By Aaron Leggett,
CIRI History Intern
My name is Aaron Leggett, and I am a Dena’ina Athabascan from
Eklutna. For the last several years, I have been working at the
Alaska Native Heritage Center. In November, I accepted the position
of history intern at CIRI. Since I grew up here in the city, I had
very little knowledge of my people. Additionally, since my village
is in such close proximity to the urban area, much of the traditional
way of life has been lost.
As a result of my personal desire to learn more about my culture
and also because I want to be able to answer questions that arise
as part of my work, I have developed a reading list of a few basic
works for those interested in the history of the Dena’ina.
As I began reading and doing research, it occurred to me that there
might be others who want to learn more about the Dena’ina.
While this reading list is in no way exhaustive, it is meant to
offer a starting place to those who want to learn more without delving
into scholarly works.
My first and foremost recommendation is the book “A Dena’ina
Legacy, K’tl’egh’I Sukdu, The Collected Writings
of Peter Kalifornsky,” edited by James Kari and Alan Boraas.
This priceless work has traditional stories, poems and language
lessons in the Dena’ina Athabascan language of the Lower Cook
Inlet. It took Kalifornsky 20 years to compile this book. What I
find particularly helpful is that it has many traditional and historic
stories about the Lower Cook Inlet Region. My favorite is “The
Kustatan Bear Story.”
A relatively short book with a great deal of information about the
Lower Cook Inlet Dena’ina is “The Kenaitze People,”
by Robert E. Ackerman. This is a very readable book, full of information
on the Kenai branch of the Dena’ina.
“Shem Pete’s Alaska,” edited by James A. Fall
and James Kari, is a truly remarkable and useful resource. Although
out of print, it is scheduled to be reprinted in the near future
by the University of Alaska Press. The new version will include
more than 200 new place names. The earlier version covers most of
Upper Cook Inlet and has over 700 place names, with contributions
from many elders who are no longer with us.
This book is unmatched because it has so much information about
the Cook Inlet region and the Dena’ina. It includes a great
deal of information from those who witnessed the many changes that
have taken place in the Cook Inlet region over the last 100 years.
Another great resource is the book “Tanaina Plantlore,”
by Priscilla Russell Kari. It is also out of print, but it is due
to be re-issued this summer by the National Park Service. It is
a full-color guide to hundreds of plants used by the Dena'ina of
Southcentral Alaska. Traditional uses for food and medicine are
described as well.
It’s amazing the amount of information that can be learned
simply by looking at the Dena’ina names for plants and berries
and all the uses the Dena’ina had for them. For example, the
Dena’ina name for “Larkspur,” which is “eyu
ghundi,” means “lice those ones.” The name refers
to its use as a wash to get rid of lice. The name for “wooly
lousewort,” which is “ch’anjidi yelqet’I,”
means “that which bees eat.” This name refers to the
fact that bees use it as food.
My favorite is the name for “puff balls” – “delgga
chisha” – which means “raven’s ochre.”
The name derives from the reddish brown dust that comes out of it.
A book which gathers a number of articles about Cook Inlet is “Adventures
through Time,” edited by Nancy Yaw Davis and William E. Davis.
It is a compilation of papers presented in 1993 at a symposium on
Cook Inlet. Included is a great deal of information on the Dena’ina.
Especially noteworthy is the piece by Alan Boraas and Donita Peters
called, “The true believers among the Kenai Peninsula Dena’ina.”
Many details about traditional Dena’ina life are contained
in a book published in 1938 called “The Ethnography of the
Tanaina,” by Cornelius Osgood. Much of the information in
the book cannot be found anywhere else. I especially enjoyed the
part about Dena’ina matrilineal clans and their role in Dena’ina
For the younger readers, two books written by CIRI shareholder Alberta
Stephan of Eklutna are an excellent place to start. While the books
appeal to all ages, because they are relatively short and fun to
read, they are very appealing to youth. The first one is called
“The First Athabascans of Alaska: Strawberries,” and
the second is called “Cheda: (Athabascan for Grandma).”
These books are easy to read and contain a lot of basic information
on the Dena’ina.
For those interested in hearing the life stories of elders, I recommend
the book “Our Stories, Our Lives,” which contains fascinating
stories from Dena’ina elders such as Shem Pete, Sava Stephan,
Billy Pete, Peter Kalifornsky, Fred Bismarck and Alexandra Kaloa.
What I love about this book are the stories these elders share about
the Cook Inlet region. It is a particularly valuable resource because
all of these elders mentioned except for Sava Stephan have passed
These are just some of the books that are out there. I encourage
anyone who is interested to read on and learn more about the Dena’ina.