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


The coastal topography of the Kenai Peninsula is similar to that of the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak Island, and Prince William Sound. Travel along the southern Kenai coast was common, as were longer expeditions to Prince William Sound, Kodiak Island, the Barren Islands, and Cook Inlet. Taking advantage of stopping points and layovers in protected coves and passes, the Kenai coast inhabitants managed to access all reaches of the peninsula in a series of stages. For journeys to Kodiak Island, the Barren Islands served as a convenient place to rest and take shelter. [35]

The use of portages, trails, and temporary camps provided an alternate route during stormy seas and inclement weather. Overland baidarka portages served as a back door to hunting and trade corridors on the peninsula. As noted in Chapter 1, a series of trails linked the coastal and inland regions of the Kenai Peninsula. Routes linked Prince William Sound and the head of Resurrection Bay with Turnagain Arm. These routes provided year round access to the coast, especially for the Dena'ina who were less adept at navigating in the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.

In general, the Pacific Eskimo identified with individual villages and village groups, rather than one large collective. Oswalt described village makeup and membership as "fluid" with subtribes having affiliation with one or more villages. [36] Archeological investigations in the 1930s by de Laguna and Birket-Smith in Prince William Sound detected small populations and scattered village sites despite an apparently rich resource base. Oswalt attributed sparse village distribution of the Unegkurmiut to a relatively unproductive environment despite the region's resource potential. [37] As noted in "The Fight with the Dena'ina", Chugach raiding parties from Prince William Sound ranged in size from twelve to twenty-eight men per village. [38] Others including Dall maintained that the fishing was sparse, especially in the lands closer to Prince William Sound. Hunting was the main source of food for the Chugach villages.

Like the Koniag, the Pacific Eskimo were master mariners and hunted at sea. To maneuver small boats in open waters demanded a lifetime of skill. It was possible that the Unegkurmiut, like the Chugach, hunted at sea with bows and arrows and pursued whales with darts and harpoons. [39] Whales migrated along the open waters of the rugged coast, and hunters used the high rocky perches to spot the large mammals. In a world oriented primarily towards the sea, the Chugach depended on the open water for subsistence, a haven from enemies, and communication with other villages. Often one village, as in the case of Yalik (in Nuka Bay) and perhaps others, was self-sufficient and independent with its own chief. [40]

The Chugach divided the year and their activities between temporary transient summer camps and permanent winter villages. Surrounded in most areas by the lush growth of coniferous rainforest, the Chugach constructed rectangular-shaped winter dwellings of wooden planking insulated with packed moss. Portlock gave one of the most explicit descriptions of Chugach houses:

Those I have seen are not more than four to six feet high, about ten feet long and about eight feet broad, built with thick plank and the crevices filled up with dry moss.... The method they use in making plank is, to split the trees with wooden or stone wedges; and I have seen a plank twenty or twenty five feet long, split from a tree by their method. [41]

The Unegkurmiut established village sites on the shores of bays with close access to bodies of water including lagoons, streams, or bays. Given an alternative, land travel was minimal. Sea routes provided easier access to coastal villages. Villages located on elevated shorelines provided commanding unobstructed views and a ready escape route by sea in the event of attack. Higher observation points were used to spot the approach of game and unwelcome strangers. [42] de Laguna contended that the need a for strategic village location outweighed other geographic factors including proximity to salmon streams and shellfish beds typically found at the headwaters of bays. For these reasons as well, the Chugach tended to place villages near the entrances to bays, rivers, and recessed fjords.

sketch of rocky beach with sea otters
View of rocky beach with family of sea otters, from Georg Langsdorff, c. 1805. Bancroft Library.

Seasonal fish camps were located near streams and rock outcrop islands. These camps and retreats were also located on protected bays. For these short periods of the year, however, more emphasis was placed on making camp near salmon rich streams than on high defensive points. [43] During these months village members moved away from the permanent settlements to fish for salmon and halibut and hunt whale. [44] Chugach summer dwellings varied from bark covered shelters with inverted skin boats for roofs to sturdier multi-family rectangular wooden houses. [45]

Village related structures and land use typically included cache islands for food, burial sites, portages, and offshore island retreats in times of attack. Secondary land use sites included sea otter hunting camps, garden sites, and egg, feather, and timber collecting sites. [46] Burial sites also had association. The Chugach covered the faces of their dead with death masks. In some instances the masks were placed next to the individual. The imagery on the mask depicted "family spirits pictured in animal or human forms." [47]

Other features, notably Sitka spruce trees marked and scarred by the harvesting of slabs of bark, constitute another indicator of cultural land use. Known as culturally modified trees, these trees bear the mark of where Chugach stripped and carved out patches of bark, both as a food source and as building and artisan material.

The number of actual villages that existed at any period in history along the coast is unknown. Determining locations for these villages has historical importance because many of these same sites continued to support both seasonal hunting crews and other resource uses. Site documentation profiled in 1991 for the Chugach Alaska Corporation supported a relationship between the location of earlier village sites and the later use of these areas as a base for seasonal hunting and trapping parties. [48]

While documentation of village sites and names for the outer coast within parklands is sparse and largely unknown, some village locations have been reported and others recorded. Known villages sites along the outer Kenai coast include: an unnamed settlement in Aialik Bay; Yalik Village in Nuka Bay; Nuna'tunaq in Rocky Bay; Kogiu-xtolik in Dogfish or Koyuktolik Bay; Axu'layik at Port Chatham; Chrome, or "To'qakvik" at the entrance of Port Chatham; the summer village of Nanu'aluq near the location of the Russian fort Alexandrovsk; and Palu'vik at Port Graham. The settlement in Aialik Bay may have been near Verdant Cove (south of Verdant Island) or at another point along the coast. [49]

Yalik village located in Yalik Bay is the only village on the coast within park boundaries to survive by name into the historic period, although historically it had other names. [50] Townsend suggests that the villages of Akhmylik and Yalik were one and the same. [51] The village of Yalik appeared in Petroff's 1880 census and is listed as Eskimo. de Laguna referred to the village by name in addition to two other abandoned settlements: one in Aialik Bay and a second known as Nuna'tunaq in Rocky Bay. [52] According to contacts she had along the coast, village residents were called yaleymiut, "an independent tribe with their own chief." [53]

Native paddlers rest in their baidarkas near Seldovia, c. 1916. Anchorage Museum of History and Art, photo B91-9-143.

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002