Salamatof is located on the Kenai Peninsula between the communities of Kenai and Nikiski. The historic village site overlooks Cook Inlet and the towering Mt. Redoubt across the inlet.
The village of Salamatof was recognized prior to the 1850s. It was originally spelled Salamatowa, the surname of a Russian officer on one of the exploring expeditions sent to study Alaska. The village site is in the area where presentday maps locate Salamatof Creek and Salamatof Lake. The Dena’ina name is Ken Dech’etl’t, which means “scrub timber flat lake,” according to the writings of late Salamatof shareholder Peter Kalifornsky. Kalifornsky is well known for his writings of the Dena’ina people, their culture and heritage.
Salamatof’s village designation in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) came about after an aggressive fight for recognition that was challenged by some of the non- Native population living in the Kenai area. The designation led to the creation of Salamatof Native Association, the village corporation for the 129 original shareholders.
“I remember hearing about the land exchange, and I chose CIRI as my corporation. I’m a member of Salamatof, and a tribal member, too. We got in with them right away, as soon as we got down here. I’m glad we did.”
— Charles Toloff
Today, Salamatof is closely affiliated with the greater Kenai area. Kenai is the seventh largest city in Alaska and the traditional homeland to the Kahtnuht’ana (Kenai River people) Dena’ina Athabascan. Kenai is also recognized in ANCSA as one of four urban areas with a significant Alaska Native population.
Russian fur traders arrived in the area in the late 1700s, establishing Fort St. Nicholas at the mouth of the Kasilof River, and in 1791 they established another fort at the mouth of the Kenai River in what is now know as Old Town Kenai. Hostilities grew between the settlers and the local people, prompting the Dena’ina to attack the fort in 1797—what would come to be known as the Battle of Kenai. Approximately 100 Russians and a few Dena’ina lost their lives. The Dena’ina villages won their victory by banding together.
Epidemics of small pox (1838) and influenza (1918) devastated the Dena’ina population and led many to adopt the Russian Orthodox religion and, coupled with the change from barter and trade to a cash economy, prompted several Dena’ina villagers to move away from their traditional sites and into Kenai.
Incorporated in 1960, Kenai is a major sport fishing destination, famous for king and sockeye salmon. The other major economic driver is the oil and gas industry, developed from Alaska’s first oil strike in 1957 near the Swanson River, 20 miles northeast of Kenai. “Everything was oil-related in those days, all the good jobs,” recalls Charles Toloff, a shareholder of CIRI and Salamatof Native Association.
“I remember hearing about the land exchange,” Toloff recalls from the late 1960s. “I chose CIRI as my corporation. I’m a member of Salamatof and a tribal member too. We got in with them right away, as soon as we got down here. I’m glad we did.”
The Kenaitze Indian Tribe is the major tribal organization in the area and helps to provide important social services. The Tribe opened the Dena’ina Wellness Center in 2014, integrating all of its health care services, including traditional healing, in one location.
The Kenaitze Tribe has fought hard to safeguard its traditional access to the fishery and won a 1989 legal challenge that attempted to ban the Tribe’s historical way of life. Today, a designated tribal fishing area near the mouth of the Kenai River allows elders to teach youth about traditional fishing methods.
“Kids didn’t want to learn before, but now they all want to learn. So they come to me to learn how to fillet the fish, what to keep, what to throw away, how to brine, how long to smoke it. It’s all a big process of learning.”
— Mary Lou Bottorff
“I’m 74 years old and I still teach fish camp,” says CIRI shareholder Mary Lou Bottorff. “Kids didn’t want to learn before, but now they all want to learn. So they come to me to learn how to fillet the fish, what to keep, what to throw away, how to brine, how long to smoke. It’s all a big process of learning.”
“Nagantughedul: The tide has turned around and is coming back in,” says Jonathon Ross, a shareholder of CIRI and Salamatof and a Kenaitze Tribal member. “A lot of our history has been lost—culture and language—but it’s turning around and coming back to us.”
Sharon Isaak and Karen Tollackson
Eight days after CIRI shareholders Sharon Isaak and Karen Tollackson were born, the twins were adopted by Jack and Glady Weaver, homesteaders in Sterling, Alaska – the only parents the girls would know for 31 years.
After the death of their adoptive father, the twins’ family moved to Spokane, Wash. Though Sharon and Karen grew up far from their Alaskan roots, Glady made no secret of their adoption. When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed, she enrolled her girls as CIRI shareholders.
“We never went looking for our birth family, even though we had our adoption papers,” explains Sharon, a former member of the CIRI Board of Directors, The CIRI Foundation Board of Directors and a former CIRI Shareholder Participation Committee member. Sitting outside her Soldotna home on an uncommonly warm summer day, she and Karen are the kind of twins who finish each other’s sentences. Sharon goes on, “Then one day – ” “ – in the spring of 1987 – I opened Our Stories, Our Lives,” Karen interrupts, referring to The CIRI Foundation publication of stories from 23 Elders of the Cook Inlet region. “And the first story mentions Feodoria, and says she had eight children. I called Sharon – ”
“Mom knew that we were Native, Greek and Danish, and that our biological mom was Feodoria Kallander,” Sharon finishes.
Going on that scant information, they penned a letter to their birth mother and took it to The CIRI Foundation. Shortly after, Karen and Sharon were reunited with Feodoria Kallander Pennington and their eight biological siblings.
The twins have taken time out of a busy summer day to relate this story. Karen, who still lives in Spokane, comes back to Alaska regularly to reconnect with her sister. Summers in Kenai, for them, mean fishing – a part of their culture they inherited from Feodoria, who passed away in 2010.
Fish isn’t the only thing that runs in the family. When Sharon’s artist son, CIRI shareholder Joel Isaak, began to experiment with fish skin sewing, he opened a door to traditional arts that provided his mother and aunt a new connection to their heritage.
“When Joel began studying, he went to Tyotkas [Kenaitze’s Elders program] and sat with the women,” Sharon describes. “He took notes, and they poured their hearts out to him. They live this lifestyle as a way of life. I do it for tradition and the gift we’ve been given.” As she talks, she peels the bark from a root she’ll use to stitch together a birch basket.
“I do it for tradition and the gift we’ve been given.”
— Sharon Isaak
“There isn’t a book you can check out at the library that says, ‘This is how you do it,’” Karen points out.
“Go get Birch Root Basket 101. You can’t,” adds Sharon.
So they seek help with their crafts from the Elder women at Tyotkas. At the beach, they watch children from the community learn how to fillet salmon with an ulu. They take their porcupine quills and beads to Tyotkas, make earrings and give them to their Elder friends.
The fish, the baskets, the porcupine quill beaded earrings: It’s not just a connection to a distant, hazy past the twins gain from these things, but a real, tangible connection to their own history.