Although Alutiit have lived near the shores of English Bay for many thousands of years, the village of Nanwalek got its start when Russian fur traders built a fort there in 1785. They named it "Alexandrovsk" after the Russian tsar, Alexander I. Alutiiq families came there to live because the fort was an early center for the fur trade. Through the years, people worked as sea otter hunters, coal miners, fox farmers, trappers, and commercial fishermen. They also took jobs in the cannery at Seldovia. The name of the village changed to "English Bay" after the Russians left in 1867, and recently to "Nanwalek" when residents adopted the Alutiiq name for their home.
Elders recall that many of the families who live in Nanwalek today migrated from villages in Prince William Sound during the late 1800s. People also came from Yalik and other settlements on the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula, although no one lives today. People still visit these ancestral places when they travel the coast for fishing.
The people of Nanwalek have many strong traditions. Most harvest fish, seals, plants and many other wild foods throughout the year. Important ceremonies are held in January: Sláwiq or "starring" (see more under "Beliefs" section); maskalataq (masking); and Núwikútaq, which welcomes in the New Year. Through language programs the local school and tribal council are helping to preserve Sugtestun, the Alutiiq language. In recent years, the village has also become known for its impressive fleet of kayaks made by Nick Tanape and other craftsmen. There were 158 people at Nanwalek in 1990.
Nanwalek, circa 1892. Courtesy of the National Archives, Albatross Collection, 22-FA-449.
Residents at Nanwalek, circa 1892. Courtesy of the National Archives, Albatross Collection, 22-FA-452.
Nanwalek, circa 1892. Courtesy of the National Archives, Albatross Collection, 22-FA-454.