Photo Credit: Frank Kovalchek

Kenaitze Indian Tribe youth study and shepherd heritage site

September 26, 2016
Yaghanen Youth Program researcher records the landscape that upheld her ancestors with its ecological abundance as part of her archaeology field work. Credit: David Guilfoyle

Yaghanen Youth Program researcher records the landscape that upheld her ancestors with its ecological abundance as part of her archaeology field work.
Credit: David Guilfoyle

Even as ripe cranberries load overhanging branches, several rivers of the Kenai are red with spawning sockeyes. This obvious abundance and access by road draw hundreds of thousands to the Kenai River and its tributaries. High usage patterns demand continual efforts to sustain the natural and cultural resources of Yaghanen, “the good land,” in Dena’ina. A collaborative work-study program on the banks of Crescent Creek is establishing a new approach to understand and protect a thousands-year-old village site from informal recreational trails and stream erosion.


Kenaitze Indian Tribal youth are shaping the cultural heritage management plan for the Crescent Creek site while learning field archeology methods and how to engage the community and elders with guidance from Applied Archaeology International and the US Forest Service with funding provided by the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area and Cook Inlet Tribal Council. The community-informed plan will be soon be submitted to the land manager, Chugach National Forest.


Michael Bernard, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe Yaghanen Youth Program Coordinator, describes the multi-year project, “The kids go out there and work with professionals and see how professional archaeology is done.” That exposure occurs in a meaningful context, says Bernard. “They’re learning that the stuff that happened a long time ago is still important and valuable and definitely worth preserving.”


Over 30 youth have been involved in the 2016 field season, including four full-time interns from the Kenaitze Tribe and the Salish Tribe (Montana) paid by Cook Inlet Tribal Council. Alaska Horsemen Adventures provided campsite and meal hosting, and time with horses. Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area provided $9,920 for research equipment and analysis and outreach and interpretation.


Raven Willoya, a Kenaitze youth researcher at Crescent Creek, guide at the nearby K’Beq’ Interpretive Site, and program ambassador to Australia, attests, “I learned about my culture based on spending time at the camps.” Willoya believes, “It makes sense to have collaboration, a holistic management of land and culture.”


David Guilfoyle, archaeologist with Applied Archaeology International, first partnered with the Kenaitze Tribe and Chugach National Forest in 2013 to design this community-agency-research project, which he credits with “identifying new ways we teach and carry out archaeology… making archaeology and anthropology more socially relevant and more action-oriented for preservation.”


Youth called attention to accumulations of burnt fish bones within ash layers of a fire-cracked rock midden. Drawing upon cultural knowledge, they questioned the departure from traditional practice of returning fish bones to the river and suggested alternate hypotheses. Perhaps bones were burnt during winter when the river was frozen, or perhaps Russian Orthodox teachings swayed adherence to customary practices. Recent radiocarbon dates, indicating continual residence for at least 600 years, will help illuminate these research questions.


Youth have also sought out input in research methodology from community elders. The team developed techniques for marginally invasive research without full excavation and carried out respectful ceremonies before disturbing a culturally significant place. The students involved have prioritized protecting the cultural resources by sharing the ancient and modern story of fishing these banks. They direct visitors to the context of traditional use with on-site evidence and deeper heritage interpretation available at the K’Beq’ Interpretative Site, where some of them work as guides.


Youth researcher Julianne Wilson concluded, “My ancestors have lived here and they did their part to keep it beautiful, so we have to do our part.”


The KMTA National Heritage Area provides grants for historic preservation and other educational projects that bolster awareness of the area’s scenic, cultural, historic, and recreational resources. For more information, visit www.