Above, Chris Anderson tosses a clump of silver salmon eggs into a fish cache, a means of cold storage once used to store large quantities of fish, while Josiah Williams, left, and Jack Williams, center, giggle over the mess of fish and fish eggs they have handled to fill the cache, on Monday. Below, Joe Mead, a forest supervisor for Chugach National Forest, reaches into a cache pit and layers it with silver salmon fish fillets.
Had you been strolling through the K’beq Kenaitze Interpretive Site in Cooper Landing on Monday you would have stumbled across a strange sight: about 20 people shuffling between three dirt holes at the site in what looked like a salmon composting party.
Arms reached into each of the approximately 2 1/2-foot-deep holes, stuffing them with alternating layers of dried grass, fireweed and silver salmon fillets, eggs and heads.
Used for hundreds of years, fish caches 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 Alaska. But with the introduction of refrigerators, this means of cold storage has been abandoned and methods of preparing a cache nearly forgotten.
The Kenaitze Indian Tribe and U.S. Forest Service archaeologists, however, have worked together to interview tribe elders and resurrect the practice with the three caches created earlier this week.
“When this was done in the past it was done for survival,” Kenaitze Indian Tribe program director Sasha Lindgren said as the caches were being filled.
In addition to keeping bellies well fed over the winter and spring, fish caches also lead to the development of complex social structures within the Dena’ina and Ahtna cultures, according to Alan Boraas, an anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College.
Fish caches turned fishing and the storage of fish into an organized and large-group effort that required a centralized authority to head the effort and determine how the fish would be distributed over the winter and spring. This authority was given to a person known as a qeshqa. The qeshqa had a role similar to that of a chief, but the distribution of fish remained at the forefront of their responsibilities.
Boraas said that in a conversation with the late elder Peter Kalifornsky, who made significant contributions to keeping the Dena’ina language alive, he learned about one of the tricks qeshqas used to determine how to distribute fish.
At minimum, each person was given a fillet as long as the distance between the base of their wrist and the tip of their thumb.
“How thick, I don’t know, he never said,” Boraas said smiling.
Fish caches allowed people to store more fish than had been possible before caches were invented, but could only be used in a few regions of the state with a unique set of features that allowed them to work.
Three features are key to large-scale storage in fish caches. The ground must not be permanently frozen so that a hole can be dug into the ground; there must be a large late-run of fish; and the ground must freeze in the winter.
Boraas listed the Kenai Peninsula, Upper Copper River and Lake Clark areas as being the most ideal locations for fish caches.
Also key to creating a successful cache is timing. Fish must be placed into the ground just as the ground is about to freeze, but before late fish runs end. Therefore, caches were traditionally filled with silver salmon, which hit the peak of their run later than other salmon species that come to the peninsula.
“It’s the first time I’m going into October and hoping for a good hard freeze,” said forest supervisor Joe Mead after he finished layering a bed of grass with silver salmon fillets in one of the three caches.
The Kenaitze tribe and forest service don’t plan to remove any fish from the cache until March, but in the past natives would have dipped into the cache throughout the winter. The layers of grass laid between the layers of fish kept the cache’s fish separated rather than allowing them to freeze into big ice block.
“That allowed the fish to be taken out on a need basis,” Boraas said.
The fish caches also require birch bark, which is used to line the cache pits.
“The birch acts like putting aspirin in fruit,” said Teneal Jensen, Seward District Heritage Program manager for Chugach National Forest.
Aspirin is a preservative that has been used preserve fresh foods such as fruit and can be found inside of birch bark, explained Jensen, who along with Lindgren interviewed elders on how to build a fish cache for the project.
Boraas noted two additional precautions native clans took to protect themselves against possible spoilage.
First, fish were distributed in many small caches rather than in just a few large caches. That way if one of the caches was contaminated by bacteria the lost fish would be limited to a small quantity.
And secondly, clans built relationships with neighboring clans. Should one of the clans lose a large quantity of fish to bacteria and scavenging animals they could depend on other clans to help them with surplus fish from their own caches.
“It’s not just a hole in the ground,” Boraas said, referring to the fish cache. “The invention of these really changed society.”
Patrice Kohl can be reached at patrice.kohl@peninsulaclarion. com.
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