The site of two Dena’ina traditional houses, or nichils, dating back to 1500 A.D. located in Old Town Kenai have remained unmarked for decades.
But hopefully not for long.
Rebecca Lambourn, Kenai Parks and Recreation Commission member, said the commission has proposed placing four signs around Old Town. A sign at the archeological site will teach locals and tourists about the houses while three additional signs will share similar historical tidbits of the olden days of Kenai.
Lambourn, who said she had been aware of the archeological site in the Kenai Municipal Park for more than 20 years, created the idea for the signs.
They will likely be placed at the top or bottom of Meeks Trail in Old Town, near the dip-netter parking lot on the beach, in the center of municipal park and in or near Erik Hansen Scout Park.
“Because there was already proposed development for the park it seemed like a really good time to let people know where the archeological sites were,” Lambourn said.
Her desire to share historical and cultural knowledge was coupled with timeliness due to another project by the Kenai Visitors & Cultural Center.
The center is updating its walking tours, and Lambourn proposed a short tour with signs starting in Old Town, going down onto the beach and ending in Municipal Park.
Chosen locations have good viewpoints, she said.
“Each one has historical logic, but they also flow into a nice walk for anyone wanting to take that walk,” she said.
Michael Bernard from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, and Alan Boraas, an anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, aided Lambourn by researching topics and editing the proposed wording of the signs.
Driving around town, Lambourn pointed out possible sites for the signs to Bernard. He returned to his office and began researching with help from Boraas.
“We contributed detail to the material and made corrections to some things that weren’t completely accurate,” he said. “And from there took it to the (Kenaitze) tribe for approval.”
Bernard is the coordinator for the Yaghanen program, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s after-school program. In Dena’ina the word means “a good place, a safe place for the heart.”
An important aspect of the program is its youth council, which Bernard deemed valuable to include in the sign project. He took the council members to the sites Lambourn pointed out, familiarizing them with the locations and their histories and asking them for input.
“They were excited about it, especially two girls on the council that are tribal members,” he said. “Definitely interested in having the tribe be more visible within the community in a positive light.”
Youth from the Kenaitze tribe generated the idea for the sign near Erik Hansen Scout Park, Lambourn said.
The proposed wording of the sign says, “Tikahtnu (the Cook Inlet) and Kahtnuh Kaq’ (the Kenai River Mouth). The view you are enjoying now has been enjoyed by the Kahtnuht’ana (People of the Kenai River, or Kenaitze Dena’ina) for over a thousand years. Here, the people lived in harmony with nature and because of this, resources such as fish and game were plentiful from year to year.”
The site of the traditional homes may include a drawing showing the interior layout of the structure, according to a proposal document. The site is of great importance to the area, as it was once a Dena’ina village, Lambourn said.
Building their homes at a semi-subterranean level, the Dena’ina people dug a meter into the ground and then made the walls and roof from log. Eventually, all the organic materials rot and decay and what’s left is the depression, Bernard said.
The charcoal used to date the site is considered the last fire built in the fire pit of the house, he said.
Bernard has studied the history of Kenai Peninsula as well as the Kenaitze tribe. The signs are important for two reasons, he said.
“I believe it is important not only for the public to understand that the tribe has been here for a long time, well before ... ancestors came from Russia or England, but it’s also important for the tribe to be reminded that this is their place, and it’s always been their place,” he said. “And it’s a beautiful place.”
Lambourn, an anthropology major, has studied the arrival of colonial explorers to the area. She said she wanted to include a sign discussing Captain James Cook and Captain George Vancouver, among others.
“There’s at least four countries that sent major explorations into Cook Inlet, so we’re trying to describe those explorers coming into the area,” she said of the sign proposed for the top or bottom of Meeks Trail.
A total of four signs were chosen to minimize cost. The text for the signs is still in the initial stages. None of signs have been built. It is uncertain when how the signs will be funded or when they would be placed.