Digging the past

Soldotna anthropologist teaches, touches many people's lives along his pathIt's not like Indiana Jones. It's not nearly as exciting as that. I wish it were. You chip away at it, and a picture emerges.

Posted: Sunday, March 05, 2000

Soldotna anthropologist Alan Boraas still remembers his first archeological find -- a red stone spear point from a 1966 dig by Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota.

"I remember taking it to the director," Boraas said. "He said, 'That's about 2,000 years old.' That's probably what hooked me on archeology. I was thinking I was the first person who had touched it since the last one 2,000 years ago."

Boraas, professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna, is well-known for his research into the culture, history and archeology of Cook Inlet peoples. He also is known for his work helping the late Peter Kalifornsky, one of the last fluent speakers of the Kenai dialect of Dena'ina, to publish his collection of Native stores, "A Dena'ina Legacy, K'tl'egh'i Sukdu: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky."

Among skiers and joggers, Boraas is known as one of several prime contributors to creation of the Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School. Skiing is a passion, Boraas said, but there is more to it than that.

"We've been creating a transplant of another culture in the North -- schools, track, McDonald's, highways," he said. "I think we also have to meld that with the culture of the North. Skiing fits into that culture."

Boraas saw that idea as part of the curriculum when he coached the Skyview High School cross-country ski team.

"They were learning to be Northern people, embracing activities for all seasons," he said. "That's why I thought it was worth my time to do it. That's why I'm working on the trails."

No one develops a love-of-place sitting in front of a television, he said.

"You get it by outdoor activity, preferably shared with others," said Boraas, a 53-year-old with a neatly trimmed, graying beard, while sitting in an office crammed with books, papers and computer disks. "It's got to be outdoors. Otherwise, you may as well be in Southern California or Kansas."

In the corner stood projects he has let students make instead of writing term papers -- harpoons with toggled tips carved from antlers; a Dena'ina snowshoe shaped from area birch with stone tools and strung with sinews from a road-killed moose.

The walls were crowded, too -- a picture of Kalifornsky, a geological cross-section of Cook Inlet from Mount Spurr to the Kenai Mountains, a 1937 sketch of a deadfall trap, a newspaper photo of a high school cross country running race -- one of the first on the Tsalteshi Trails.

"I have that up because it's the energy of youth applied to the trails of a place," he said.

Making an impact

Sasha Lindgren, who worked seven years in the Kenaitze Indian Tribe cultural heritage program and now works as tribal enrollment officer, said Boraas' class on Cook Inlet anthropology is what led her to work for the Kenaitzes.

"Alan is the one who said our language needs to become the literary language for the peninsula, just like Gaelic is the literary language for Ireland," she said. "Isn't that a beautiful thought?"

Boraas' research has corrected many misconceptions about Native people, she said, and he has shown the utmost respect for the people he works with.

"What's happened with me, because of the research he has done, is that a lot of the things I discounted that my grandmother told me, he has proved are true," she said.

The tribe hired Boraas to help with its response to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, she said.

"He brought a physical anthropologist from the University of Alaska Anchorage to say why there are physical anthropologists, and why, if there are Native graves, it's important to study them," Lindgren said. "He brought a physical anthropologist from Sweden who has done work in Sweden studying her ancestors."

Boraas is now helping the tribe to develop a program to teach the Dena'ina language, she said.

The early path

Boraas grew up on a wheat farm in northwest Minnesota. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, took an anthropology class on a whim and loved it. When he asked his adviser about an advertisement for a summer archeological helper, though, he was told the school usually hired graduate students, not freshmen.

"But he didn't say no, so I kept checking," Boraas said. "I kept asking if there was anything I could read or study that would help me if I did get the job."

He studied, and in April, his adviser offered him work at an archeological site at Mille Lacs. The team used hand tools to dig but moved the dirt away with heavy equipment.

"Growing up on a farm, I could run the tractor and equipment, which a lot of the

students couldn't," he said. "I was the only one who could start the tractor."

Boraas worked that project for two summers, then spent a summer with an on-call team investigating archeological finds such as sites discovered at construction projects. In 1969, he graduated with a bachelor of arts in anthropology and a minor in geology.

He had vague ideas of pursuing a higher degree. The first university catalog he found on the shelf with the As was for the University of Alaska. The cover photo was of the Fairbanks campus with trees in fall colors.

"I just decided I was going to go there," he said. "So, I packed everything I owned in an old Chevy pickup and headed for Alaska."

He said he had to talk his way in, because his Minnesota grades were not that good.

"I was something of a rebel. I studied only what I wanted to study" he said.

UAF let him in on probation, he said, and he realized he had better shape up his academic act.

"I've never gotten anything but an A since," he said.

He spent a year at Fairbanks and worked that summer with a university team scouting for archeological sites along the route for the coming trans-Alaska pipeline. Then, his professor recommended he transfer to a bigger school. He picked the University of Toronto, where he earned a master of arts in anthropology in 1971.

Making contacts

Returning to Alaska, he landed in Soldotna. He had little money, he said, and he lived at the city campground because it was inexpensive.

"I worked in the cannery and worked on what's now part of the Soldotna Historical Society building," he said.

Clayton Brockel, director of the fledgling Kenai Peninsula Community College, came to visit during his last day of work on the Historical Society cabin.

"He said, 'How would you like to teach ABE?' I said, 'Sure,' not knowing what it was," Boraas said.

That is how he wound up with a half-time job teaching Adult Basic Education, helping adults earn high school equivalency degrees. Meanwhile, Kenai Native Association hired the college to provide Adult Basic Education classes at Wildwood. Boraas taught there, too, making his first contacts in the peninsula's Native community.

People make fun of federal programs, he said, but Adult Basic Education classes through the federally funded Indian Action Program at Wildwood produced a generation of Native leaders.

"Here was money well-spent on people who afterward made a dent in their lives and a dent in their community," he said. "Teaching those classes was when I learned I could teach, and learned the importance of making a difference in people's lives teaching."

Meeting Peter

His college job turned full-time -- half teaching Adult Basic Education and half teaching anthropology. In 1974 by Ciechanski Road, he made his first area archeological dig at what proved to be a Dena'ina site. Then, he turned to the abandoned village of Kalifornsky, near the mouth of the Kasilof River. That is when he met Peter Kalifornsky, who was born there in 1911, and his sister Mary Nissen.

"I got their permission to dig the site," he said. "Even though the borough owned the land, it was the right thing to do. Peter and Mary and I sat down, and she grilled me like a graduate record exam. They didn't want us to work at the historic site, so we excavated the prehistoric part and one of the Dena'ina houses."

Boraas came to understand there are few artifacts at Dena'ina sites.

"Working with Peter on his book, it became apparent from the stories that it wasn't considered appropriate to leave things laying around because that was offensive to nature.

"The best part about the book is that it was done to Peter's satisfaction," Boraas said. "Many times, editors take over the structure or other aspects of a book."

Kalifornsky wrote the stories in Dena'ina and translated them. Boraas and James Kari, a University of Alaska Fairbanks linguist, helped him refine the English versions.

"That's the significance of this," Boraas said. "He didn't speak into a tape recorder. He literally wrote the stories in his native language. There's only a handful of Native people who have done that."

Several times, Boraas asked Kaliforn-sky why.

"He always said, 'Because that way, I control the story,'" Boraas said. "You know what he called me? He didn't call me an editor. He called me his secretary. I wear that badge proudly."

Finishing pieces

In 1979, Boraas left to study for his doctorate, which he earned in 1983 from Oregon State University at Corvallis. He wrote his dissertation on the evolution of specialization between the right and left sides of the brain, a topic removed from his archeological studies.

"Sometimes in life, you ally yourself with the most brilliant people around. That's what I did," he said.

Returning to Soldotna, he worked with the college and Homer's Pratt Museum on an archeological dig near Halibut Cove. Researchers there found remains of a Dena'ina occupation and, beneath those, remains from the Kachemak Tradition, an earlier seagoing Alutiiq people.

Cook Inlet has been a cultural melting pot, he said, and that is not surprising, since it lies at the convergence of the coastal rain forest, the Interior boreal forest and the western tundra. After about 1,000 B.C., two cultures dominated -- the Alutiiq people of the ocean fjords, and the Dena'ina, the riverine salmon fishers. Piecing together the clues is the work of a lifetime.

"It's not like Indiana Jones," Boraas said. "It's not nearly as exciting as that. I wish it were. You chip away at it, and a picture emerges."

About 1986, Kalifornsky asked for help with his book.

"He said he was getting old and he wanted everything he'd ever written in a book, and he wanted the new stuff in a book," Boraas said. "You don't get that opportunity very often. It took me about a second to drop everything I was doing."

Kalifornsky told long soliloquies about Dena'ina life to help Boraas understand the meanings of words and stories. Boraas taped those, but he still is not ready to go back to them.

"It was such an intense emotional experience doing that book that I haven't been able to face it," he said.

Boraas said he does not mean that in a negative way. The work was just exhausting.

Since the book, he has been studying the translated letters of Alexander Baranof to understand the Battle of Kenai. In 1797, he said, the Dena'ina attacked the Russian fort in Kenai and drove out the Levedev Co.

"Because of that action (the Dena'ina) gained another 60, almost 70 years of sovereignty over their area," he said. "Had they chosen not to, this could easily have become the center of Russian America, and we might be speaking Russian."

His other project is on social change resulting from the establishment of American salmon canneries on Cook Inlet in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Before the canneries, he said, Dena'ina chiefs were powerful, and people's main obligation was to their clans. Later, the cannery bosses pulled the strings. He has been researching Alaska Commercial Co. records to see who got jobs and credit. He said the coming of the canneries made each family a separate economic unit and broke up the clans.

On his wall, a graph tracks the growth of the inlet's salmon exports and the rising white population and the declining population of Natives.

Of his life's work, he said, "What is emerging is a trilogy with the prehistory, Russian-Dena'ina relations and American-Dena'ina relations."

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