Dumond and VanStone, "Paugvik," 4.

8 Morseth, The People of the Volcanoes, 65.

9 Hussey, Embattled Katmai, 252. Hussey noted J.E. Spurr's report of his 1898 trip through the area that the name for the village located at the head of Naknek Lake "is Ikkhagamut, or Savonoski, as it is now commonly called."

10 Hussey, Embattled Katmai, 60-61.

11 Morseth, The People of the Volcanoes, 10, noted that the term Qikertarmiut refers to Sugpiat people affiliated with Kodiak Island.

12 Langsdorff, Remarks and Observations on a Voyage Around the World, 140.

13 Morseth, The People of the Volcanoes, 5.

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Last Updated: 22-Oct-2002