Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 2:

The east coast of Cook Inlet is called the Kenai Peninsula, a land with a backbone of glaciers sliding icy spines into the Gulf of Alaska where Eskimo once occupied the fjords facing the open sea. [1] — Cornelius B. Osgood, 1937

The Chugach and Unegkurmiut

Map 2-1. Historic Sites-Nativge Lifeways. (cick on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The Kenai Peninsula's earliest inhabitants were a people in transition. Living on a narrow strip of land between the edge of the Kenai Mountains and the surge of the Pacific Ocean, the Natives of the outer coast constituted one of the easternmost groups of Pacific Eskimo. The archeological data suggest that most of the sites known today are about 800 years old. [2] Only some of these villages were still inhabited at the time of Russian contact; even fewer existed until the twentieth century. Many speculate that these coastal people migrated to the coast from Kodiak Island or the Alaska Peninsula and traded along the length of the Pacific coast.

The Native inhabitants of the Pacific coast of the Kenai Peninsula region are called the Alutiiq Chugach. Variants of the name Chugach occur in Russian, American, and European ethnographic studies and is generally inclusive of Pacific Eskimo who lived from Cape Elizabeth to the eastern coastal areas of Prince William Sound. By some historical accounts, the name Chugach is a derivative of the Russian-Eskimo name for Prince William Sound and the Chugach Islands near Kachemak Bay. Traveling between the two regions, the Natives crossed a portage through one of the fjords to arrive in Kachemak Bay near the Chugach Islands. The prolific, though not always reliable, Russian chronicler Ivan Petroff stated that the name "Chugach" was a Russian version of the tribal name of Sh-Ghachit Shoit (the latter word means simply "people"). [3] The scientist and naturalist William Dall called them Chugachmiut, placing a "miut" at the end of the word to imply "dwellers of."

Many anthropologists maintain that the Eskimo of the outer Kenai Peninsula, the Unixkugmiut or Unegkurmiut, were a separate people from the nine Chugach subtribes of the larger Prince William Sound island region. It is presumed that the Unegkurmiut's affiliation lay more with the inhabitants of Kodiak Island. The Unegkurmiut are believed to have once inhabited a larger portion of the Kenai Peninsula and may have been one of several other unknown Pacific Eskimo subtribes. [4] Frederica de Laguna, who visited the region in the 1930s and documented a dozen sites, contended that Kenai Peninsula inhabitants, whose range extended from Puget Bay to Cook Inlet, were not tribesmen of the Chugach. [5] Historical references, in part, support this view. Baranov referred to the Natives in his charge at Resurrection Bay as inovertsy meaning "men of other faith." [6] Carl Merck, the naturalist on Captain Joseph Billing's 1790 expedition, met local inhabitants in the vicinity of Nuka Bay and learned they were called Chugachi. These inhabitants made a point of warning Merck of other Natives who had the same name. [7] Davydov, who visited the area shortly after 1800, made a connection between the Kenai coastline and the name and territory of the Native inhabitants:

In Voskresensk (Resurrection) Bay, where the Chugaches live, there is also an artel; further on is also one in Chugatsk Bay, or Prince William Sound, on Nuchek Island. From time to time the inhabitants of the Copper River come here in huge boats to see the hostages that have been taken away from them, and to sell the furs and raw copper which they have brought with them. [8]

Native woman
A woman of Prince William Sound Alaska Purchase Centennial Commission. Alaska State Library, photo PCA 20-249.

In the 1830s Ferdinand Wrangell wrote on the ancestral lineage of the Chugach, drawing an association between the people of the outer Kenai coast and Kodiak Island. Wrangell maintained that the Chugach were descendants of the people living on Kodiak Island.

The Chugach were driven from the island of Kadiak after internal strife there and eventually reached the site of their present settlements on the shores of Prince William Sound and west as far as the entrance to Cook's Inlet. It is certain that they are of the same tribe as the Kadiaks. [9]

Wrangell also noted that the residents of both Kodiak Island and the Gulf Coast had similar clothing in contrast to other Alaska Natives he had encountered. He observed, "they do not dress in reindeer skins, like the other tribes of these regions, but make their parkas (winter garments) from birdskin and their kamleis (summer garments) from the intestines of whales and seals." [10]

The following observations, published in 1836, support Wrangell's views and give insight into what people knew and recorded about the region.

Two tribes are found, on the Pacific Ocean, whose kindred language, though exhibiting some affinities both with that of the Western Eskimaux and with that the Athapascas, we shall, for the present, consider as forming a distinct family. They are the Kinai, in and near Cook's Inlet or River, and the Ugaljachmutzi (Ougalachmioutsy) of Prince William Sound. The Tshagazzi, who inhabit the country between those two tribes, are Eskimaux and speak a dialect nearly the same with that of the Konagen of Kakjak [Kodiak] Island. [11]

Petroff thought that the origin of the people was evident in their preference for skin boats rather than wooden dugouts. Wood was the technology so preferred by the Tlingits, who were the southern neighbors of the Chugach. Petroff's observations are worded in such a way as to suggest that he reached these conclusions almost by a process of elimination. He noted, "The exclusive use of the kaiak or bidarka in this Alpine region, with dense forests and dangerous beaches, can only be explained by the emigration of the people from other regions devoid of timber." [12]

Finally, Birket-Smith stated that his informant in the 1950s would call himself a name meaning "Eskimo of Prince William Sound", drawing a marked distinction between he and those from Seward, Nuka Bay, and points west. [13]

Other anthropologists, however, present a different lineage for the people of the outer coast. Hassen suggests that the Chugach were kinsmen of the Unegkurmiut of Resurrection Bay, Nuka Bay, and Port Graham, implying a marked regional and perhaps ethnographic distinction. [14] There is also the speculation that the Unegkurmiut lived well into the southern portion of Cook Inlet only to be pushed back by the Koniag. [15] At the time of Russian and European contact, the territory of the Dena'ina included all of Cook Inlet except for the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula and outer coast. [16] Captain James Cook met Natives near North Foreland, which lies south of present day village of Tyonek, and there he observed a resemblance to others whom he had encountered on the Gulf of Alaska coast. He noted that "I could observe no difference between the persons, dress, ornaments, and boats of these people, and those of Prince William's Sounds, except that the small canoes were rather of a less size, and carried only one man...." [17]

The above statements suggest that there is little consensus and even less descriptive material on the people who inhabited the remote Kenai coast. Many agree that the Unegkurmiut were an obscure people. [18] Oswalt epitomized what scant information existed by stating, "They were Suk-speaking Eskimos whose roots were shallow and whose success was moderate." [19]

Despite these different viewpoints, many observations can be made about the Kenai coast inhabitants from the records of the Russian, English, and Spanish mariners and traders and the history of the of the Dena'ina, Koniag, Chugach, and Tlingit. Looking at the outer coast inhabitants from the perspective of their neighbors gives an insight into the identity of these people. Most of the ethnographic research for this context is based on the Chugach, for whom there is more documentation. From general prototypes of Chugach land use and subsistence, some inferences can be made about the lifestyle of the Unegkurmiut.

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002