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Language, History and Archaeology: A GPR Project at Eyak Lake, Alaska

In 2016 and 2017, a team from Applied Archaeology International (AAI) were invited to the annual Eyak Cultural and Language Camp in Cordova, Alaska, hosted by Orca Adventure Lodge. The team included two archaeologists, three interns from the Kenaitze Tribe, and Elders from Australia - as part of AAI’s annual cultural ranger internship and international cultural exchange program.

The camp is focused on Eyak language revitalization. The history of the Eyak language loss is often used as a cautionary tale for indigenous language workers. The first Alaska Native language to be determined “extinct”, this resurgence in language care is a hard-won victory for Eyak people who continue to overcome many challenges in the face of difficulties. Jenna May, project director of the Eyak Cultural Foundation, has dedicated countless hours over the years to see the language project continue and flourish. With the help of linguist Dr. Michael Krauss, who has spent much of his life invested in the continuance of Alaska Native languages, especially Eyak, and his protégé Guillaume Leduey, the Eyak people and the Eyak language have been brought together once again.

During the camp’s August installation, Eyak Elders and participants visited several cultural places, including the Eyak Lake Spit. The Elders voiced their concerns that human and natural processes are altering the landform, as that space is known as a traditional and historic burial ground. The AAI team informed them that they had recently been involved in a similar heritage management project in Australia, using non-invasive Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to locate unmarked burials.1 The AAI team committed to assisting the Eyak People with a survey of this landform, as in-kind support, and a gesture of gratitude for being invited and welcomed to the cultural camp.

Aerial view of the Spit and Cordova, looking south. From the Anchorage Museum of History & Art Library and Archives.

The Eyak Lake Spit, with visible grave-houses and crosses, looking north with Queen’s Chair in the background. From Eyak Legends, Stories, and Photographs by John Johnson.

Eyak Lake Spit with visible grave-houses, with Mt. Eyak in the background. From Eyak Legends, Stories, and Photographs by John Johnson

Eyak woman, Jen Smith, of the Eyak Caucus, coordinated the project: “The Spit is a natural landform in the southern part of Eyak Lake, and has been used as a recreational area for many years. However, this is also the resting place of our ancestors, as well as important salmon spawning grounds to which Eyak people are intertwined. This history, like much Eyak history in Cordova, has been elided, and overlooked, often deliberately. Bringing attention and awareness to this important history and the ongoing concerns is the crux of this project, which the Caucus created to work with our Elders, our communities, and specialists, in order to weave together our combined knowledges and to demonstrate the continuing significance of this place.”

Pam Smith, of the Eyak Caucus, and Eyak Elder, also coordinated the project: “Our Elders know this place, this landform, as a spiritual place. We also know this place as a traditional, and a historical burial ground. It was time to start to protect and to heal this sacred place.”

Historical Background Context

While the Eyak Lake Spit has always been a burial ground for the Eyak people, the space has not always been treated as such. In 1935, a newspaper clipping in the Cordova newspaper details the excavation of over 25 Eyak bodies from the Spit location to be reburied in one single coffin in the Pioneer Cemetery, which was meant originally for those only of Anglo descent. During the time of the excavation, the Spit was remade into a festive swimming hole by immigrant Henry C. Feldman, which he renamed “Nirvana Park”, to represent his fascination with Buddhist religion. The Eyak burial location of the Spit was transformed into a park and recreation area for the incoming settlers, railroad workers, and recently arrived residents as the new town of Cordova grew up around and atop Eyak village sites, subsistence areas, and burial locations.

Historical photos that demonstrate the transformation of the Spit. Photo courtesy Dixie Lambert.

In addition, the history of grave robbery of Eyak and Alaska Native burial sites in the Cordova area is well documented. Long-time mayor and Cordova figure “Doc” Chase was personally responsible for the appropriation of the largest collection of Eyak cultural belongings, which he both thieved and manipulated out of Eyak ownership. The only known Eyak totem pole was taken by Chase from the Alaganik village site, and cut in two so it might fit in his office in the local bank building—a building that would later be destroyed in a fire along with all of those Eyak belongings. Another legacy of Chase was his propensity for robbery of graves not just for items, but also for human remains. In the early 1900’s, one of the resting Eyak bodies buried at the Spit was excavated and stolen by Chase, and subsequently sold to the Smithsonian Museum. In 1993, the body was repatriated to the Eyak people, and was appropriately reinterred at the Spit.

1993 repatriation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Pam Smith.

Several years later, at the Eyak Culture Camp in 2016, the Eyak Caucus was formed to bring awareness and protection to this significant location. With the help of Eyak elders, and the AAI team, the Eyak Caucus, and more than 50 Eyak people who support their initiatives, is hoping to accomplish just that.

Eyak and Australian Elders gather around the repatriated grave, 2016. From left to right: Pam Smith, Ernest Michael Harry, Irene Davey, Jo Anna Westmoreland, and Wossi Davey (Bardi Jawi, northern Western Australia). Photo courtesy of Jen Smith.

The Project

After several months of planning, attending community meetings, compiling historical and archival information, reconnecting the Eyak people, the Eyak Caucus and the City of Cordova collaborated to make sure that GPR survey of the Spit was done in November, 2016. The City of Cordova, via funds from a grant given by the Rasmuson Foundation meant to renovate the Spit and surrounding park area, arranged the AAI team to carry out a GPR survey of the Spit in November, 2016.

The field survey took place between in November, 2016, coordinated by David Guilfoyle and Genevieve Carey, GPR operator from BE Surveys (Australia), Stuart Buckett, and US Forest Service (Cordova District) Archaeologist Heather C. Hall. The use of the Forest Service GPR equipment was critical to the mission of the project and also served as a refresher in GPR techniques for burial identification for staff. The team re-visted the site with anther GPR unit in the summer of 2017, that confirmed the 2016 results and provided a more accurate spatial distribution of the over 40 individual burials within the spit.

Stuart explains the system of the ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and the results:

“GPR is geophysical device that uses radar pulses to create an image of the subsurface structure. It is a non-destructive tool that has many applications, and is perfectly suited for locating unmarked burials and grave sites. It is an area of technology that is rapidly improving allowing for even better data capture and image results. Although the Eyak Spit presented difficult terrain, obstacles and soil conditions, the GPR gave us reliable readings in many locations that there were indeed subsurface anomalies that fitted the characteristics of burial sites.”

The survey team ran north-south and east west transects with the GPR across all accessible areas along the Spit. Certain areas were not possible to survey due to a large retaining wall, rocks and dense thickets of brush. The early winter conditions assisted the effort, with light snow fall providing a smoothed ground surface that also helps the GPR imagery.

As anomalies were uncovered, the team placed temporary markers on the ground, and noted the depth, size and shape of the anomaly. These locations were then recorded using a GPS to secure accurate locations of each identified feature.

The 2016 survey resulted in eight identified sub-surface features showing disturbed soil profiles at similar depths (70-100cms), size and shape. Each feature was oriented almost exactly east-west. The configuration of these features and the consistency of the results indicate that each are formal burial sites, and further confirms that the Spit is a burial ground. The 2017 survey identified over 30 more individual features consistent with burials.

David Guilfoyle (AAI) noted the importance of Western and cultural science working together: “There is a critical need for researchers in heritage and environmental science to always work together with Elders, and integrate cultural science. Too often, we work in isolation, and so the plans and research is limited, and the result is situations like this – the mismanagement of a sacred place and critical ecological habitat.”

Threats and Impacts

There is a very high risk for human skeletal material to be exposed in this area, the Spit remains an unstable system. This threat may be exasperated through wind and water erosion, coupled with recreational impacts. Vehicle use has deflated the ground surface, creating additional issues.

The team is now developing a protection plan for the area. Each of the locations need to be monitored regularly to ensure that they remain stable and secure of recreational impacts, erosion, and long-term damage to the associated ecological system that they are linked to. David Guilfoyle is focused on the short- and long-term management actions: “The area is heavily used by visitors who perhaps do not understand cultural protocols or respectful ways of being on the land; namely, being accompanied by Traditional Owners or asking permission to enter places. The indirect evidence of inappropriate recreational use is in the form of fireplaces, beer cans, vehicle tracks, and general disturbances. This uninformed use would be upsetting to the Spirits and Old People, and requires some form of regulation, in tandem with education and awareness measures. This uninformed use is also breaking state and federal laws relating to the protection of archaeological sites and traditional cultural properties, such as burial sites.”

Public presentation on the results of the GPR survey.

Integrated Management

Genevieve Carey (AAI archaeologist) says that it is not about prosecution or creating conflict, but education and awareness, demonstrating why cultural heritage protection and planning is of direct benefit to everyone:

“The project is beyond this site, this landform. The Spit landform was once a thriving salmon spawning ground, now under threat from sedimentation, run-off, and rising water (due to the loss of functional outlets near Odiak Pond). Given the importance of salmon as part of the cultural identity of Eyak People, and indeed the livelihoods of the wider community of Cordova, restricted use of this area will serve the dual purpose of protecting the cultural and natural values - the burials, the salmon.”

Jen Smith agrees:

“The Spit is a significant cultural place that exudes the actions and continued presence of our ancestors, and represents the potential futurities of the Eyak people. In this way, it describes our connection with the land across time, and is imbued with meaning on many levels. Moreover, reflecting critically about this place allows Eyak people to take this matter into their own hands, to speak for themselves and for their ancestors who have lived in this area for thousands of years.”

There are culturally-zoned areas based on ancestral connections, and this knowledge relates to sustainable management of not only the Spit but the lake system itself. The team are planning to develop a project to work with the Eyak Caucus, who represent the Eyak Elders (and youth) to map the integrated knowledge systems, traditional place names, and places of significance – which will have practical benefit for future planning and management at all levels.

David Guilfoyle: “The social value of places is an important consideration for cultural heritage management, with the notion that heritage is not static or fixed, but requires active participation by people. Cultural heritage management is then about providing pathways for Elders and youth to lead cultural restoration projects on the ground, which includes additional cultural mapping, site surveys, on-ground protection and a voice in long-term management plans, including regional environmental plans.”

Pam Smith reflects on time spent on the Spit:

“It is a good feeling to be out here (on the Spit), surrounded by the mountains, water and fish. We need to respect our ancestors and their burials, and protect this place for the generations to come.”

This is an exciting step for the Eyak people and the Eyak Caucus as they work to make alliances and work together with local, state-wide, and international organizations and entities. These budding relationships are seen to further empower Eyak initiatives to protect the resting places of their ancestors, to learn more about their histories, and hopefully to empower other Alaska Native groups in the Cordova area. The Eyak Caucus says that it is looking forward to bringing back the AAI team at a time when many of the Eyak people who do not live in Cordova can also participate in learning about the GPR technology, and being involved and included in these promising projects.

Eyak man Garrett Swenson explains his perspective:

“Eyak culture has suffered significant losses throughout history. I feel that now is a more important time than ever to protect what we still have and that the GPR surveying was a crucial step towards accomplishing that goal. The Spit has been a known burial ground for hundreds of years and the fact that there is official data to support this is exciting. I look forward to the awareness and preservation this will provide for the resting place of our ancestors.” This has been a moment of re-experiencing trauma of compacted colonial acts, but it is also a moment of jubilation and resurgence.

Eyak woman Sheryl Hartman reflects on her own experience:

“I am very happy this happened, to think that after all these years, the Eyak people are being heard and being recognized. We are almost gone, and it’s very sad. Trying to save an Eyak burial site before it’s gone forever, just like the Eyak People. I was raised to be proud of who I was, and to be honest, I wasn’t for a while growing up in Cordova. But as I grew older, I realized how I felt was wrong, and I was hurting myself and the Eyak People. I proudly tell everyone what I am, and honestly, most of them have never heard of the Eyak People or where we are from. I am very proud to stand with the Eyaks and let the Eyak People and burial sites be saved.”

The opportunity to bring together the desire of Eyak people to protect and cherish their sacred places, and the technology made available by the AAI team has been cause for much celebration that has reverberated throughout the Eyak community.

Eyak woman Debbie Lankard-Swenson shares her opinion:

“Thank goodness this issue was discussed at the culture camp, and the archaeologists being there was a godsend. My personal feeling is that their presence at culture camp is our ancestors helping us, and they are leading us in a direction that we need to go. The archaeologists doing some of the work on the land of the Spit with that quick turn around was amazing, and it shed a whole new light about what is being addressed. Yes there are bodies there, yes it is a burial ground—it’s not a question if this ever happened, it’s yes, it happened and what are we going to do about it. Growing up in Cordova near the Spit, we spent a lot time recreating down there, and when I had my kids I took them down there, too. Had we known what we know now, it would have been more of an educational history experience instead of just a playground. I’m so glad that this is happening.”

Creating thoughtful dialogue around the largely forgotten history of the Spit has been a practice of both learning from our pasts, and how that can help us to make the right decision moving forward. In looking both ways, the Eyak people have taken this moment to learn from the conditions of colonial violence in order to tell their stories, claim their spaces of significance, and be brought together in a meaningful and empowering way.

Reflection on the project by Ramona Curry, of the Caucus, gets at the heart of this moment:

“If I could go back in time, I would to tell the Eyak people one day we will be small in number, but large in heart and spirit. I feel the most proud of those found buried in the Eyak Spit that this day we could bring value to their being and honor to the Eyak people. We will continue to work and come together as a people that we may never be forgotten. Thank you to all that supported us and believe in our right as a people to speak for those that have lost their voice, our ancestors.”

While the Caucus has received a great deal of support and encouragement for the initiative, the hope is to continue to collaborate with various entities that can bring respectful attention and much needed awareness to the history of Eyak people in the Cordova area. Future collaborations are being planned to map other sacred sites, with a focus being placed on sites in danger of erosion due to climate change and water levels that have changed due to water control structures, landfills and tectonic events. Most specifically, the Caucus hopes that these future projects can overlap with the fantastic work that the Eyak Culture Camp directors have already begun and continued to develop for the benefit of all Eyak people. Bringing together the voices of Eyak people, with the support and facilitation by the AAI team, the potential for collaboration between many groups has a great outlook moving forward.

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