Kenaitze young people learning, sharing story of their ancestors

Posted: Wednesday, September 05, 2001

Digging in the dirt is keeping some Kenai Peninsula youngsters busy. But this is more than just play. They are learning valuable techniques to slowly and patiently piece together the story of their ancestors, to accurately document their findings and, in turn, share it with others.

For several years, Kenaitze Indian tribal youth have been painstakingly sifting through the soil along the Russian and Kenai rivers, assisted by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kenai Peninsula College. Students of Cooper Landing Elementary School have enthusiastically joined the activities, with the help of grants from Toyota and the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation. (See related story, this page.)

The Kenaitzes started Susten -- "breaking trail" -- Camp in 1993 as a way to expose tribal youth to careers in federal agencies, while at the same time constructing a 1,000-foot chipwood trail called "The Beginning." The camp began along the Russian River and has since shifted its focus to the K'Beq -- "footprints" -- Interpretive Site near Cooper Landing. Originally, the camp lasted two weeks, but an additional week was added three years ago. Anywhere from 12 to 15 kids participate each year.

"This was a great opportunity for them to work on something from their own culture and try to use that information to figure out the people of their past, how their ancestors lived," said Alan Boraas, professor of

anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College. "It's been a really successful project and summer camp. Hopefully it will continue."

Bernadine Atchison is the cultural heritage director for the Kenaitze tribe. Explaining the relationship between Kenaitze and Dena'ina, Atchison said "Kenaitze" was the Russian name for the people of the area.

"After we reorganized in 1971, our elders told us that we really called ourselves 'Dena'ina' so a lot of times we say we're the Kenaitze Dena'ina people," she said.

Cutting tools, fire-cracked rocks, seeds and bones were uncovered at the Russian River site. After working through the Dena'ina level, the campers found notched stones and spear points estimated to be 1,000 years old. They also have studied native plants, comparing what was used by their ancestors with plants growing in the area today and identifying 86 varieties used by the Dena'ina.

This year's work centered on cache pits.

"One pit we thought was a cache pit, wasn't," Atchison said. "It's filled with fire-cracked rocks that we think may have been an additional steam room. In another pit we actually found the birch bark lining that was

put around a pit before fish were put in it."

A piece of the bark is being analyzed at the Chugach Forest Service lab in Anchorage, thanks to the project's head archaeologist, Linda Yarborough of the U.S. Forest Service.

The tribe's work is being documented with photographs and a written report and there are plans for a video to be made next year.

Zoya Oskolkoff, a member of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and an anthropology major at KPC, helped coordinate activities with the tribe and the college. For the last two years she has been the on-site intern archaeologist. According to Atchison, Oskolkoff's job may require the most patience.

"We have an archaeology lab throughout the summer, and she actually goes from pit to pit helping the kids and making sure they're doing it correctly," Atchison said. "The kids always ask questions. Answering all of them is pretty much what she does."

Ivan Demidoff, a 15-year-old member of the tribe who is a sophomore at Skyview High School, was involved at the Russian River site and more recently at K'Beq. After years of digging, Demidoff said he has been rewarded with "the best thing I've found in four years" while examining the ruins of a Dena'ina house -- the layer of birch bark.

And after four years, does this slow moving work still hold Demidoff's interest?

"Most definitely," he said.

Atchison said the majority of the kids participating in Susten Camp come back every year, although Demidoff's four years holds the long standing record.

"This has a big impact on our kids," she said. "They're learning a lot about their culture."

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