By CIRI Historian Alexandra
Dena’ina and Ahtna Athabascans of Southcentral Alaska took
advantage of natural conditions unique to their region to develop
an astonishing degree of sophistication and complexity in their
culture, according to a Kenai researcher who has spent his career
studying the indigenous people of the Kenai Peninsula.
Professor Alan Boraas, who teaches anthropology at Kenai Peninsula
College, a branch of the University of Alaska Anchorage, says that
at around 1000 A.D., Dena’ina and Ahtna began perfecting storage
techniques to preserve late-run salmon in “cold storage”
pits that predated western-style refrigeration by centuries.
Boraas said that years ago while mapping Dena’ina sites,
he and other anthropologists took note of two types of features
– house depressions and other circular pits. At the time,
they did not understand the significance of the circular pits because
they appeared to be empty. As a result of studying ethnographic
literature, however, he realized that the “empty” pits
were actually “e/lnen t’uh,” which means “place
to store fish.”
“At first, I didn’t think they were all that significant
– just a place to store fish,” Boraas said. “In
recent years, I realized they are the key to the Dena’ina
in this territory because there are very few places in the north
where you have the combination of large, relatively easily accessible
fish runs and frozen ground that is not permafrost.”
Boraas said he realized that both Dena’ina and Ahtna Athabascan
people took advantage of late-run salmon and the non-permafrost
frozen areas to develop food preservation techniques. The focus
was on late-run salmon because putting fish in the pits too early
risked later decay. Lack of permafrost made digging the pit possible.
The pits were lined with birch bark, and then salmon was placed
inside and covered with moss or grass. A number of layers of alternating
salmon and moss or grass were possible in each pit, which generally
ranged in size from 4 to 6 feet deep and 5 to 10 feet across.
Without the moss or grass layers, the fish would have become one
solid block too large to be useful, Boraas said. Although the pits
were used mainly for salmon, other foods stored in them included
caribou (later moose), bear, beaver, beluga, shellfish, and about
80 edible plants.
“The effect of this was that it provided food for lean times,
which had a big impact on the whole culture,” he said, noting
that a clan system developed along with the cold-storage pits that
provided labor for the intensive fishing period and a “qeshqa,”
or chief, most often a male, but sometimes a female. The qeshqa
had a number of duties, but among the most important was administering
the distribution of the fish.
“Some of the clan helpers pitched out fish, some cleaned
them, some dried them, and the older people gave advice and watched
the little ones. Everyone worked for, and received the benefits
of, the clan-based family which is why it is called a corporate
kin group,” Boraas said.
Boraas pointed out that the food preservation technique was not
foolproof and that the fish in a particular pit could be lost to
scavengers, such as bears or wolverines, or bacterial decay. The
Dena’ina sought to preserve enough fish to cover for such
contingencies, and the society became even more complex with the
development of partnerships with other clans. A qeshqa partner in
another clan could be counted on to supply fish in the unlikely
eventuality that too much of the fish was lost. The other chief
shared willingly because he knew that his clan’s survival
could depend on the willingness of another to share.
“There was a sophisticated diversion of resources from one
area to another that allowed for what anthropologists call the rise
of ‘cultural complexity,’” Boraas said.
The cold storage pits remained in use by the Dena’ina and
Ahtna for hundreds of years. The system began changing gradually
with the coming of the Russians into the region in the 1700s, but
remained in use until the late 1800s when the Dena’ina’s
desire to participate in the cash economy led them to abandon their
Boraas feels strongly that too few people are aware of the ingenious
system used by the Dena’ina and Ahtna, and he published an
article last year describing it, “100 Centuries of Native
Life on the Kenai Peninsula.” The article is included in “Alaska’s
Kenai Peninsula, The Road We’ve Traveled,” edited by
Dianne Olthuis and published by the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association.