Person

Pelagia Melgenak

Image of a woman sitting on a wooden box. She is squinting and her hands are crossed in her lap.
Palakia Melgenak, Photograph from "Mount Katmai, Alaska Eruption Tape Recording

Wilbur A. Davis of the University of Oregon, July-August 1961." NPS-AKSO Katmai park file

Quick Facts

To learn the story of Pelagia (also spelled Palakia) Melgenak is to learn the sanctity of shared traditions, the loving bonds of kinship and the reverence of a spiritual connection to the land around you. Born in the late 1870s in the remote village of Savonoski in Alaska, Pelagia grew up learning about hunting, gathering, navigating and guiding in the area. In 1897, she married Petr Kayagvak and together they had several children. Records indicate they were known in and travelled between many villages in the area, but Savonoski was always home. 

That all changed in 1912 with the hot ash falling like a blanket covering the region with the eruption of Novarupta. “Grandma Pelagia said they thought the end of the world was coming when the mountain started erupting,” recalled Teddy Melgenak. Obviously Pelagia talked about this event with her family, and oral traditions such as this are exactly what saved Pelagia and her fellow townspeople during that fateful day in 1912. People knew from their ancestors to overturn boats to prevent them from filling with ash, to collect fresh water before it was tainted and to protect as much of their portable property as possible to enable a safe escape. Due to the importance they placed on the stories of those that came before them, no known deaths occurred in any of the villages impacted by this volcanic eruption despite the severity of it (it was 30 times larger than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington State!). Residents that fled the area of Savonoski tried returning shortly after, but the hot ash made a return impossible. Instead, they settled along the Naknek River in a town they named New Savonoski.

Pelagia’s husband Petr was forever immortalized as “American Pete” after he was interviewed by a member of the Griggs volcano research team in 1918 and quoted as the closest witness to the eruption of 1912. Sometime soon after that interview, Petr died leaving Pelagia a widow and New Savonoski lost one of their leaders. Nikolai Melgenak changed both fortunes as he stepped in to help finish the construction of the chapel in New Savonoski and married Pelagia in 1919. A hunting accident cost Nikolai an arm, but he gained the nickname “One Arm Nick” and this setback never seemed to slow him down. Unfortunately, the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 had other plans for the area and over 25% of the Savonoski villagers perished as a result. Pelagia’s family survived unscathed, said to be the result of closing her doors to outsiders and villagers while deploying traditional medicine made from local plants, skills she learned through family and cultural practices.

Despite not permanently returning to the area she grew up in, Pelagia still made annual trips until she was in her 90s to Qit’rwik (also spelled Kittiwick), the Native Sugpiaq-Alutiiq name for the Brooks Camp area of what was now known as Katmai National Park. “Upon arrival at Kittiwick, Grandma would joyfully go ashore, make the sign of the cross on herself and venerate the earth by putting her forehead on the ground,” recalls Mary Jane Nielson. While there with her family, Pelagia was recalled as the fastest at filleting a fish for drying and the best at removing the bones. Family and fellow community members venerate Pelagia as a matriarch of her family, community and culture who would pass on stories, songs, customs and traditions to help link them all to their collective past. 

Pelagia Melgenak’s story shows a grit and determination to survive as an individual but also as a vessel to help a culture survive. Despite losing her homeland to the largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century and having her community shaken, Pelagia was one of the people who never gave up living, teaching, and sharing her culture and values including a spiritual reverence for the very land she lived on. Our world will continue being a better place when we learn from examples set by people like her.
 


The following references have information about Pelagia Melgenak from family accounts and interviews as well as other source material:

Pelagia’s Story, by Mary Jane Nielsen in 2005. A M.A. thesis.

  • Learn more about Pelagia from the memories of her relatives. Mary Jane Nielsen wrote her thesis on the importance of learning from Elders both in person if possible but also from studying their life. This account is for family as well as “for those who wish to understand the bonds of kinships, shared tradition, and spiritual connection.”

Project Jukebox, University of Alaska, Fairbanks – listen to the those who knew Pelagia

  • Vera Angasan (raised by Pelagia and One-Arm Nick Melgenak)
  • Frederick Theodore (Ted) Angasan, Sr. (son of Vera Angasan, older brother to Mary Jane Nielson)
  • Ted Melgenak (adopted and raised by Pelagia and One-Arm Nick Melgenak)
  • Mary Jane Nielson (daughter of Vera Angasan, wrote Pelagia’s Story listed above)
  • Photos- South Naknek Slideshow | Project Jukebox (uaf.edu)

Isolated Paradise: An Administrative History of the Katmai and Aniakchak National Park Units

  • Mentions of Pelagia (spelled Palakia in this source) focus on her eye-witness accounting of the 1912 Novarupta eruption as well as the 120-acre land claim she filed with the Federal Government in 1971.

A Naknek Chronicle: Ten Thousand Years in a Land of Lakes and Mountains of Fires, by Don Dumond and Michael Nowak in 2005.

  • Looking at the “WHEN THE CENTRY TURNED – Families” section of the book, Pelagia’s early life is chronicled from church records. Also mentioned in this section is Trefon Angasan II, father of Mary Jane Nielsen who wrote the above mentioned Pelagia’s Story.

Witness: Firsthand Accounts of the Largest Volcanic Eruption in the Twentieth Century, pamphlet by Jeanne Schaaf 

  • Read first-hand accounts of the Novarupta eruption from Petr “American Pete” Kayagvak, Pelagia’s first husband, as well as Pelagia herself. American Pete was interviewed by the Griggs expedition and Pelagia’s accounts are taken from her 1961 interview with Wilbur Davis.

Alaska Park Science, volume 11, issue 1 

  • In this collection of scientific articles, readers will find the Witness: Firsthand Accounts of the Largest Volcanic Eruption in the Twentieth Century by Jeanne Schaff mentioned just above. Further reading about the impact of this cataclysmic event can be found in Article 2: “The Great Eruption of 1912” by Judy Fierstein (a look at just how large this eruption was) and Article 10: “Out of the Ashes: The Katmai Disaster” by Patricia H. Partnow (a look at others in the immediate area of the eruption, particularly those who were in the villages of Katmai and Douglas). Note: Neither of those articles specifically mention Pelagia, but give more context to the wide scale impact of the 1912 eruption of Novarupta Pelagia herself was a witness to.

At the Heart of Katmai, NPS document by Katherine Ringsmuth 

  • Much of the information about Pelagia in this document is taken from other sources cited here, but the collection gives a larger overview of the overlapping relationship between Pelagia’s history and that of Katmai. There are also several pictures of Pelagia and her family in this resource that are not seen in the other works cited here.

Katmai National Park & Preserve

Last updated: October 26, 2021