Collaboratively Unearthing the Past
By Katherine Schake
At a unique curve in the Kenai River, known today as a late-season silver salmon ‘hole’ by locals and named for its color, Turquoise Bend has been discovered as an 800-year-old semi-permanent winter village site of the Denai’na. To the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, this site is not only a cultural landmark and direct link to their ancestral heritage, but also represents a deep spiritual connection to a place that represents a holistic way of life that has persisted for generations.
Roughly ten thousand years ago, as the glaciers retreated from the most recent ice age, new plants sprouted on thawed ground, transforming glacial moraine into a carpet of food that encouraged animals to disperse into new territory. Nomadic Athabascans followed these animals across interior Alaska and eventually 11 distinct linguistic groups emerged. One of these, the Dena’ina, established semi-permanent settlements and fish camps throughout southcentral Alaska. The Kenai River Valley was especially abundant. Each summer four major salmon runs reliably returned, providing enough fish to last through the winter months.
What does one do, today, when a sacred place such as Turquoise Bend is located on private property?
Funded in part through a grant from the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm (KMTA) National Heritage Area, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and Chugach National Forest spearheaded a community archaeology and outreach initiative to collaborate with local landowners and archaeologists in addressing the challenges of preserving cultural heritage sites while enabling future investigation of archaeological features in the Kenai River Valley.
As a result of the initiative, partners, including Applied Archaeology International, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, BE Surveys, and private landowners worked over this past summer to protect and manage cultural places such as Turquoise Bend. The team succeeded in mapping out an archaeological signature of a nichił, a traditional semi-subterranean log home built to house multiple families. Using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), archaeologists were able to identify the size and shape of the main home along with sub-surface hearths without disturbing the surface. This non-invasive method is supported by both Tribal representatives and private landowners.
“The landowners were great to work with. There were some cultural differences that they were very willing to hear about, learn about, and work with. I feel like we could have a good conversation that was respectful of the land,” said Joel Isaak, Cultural Coordinator of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.
The river, salmon and ancestral features are all a part of the integrated management goals of this community project. Elders, youth, landowners and archaeologists teamed-up to excavate the Dena’ina settlement site, survey cultural plants, examine the condition of the river bank, and perform site restoration activities.
The excavation also revealed a cultural deposit at 45 centimeters (approximately 18 inches) below the surface. One large nichił and two smaller nichiłs were found with identifiable house features such as cold storage where dried salmon was buried in underground pits for overwintering. Cache pits of charcoal and mounded fire-cracked rock, called middens, were radiocarbon dated to approximately 1178 AD. The midden is the designated place for emptying the hearth and may contain charred food scraps, artifacts of the house and burnt rock fragments. The frequency of middens found in the Dena’ina village complexes point to a social norm of keeping a home clean and tidy. Unfortunately, this particular midden had been impacted, unknowingly, by land use activities, and speaks to the importance of building collaborative efforts to preserve cultural heritage sites.
One of the most admirable outcomes of this past summer’s work was the synthesis of scientific research and cultural protocols within a model of community outreach.
According to David Guilfoyle at Applied Archaeology International, “Much of the work to protect cultural places is focused around on-ground environmental management, and so there is a lot of overlap with the goals of landowners and environmental groups. These projects demonstrate a need to embrace cultural heritage places, and work with Tribes to protect our shared natural and cultural landscapes.”
Overall objectives for this multi-year project include continued mapping and surveying of archaeological sites in the Kenai River Valley; the establishment of on-ground site protection along with an integrated management plan supported by Tribal representatives, landowners and archaeologists.
Funding and support for the Turquoise Bend archaeology project was provided by the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area. For more information about this and other National Heritage Area projects visit kmtacorridor.org