A LOOK BACK IN HISTORY:
BOOK CONNECTS LANGUAGE, LANDSCAPE
Offers extraordinary look at Dena'ina presence in Upper Cook Inlet
By Alexandra J. McClanahan
A revised edition of the landmark book connecting the language, landscape and Dena'ina people of the Upper Cook Inlet, "Shem Pete's Alaska," will be published by the University of Alaska Press in the summer of 2002.
Nearly 200 places have been added to the book, by James Kari and James A. Fall. The total number of places identified in 16 river drainages will be brought to more than 900, said Kari, pre-eminent Dena'ina expert and University of Alaska Fairbanks professor emeritus of linguistics.
"Connecting people, language and geography is a reconstruction of the Dena'ina occupation of the inlet," Kari said. "It gives us a picture of pre-contact society."
The book was first published in 1987 and is one of the finest examples of the way oral history can be used to connect the naming of places and the stories associated with geographic features to a people's history. It features stories by Shem Pete, who was from Susitna Station and later lived in Tyonek, as well as more than 40 other Dena'ina and Ahtna people.
Lydia Hays, former president of The CIRI Foundation who assisted in publishing the first volume, said Pete was a "rich treasure of knowledge about the Dena'ina world and values." He listed more than 600 place names in the volume and was one of the most versatile Native storytellers and historians in the late 20th century Alaska.
"His estimated lifetime travel map of approximately 13,500 square miles is one of the largest ever documented in this degree of detail for a subsistence economy anywhere in the world," according to the University of Alaska Press.
Kari said that revisiting the book 15 years later has been very exciting because it augments the publication of extensive and detailed information about the Dena'ina presence in upper Cook Inlet. The new volume will contain all of the known facts of the naming system of the upper Inlet.
"It really does provide a stronger sense of Dena'ina presence and is extraordinary in the way it shows so clearly how people respond to the land," he said.
According to Kari, it has been a joy to work on the book. He is the author of more than 40 books and many articles. "This is the most fun book I've ever worked on. You're creating a very practical reference for people. The book has truly taken on a life of its own."
He particularly likes the early maps of the upper Cook Inlet because it's fascinating to see the cartographic - visual - display of the Native names and settlements and trails, which are predominantly aboriginal trails. In the new edition, the maps will be much more refined than in the earlier book.
"We're finding that these historic maps are vital sources of information about the culture itself," he said.
The book includes maps, numerous photographs, personal narratives, songs and vignettes. Kari and Fall also provide additional perspective through their own research and interviews with the people.