Aaron Leggett doesn’t speak for Kenaitze, Dena’ina or Athabascans as a group when he tells his story, but his message resonates as one that could be typical of area Alaska Natives who grow up outside of the Cook Inlet villages and are separated from the dwindling number of Dena’ina language speakers who provide links to the past.
“I grew up in what seemed a typical suburban lifestyle in Anchorage, but I remember the day I learned I was Dena’ina as if it was yesterday,” Leggett told a group of about 30 Tuesday in the Kenai Peninsula College-Kenai River Campus commons area.
Nearly 30 years ago, in 1984, Leggett presented a Gerber baby jar of cranberry sauce to his grandmother — a Dena’ina from Eklutna — as he told her about his classing dressing up as Indians and Pilgrims for Thanksgiving activities.
She listened to his story and then told Leggett that he was an Indian.
“That one sentence completely redefined who I was,” he said.
He is Dena’ina. Nulchina. The Clan of the Sky People.
It’s an experience Leggett said he has heard repeated among Dena’ina people and to them, his message is one of shared experience on a quest to reconnect with their heritage.
Leggett, a special exhibits coordinator at the Anchorage Museum and co-curator of the Dena’inaq Huch’ulyeshi, or Way of Life, exhibit currently on display at the museum, said he was highly aware of how the life experience of his audience might cause his message to resonate.
“To a non-Dena’ina audience, it’s just kind of an eye-opening experience because — again, the idea that the Dena’ina were an invisible people — getting a first hand narrative of that kind of experience,” he said.
Throughout his presentation, Leggett touched on moments in his life that changed its course, leading him to champion the cause of bringing a voice and accurate historical record to the Dena’ina people.
“When I first came to understand that I was Dena’ina, it had little effect on my daily life,” he said.
A picture flashed on the screen behind him of a young Leggett standing on the bank of the Kenai River with a salmon.
“I didn’t go to fish camp, I didn’t get to help pull in the net like at Fire Island,” he said. “No, we went fishing like everybody else on the Kenai River, so here I am proudly displaying my first salmon.”
His suburban upbringing led to an identity struggle for Leggett.
“I didn’t grown up in a rural village,” he said. “My village was, in fact, Anchorage, my ancestor’s homeland. Therefore, I never really had the option to go back to the village and see what life was like.”
There was also a language barrier.
Leggett, like many other Dena’ina of his generation did not grow up speaking the language and even history books contained language that muddied his view of the past.
“Outside anthropologists and Europeans referred to us as Tanaina Athapascans and as a kid that was a bit unsettling because I always knew myself to be a Dena’ina Athabascan,” he said.
Commonly accepted history of the region was that the Dena’ina had not been in the area for long and were low in population due to a smallpox epidemic in 1839.
“The Dena’ina don’t claim that we’ve been here since time in memoriam but we do say we’ve been here for somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 years,” Leggett said.
All of the misinformation and lack of coherent historical data left Leggett feeling dismissed, he said.
It, and other experiences with local anthropologist Alan Boraas, and a job with the Alaska Native Heritage Center, were the catalysts that prompted Leggett to find work that would help him increase public awareness of the Dena’ina people.
The results of the efforts of people in his generation and the one before it have been encouraging, Leggett said.
A decade ago, it was thought speakers of the Dena’ina language could be gone within a generation. There are about 20 fluent speakers left in the area and another 20 — including Leggett — learning the language, he said.
“What it does is buys time,” he said.
A child growing up in a Cook Inlet-area village now has access to regional history that was not available before.
“It sort of speaks to the fact that things are starting to change,” he said. “I’m certainly encouraged.”
He referenced the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s educational setnet.
“The activities that the tribe does with their membership were certainly not things that I was every really exposed to until much later when I was in high school,” he said.
Now, youth can grow up learning subsistence ways, accessing a layer of knowledge hidden by the lack of coherent language education and the passing of historical knowledge.
“People say, ‘Oh you have a good job so you don’t need subsistence.’ When they say that they don’t understand,” Leggett said. “Even if we make 60,000-70,000 a year that’s not security to a lot of people. If the job suddenly isn’t there, can you go out and fish and hunt and gather berries? It’s important and it’s part of the Native identity, the relationship to the land.”
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org.