Cached fish didn’t weather winter as well as hoped

Results sour this year, but recreating Native food storage pits an experiment worth trying again

Posted: Monday, April 30, 2007

There’s a cliche that says you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. The Kenaitze Indian Tribe is among those who believe the past is important, which is why they, along with archeologists from the Chugach National Forest, set out to better understand what their ancestors went through by conducting an experiment in ethno-archaeology that culminated late last month.

“We wanted to recreate traditional ways, to learn from them and to understand how people -- like the Dena’ina who survived here for thousands of years -- survived the winter on limited resources,” Dana Verrengia, archivist for the Kenaitze tribe, said in regard to a cache pits project at the Kenaitze’s K’beq Interpretive Site in Cooper Landing.

According to Teneal Jensen, Seward District Heritage Program manager with Chugach National Forest, in the past storing fish in fall was not a luxury, but a necessity.

Fish caches were used for centuries to provided a practical means of storing large quantities of fish and marked a revolutionary turning point in the cultural history of Dena’ina and Ahtna Athabascans of Southcentral. But with the introduction of refrigerators, this means of cold storage fell so far out of favor that methods of preparing a cache were nearly forgotten.

After interviewing elders and reviewing archaeological records, last October three cache pits were dug, lined with birch bark and stocked in alternating layers with dried grass and fireweed, and various fish parts, such as silver salmon fillets, heads and eggs. The pits were then covered and largely left alone for the winter.

Two weeks ago, on April 17, all parties involved came together to open the pits to learn if their fish storing techniques were as good as some of their predecessors. After a ceremonial song to honor their ancestors, the smelly truth was revealed.

“As soon as we opened the birch bark, we could smell the odor of rotten fish,” Verrengia said.

Layer after layer, the result was the same. After carefully considering why this happened, Verrengia said she thinks they’ve narrowed it down to three possibilities.

“We think we added too much grass, soil and rock on top of the caches, and it insulated the fish and keep them warm throughout the winter,” she said.

Another possibility is the pits were only dug three feet deep, although the elders had instructed them to dig the pits four to six feet deep, she said.

“Also, winters may not be getting as cold, as early, as they did historically, so it’s possible we put the fish in the ground too early,” she added.

Verrengia said it was disappointing the fish didn’t freeze well, but the results of the experiment haven’t dissuaded them from wanting to try again.

“We still learned a lot from it, and we’re going to attempt it next year,” she said.

Verrengia said they’ll make a few changes in the hope of yielding better results next time.

“We’ve been thinking about putting the fish in the ground in early November instead of October,” she said.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at

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