Kenai Fjords Oral History and Archaeology Project
Most visitors perceive the Pacific coast of the Kenai Peninsula as a spectacular wilderness, devoid of human history. Glaciers rumble down steep valleys to the sea and sheer cliffs line the long fjords. The sea teems with otters, whales, seals and birds, but no echo of a human presence seems to linger in the quiet coastal forests.
History, memory and archaeology all tell a different story. Russian, British and Spanish vessels made contacts with a resident Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) population along this coast during the 18th and 19th centuries, and Native hunters were recruited for the Russian sea otter fleets. Alutiiq Elders in the Cook Inlet villages of Nanwalek, Port Graham and Seldovia tell stories about their grandparents and earlier generations who migrated to the region from Prince William Sound and who lived at Aialik Bay, Yalik, Dogfish Bay and other outer coast settlements. Archaeological surveys by the Arctic Studies Center and the National Park Service in 1993 located several of these historic sites and traced occupation of the region to much earlier times. More than 30 archaeological locales are now known, ranging in age from 100 - 1800 years old. Geological results of the project revealed the dynamic character of the outer coast environment, where glacial advances and great earthquakes have periodically reshaped the landscape and disrupted human habitation.
An expanded research program, called the KenaiFjords Oral History and Archaeology Project, is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2002, with funding provided to the Arctic Studies Center through the National Park Service and the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska. A grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum helped to support planning and educational outreach. The goal is to draw together different sources and traditions of knowledge in order to interpret the human and environmental history of this ecologically rich coastal zone.
The project will begin with archaeological excavations at two village sites that were identified during earlier surveys. Both are located in Kenai Fjords National Park. The Bear Cove Site is about 800 years old and was occupied at the beginning of a cold period that climatologists call the Little Ice Age (LIA). Excavations at the nearby Verdant Cove Early Contact Village Site, where glass trade beads provide evidence of early contact with Russian fur traders at around 1790 - 1820 A.D., will provide evidence of Alutiiq technologies and subsistence patterns at the height of the LIA. At that time, average air and sea temperatures were significantly lower than they are today and the climate-sensitive marine ecosystem is likely to have offered a rather different proportional mix of sea mammal, fish and bird species. Studies of animal bones from the sites may provide direct evidence of how lower temperatures affected the size and abundance of food species that were harvested by Alutiiq residents, including cod, salmon, seals and sea lions.
Students from Alutiiq villages and the University of Alaska will participate in the fieldwork, led by project director Aron Crowell. Alutiiq tradition-bearer Nick Tenape of Nanwalek, a subsistence hunter who is also well known as a kayak builder, will join the project to assist with excavations and to assess present-day Aialik Bay as an environment for hunting, fishing and gathering plant foods. Village residents will visit the project in late summer to see the results of the work.
The Kenai Fjords Oral History and Archaeology Project has been designed in cooperation with tribal governments, Native corporations and the National Park Service to provide a maximum of both scientific and educational benefits. In addition to scholarly publication, the work will be featured in general audience publications and in a film produced for use in schools, local museums and the public visitor center at Kenai Fjords National Park.
As fieldwork and educational activities unfold over the next several years, the many thousands of visitors who come to Kenai Fjords National Park each year may learn to see the coastal landscape in a new way, as the homeland of a vital and contemporary indigenous people. For Alutiiq participants, the project is an opportunity to reconnect in new ways with their own history. James Kvasnikoff of Nanwalek, who saw Aialik Bay for the first time when he came with other village residents on a planning visit in June 2001, declared, "From now on, this place will be on my mind."