By CIRI summer intern Lauren Culhane (Unangan/Aleut)
When we arrived in Chickaloon—a 90-minute drive northeast from Anchorage—we were greeted by CIRI Shareholder Chief Gary Harrison (Ahtna Athabascan) and CIRI Descendant Angela Wade (Ahtna/Dene), the council’s tribal historic preservation officer. A one-way dirt road led us into the depths of the forest by the Chickaloon River. We formed a circle, and Angela led the group in prayer and established the intentions for the day.
Angela functioned as the primary guide and described the present state of tribal lands and her efforts to preserve her family’s heritage through recent archaeological discoveries. She shared that she was curious about determining whose land lays in the vegetation beyond her late grandmother’s cabin and told stories about her family as we toured the grounds.
When she described the many trees that were visible from her grandmother’s cabin, she pointed to one species and said, “These trees are quaking aspen, and my grandmother would say she would come out here and see the trees shimmer in the wind.” I thought it was remarkable we could be standing in the same spot as Angela’s grandmother and see the same trees she had seen.
It reminded me how essential “place” is to our connections to our families’ past, and that returning to the land of our ancestors is a form of healing. When I visit my grandmother’s house in Ninilchik, I feel the same way Angela does. Angela and I are from different tribes with their own distinctive geographies, but as Alaska Native people, we share the same perspective on the significance of location. Preserving our cultural heritage helps maintain our integrity as a people.
Archeological discoveries on tribal lands are essential to preserving Alaska Native identity and transmitting Indigenous ways of knowing from one generation to the next. The efforts of organizations like the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council promote Alaska Native cultural identity and impart a deeper understanding of our place in the world.