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Turquoise Bend: Collaborative Archaeology on Private Land

A multi-year collaborative project commenced in 2017 that aims to protect and manage cultural places on private land associated with the Kenai River Valley in Alaska. The project was developed by Applied Archaeology International in collaboration with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe (KIT) and BE Surveys, with funding and support provided by Kenai-Mountains Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area. The work involved collaboration between Tribal representatives, landowners, and archaeologists, to carry out a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey, archaeological mapping and test excavations, on-ground site protection, and an integrated management plan (see video report below).

The Kenai River Valley is an incredibly rich cultural landscape of the Athabascan Dena’ina – centred on a late prehistoric cultural adaptation to the four-main salmon runs which take over this region in the summer months. The communities lived in semi-permanent winter villages comprised of anywhere from one to ten semi-subterranean, multi-family log houses (nichił). Customarily, these houses had a main communal living area with a central fireplace and sleeping platforms located along the walls, and smaller attached rooms that were used as sleeping compartments, grandparent’s rooms or sweat baths.

As part of a larger process of community archaeology and outreach, championed by cultural coordinators from KIT and archaeologists from the USFS, a large nichit that is located on a private land was visited and a workshop was help with the landowner, Tribal representatives and the archaeologists. The landowner was aware that there were certain ‘features’ on his property, however was not certain of their cultural connection. This discussion led to the development of a project that would focus on archaeological investigations, heritage site preservation, mapping, GPR investigations, cultural plant surveys and site restoration work. The team carried out the first season of work as a collaborative effort.

The team first carried out surface mapping of the land, and multiple identified house features and cold-storage pits (local methods of burying dried salmon in underground pits for storage over the winter months). This process also involved a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey to investigate possible sub-surface features, and possible features within the house structures. The survey identified the size and shape of the main house and identified sub-surface hearths. This method was supported by the Tribal representatives as a non-invasive method that allowed for the identification of a ‘signature’ of traditional house design.

The team then carried out an auger survey across the land area to examine the natural stratigraphy and search for any possible cultural deposits. This led to the identification of a fire-cracked rock (FCR) mound/midden. A FCR midden is the designated place for dumping remnants of old hearths from inside dwellings, consisting of burnt and fractured rock, occasional charred food remains, and artifacts cleaned out of the hearth/house. FCR middens are distinctive feature of village complexes in this area, as people had structured settlements and a cultural focus to ensure that their houses and villages were kept clean and tidy. Professor of Anthropology, Alan Boraas, from the Kenai Community College describes the culture in this way, “They were the original no-impact people, one of the world’s most sustainable cultures. They had reliable access to food, social interaction and a belief system that promotes sustainability. …When you have true sustainability, you have minimum impact. You don’t find a lot of archaeological evidence.”[1]

With Tribal permission, the archaeologists carried out a test excavation within the FCR midden to identify a chronological association to this site complex, and examine possible functional elements of traditional lifeways. The midden had been unknowingly impacted by land use activities, so part of the investigation was to demonstrate its full surface and sub-surface extent to foster ongoing protection. The investigation identified a cultural deposit of 45cms below modern ground surface, and a radiocarbon date obtained from an in-situ charcoal at the base of the cultural layer returned an AMS date of 839 ± 17 BP- before present (ca. AD 1178). This charcoal sample was taken from just below a notched (denticulate) side-scraper that came out of the excavation, and in the lowest culturally-rich layer of the dig (University of Waikato Radiocarbon Laboratory: Wk46476). Additional research and dating is to take place with ongoing field seasons.

While these investigations were taking place, discussions on planning and management of the area continued with Tribal reps and landowners. The team worked together to undertake a cultural plant survey of the land, examine the salmon habitat of the adjacent river bend (salmon are an important component of cultural heritage), and carried out site restoration actions, that involved cleaning up impacted house features and other cultural sites.

These projects contribute to, and involve, important cultural practices, with Elders and youth together looking after their ancestral sites and ongoing spiritual connections to place. This provides for a more holistic understanding of place and provides for social outcomes beyond the sometimes limiting and disengaging nature of scientific endeavour and research. The tasks of this project are ongoing, but there are key lessons to be taken away already. This includes the importance of carrying out archaeology as a collaborative process, whereby research is embedded under cultural protocols and within a model of community outreach.

Often, there is apprehension from landowners to welcome Tribal representatives to discuss heritage issues. However, projects like this demonstrate the benefit of working together. The landowner here has developed a stronger sense of place and connection with the local community. He states: “I would like to continue the relationship we have started and would welcome more tribal interaction in the summers to come.”

Cultural coordinator, Joel Isaak, from the Kenaitze Tribe, agrees: “The land owners were great to work with. There were some cultural differences that they were very willing to hear about, learn about, and work with. I feel like we could have a good conversation that was respectful of the land. I would be willing and look forward to working with them again. I would encourage other landowners to collaborate on similar projects. The low invasive mapping, documenting and site clean-up has minimal impact on the land, and helps build a better sense of community and understanding between the native community and landowners.”

Much of the work to protect cultural places is focused around on-ground environmental management, and so there is a lot of overlap with the goals of landowners and environmental groups. Archaeologists must collaborate with Tribal representatives across all stages. These projects demonstrate a need to embrace cultural heritage places, and work together to protect our shared natural and cultural landscapes.

Video Report:

[1] as interviewed by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter (see story here)

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