The mouth of the Naknek River at Bristol Bay offers an abundant harvest to fishermen and hunters. Each summer, huge numbers of sockeyes and other kinds of salmon swim up the river. Beluga whales and seals are commonly found in Bristol Bay, and caribou roam the interior hills. Today the village is a busy port for the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, with a year-round population of about 600 (1990 census).
The history of the lower Naknek River has not always been peaceful. The original settlers were Alutiiq people, but they lost their place to Aglurmiut (Yup'ik) invaders in about 1800. At this time, the Alutiit retreated far up-river to the village of Severnovskoe (Savonoski). The Aglurmiut then built a new village at the river's mouth called Paugvik. During the 1800's, the Aglurmiut and Alutiiq peoples of the Naknek River remained enemies, even though both hunted for the Russian and American fur companies. The present village of Naknek, located near Paugvik, was started in the 1890's when American companies built a salmon saltery and cannery. Over time, Aglurmiut families at Paugvik moved to Naknek for cannery jobs and left their old village behind.
In 1912, the Katmai volcanic eruption destroyed the interior village of Savonoski and forced its Alutiiq residents to return once again to the mouth of the Naknek River. There they built New Savonoski, on the opposite bank from their old enemies at Naknek village. Later they moved again to the nearby cannery town of South Naknek. While they are close neighbors today, the Yup'ik and Alutiiq people at Naknek and South Naknek also recognize their differences in language, culture, and history.
Salmon drying on racks, barabaras, and raised caches (log storehouses) on the south bank of the Naknek River near the Arctic Packing Company saltery, 1900. The location is close to present-day South Naknek. Courtesy of the National Archives, Albatross Collection 22-FFA-2542.
Near South Naknek, 1900, "Kaniagmiut Eskimo." This term was used to refer to Alutiit from Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula. The style of the barabara also suggests that Alutiit were living on the south bank of the lower Naknek River even before the Katmai eruption in 1912. The raised log cache was used to store food where it would be safe from animals. Courtesy of the National Archives, Albatross Collection RG-22-FFA-2543.
Two boys at Naknek, circa 1917. Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Cobb Collection, UW 4166.
Two women and a child having lunch with tea, Naknek, circa 1906. Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, UW 2414.
Splitting fish with an ulukaq knife at Paugvik, 1919. Courtesy of University of Alaska Anchorage, Archives and Manuscripts Department, National Geographic Society Katmai Expedition Collection, Box 8, 6542.