Sparkling bubbles of laughter wafted across the tree-sprinkled knob, borne on a breeze that ruffled the frail fall foliage and momentarily disrupted its gentle autumnal recoil back into the dirt. The revelers were too far away to make out what was being shrieked and said, but the universal language of kids at play translated as clearly as the warm glow from the low-angle afternoon sun.
The creek in the ravine below swelled rich with the seasonal substance of spawning salmon. Above, people walked from a house site in the trees to a string of food storage pits lining the edge of the bluff, pausing to take in the views over Kenai to the east and Cook Inlet to the south, the landscape stained with September hues.
In this scene the time frame could have been the better part of 1,000 years ago, the people being Dena’ina villagers who lived in a collection of houses stretched out along the meandering creek. The spot was likely chosen for its access to timber for firewood and house logs, abundance of fish and game animals for food, and the well-drained soil that freezes in winter and softens for digging in the summer, allowing salmon to be stored in cache pits in the ground that would sustain the villagers all winter long.
But, in fact, it was 2014, and the people on the hillside off South Forest Lane in Kenai last month were anthropologists, investigating the remnants of those who inhabited that spot close to a millennium ago. On that sunny, mild fall day, with the sounds of kids playing in Kenai Municipal Park nearby, it was easy to picture the once-upon-a-time life of the Dena’ina villagers as calm and content.
“Working in this place I’m thinking about when people were living here. We hear kids when we’re working out here, and you imagine kids were probably running around playing (back then), too,” said Dave Guilfoyle, an archaeologist with Applied Archaeology Australia, who conducted a cultural resource survey at the site over the summer.
“This time of year they were fishing down at that creek. And somebody was working on the pits, getting ready for winter, and looking out at this amazing view across the gorge,” said Dr. Alan Boraas, anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, who visited the site to consult with Guilfoyle.
Fast-forward hundreds of years, though, and the scene wouldn’t have been as tranquil. The sounds of kids laughing and breezes ruffling the trees would be drowned out by construction noises, of South Forest Lane and the subdivision beyond it to the west, of the Kenai Spur Highway to the north and, in 1973, the Kenai Armory building a stone’s throw away.
On the armory property activity has been distinctly not serene over the years — troop drills, training exercises and even tank maneuvers on the cleared field, the building bustling with people and vehicles, both military and civilian as the armory building has been used for community events and as an emergency shelter location. All without realizing that, hidden in the grass, were the remnants of a Dena’ina village.
“The first thing is to protect these areas from the Army itself, because they do training out here still,” Guilfoyle said. “The focus really for this stage is a management plan for the property, and then more research and more archaeology will be part of that plan.”
The survey is being conducted at the impetus of the Alaska Army National Guard, through a cooperative agreement with the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The Guard in Alaska maintains a statewide Integrated Cultural Resources Management Plan, taking inventory and evaluating potential archaeological resources at all its sites and facilities. If any cultural or historic features are found, the management plan recommends actions to avoid impacts to the resources.
The statewide plan is updated every five years. The previous plan noted the possibility of a traditionally used berry-picking site near the Kenai Armory and what might be a gravesite in the area, but failed to identify the entire village next door.
For the current plan, Guilfoyle is attempting to rectify that oversight, conducting a detailed survey of the 5-acre parcel, mapping every house indentation, food cache pit and any other remnant of habitation. Then he will draft a proposal for ways to protect those features.
“In that plan there will be options for management, whether it’s more research, interpretation, community outreach or training programs and things,” Guilfoyle said. “(The Guard) is open to making sure that they’re doing the right thing. So they’ve engaged us as specialists to facilitate that with the community and come up with a good, solid plan.
“One of the ideas is for the armory to be stewards of this area because they work here and know it. So if they can get some education and understanding of archeological features and also the cultural values, they become champions of heritage protection rather than seen as a threat. … We had some of the (Guard) guys out here and they were loving it. They’d had no idea what these things were,” he said.
To the previous surveyors’ defense, the village remnants aren’t exactly easy to find. There aren’t broken-down structures to see, large artifacts to stumble across or other obvious clues. The historic Dena’ina culture of the Cook Inlet region is known for not leaving much behind.
“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,” Boraas said.
The village likely consisted of about 15 houses stretched out along the creek, which flows into larger Shquittastne Creek running from Woodlands Subdivision into Cook Inlet. The houses were semisubterranean, with a wood structure built into a pit dug into the ground, housing eight to 10 extended family members in each house. The wall and roof materials have long since disintegrated. Often, all that can be found are the indentation of the house pit and the remnants of a hearth — a log crib filled with sand, containing, perhaps, a few shards of fire-cracked rock.
“If you take the sod off there, peel it back, you will likely see the hearth,” Boraas said, indicating an area at one end of a house pit Guilfoyle was excavating. “I call it the last fire. We’ll all have a last fire someday, we just don’t know when it will be.”
Outside the house, usually not far from the door, a midden pile can sometimes be found, where villagers dumped the ash cleaned out from their hearth. That can sometimes still hold fire-cracked rock and occasionally some bone fragments.
“The belief was that you honored the spirit of the animal that you had hunted by burning the bones, if it was a land animal, or distributing the bones in the water if it was a fish. That sent the spirit to a reincarnation place,” Boraas said.
Guilfoyle also found the remains of several subterranean food storage pits, appearing now as just holes in the ground. The Dena’ina would dig pits, line them with moss and birch bark and fill them with layers of dried salmon and grass in the fall. In the winter the pits would freeze, but they’d be above the permafrost so residents would still be able to retrieve the contents throughout the winter, thus providing cold storage of meat on which residents could survive — and thrive — until spring came again.
“They solved the problem, about 1,000 A.D., of how to store salmon for winter,” Boraas said. “It’s fall. Now’s getting to be the critical time. The fish they caught would be semidried — silvers and cohos. They would fill these pits with salmon and grass in between. That makes food for the winter.”
But there wouldn’t be much else to find. The Dena’ina believed it bad practice to leave belongings behind, believing that artifacts retained the energy of the owners or events in which they were involved — for good or ill. That retained energy could potentially repel animals or otherwise disturb the environment, so when villagers moved they took absolutely everything with them.
“Very likely there will be very few, if any, artifacts. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot. To me, the fact that there aren’t a lot of artifacts is a very cool thing,” Boraas said.
To Guilfoyle, the coolest thing about the site is the opportunity for community involvement. The organization he represents emphasizes collaborative, community-based management of archaeological resources.
“We’re trying to make it so it’s community run, so there’s a social outcome for this project, not just archaeologists having fun,” he said. “… Especially when you talk about cultural resource landscapes, when you differentiate between Army land versus Forest Service land or city land, that’s part of the problem in terms of management, because it’s segregated.”
He’d rather see all interested parties at the table, working together under one management plan in a way that represents and protects the cultural and historic significance of the recourse. In this site, that means engaging the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. Guilfoyle has spent the last few summers on the Kenai Peninsula as an archeology consultant for various projects, including helping with the Kenaitze’s Yaghanen Youth Program’s summer Susten archaeology camps for teens in grades nine through 12.
When he started working on the armory project he invited the archaeology camp students to participate. Several spent time at the site, helping map the area, excavating the features found in the survey, recording data and considering what each finding meant about those who used to live at the site.
“That’s the main goal, to give the opportunity to people to have an experience of place and connection,” Guilfoyle said.
He also sought involvement of the tribe’s elders, inviting them to the site, explaining what he’d found, answering questions and asking his own.
“We’re pretty passionate about community archaeology. I don’t want to do any archaeology unless I know the people, especially who the elders are, and make sure they want me to be here,” he said.
“When you’re talking about aboriginal elders, they’re the true scientists. Science is all about observation, and they’re out there every day thinking and watching. The scientists come out there, do a two-week project, get data then leave and write a management report that we all follow. Meanwhile we’re losing species because of ecological decline. And we’re all going, ‘Why is nothing working?’ Because it’s silo-based management, not holistic, traditional ecology,” he said. “So, what are the practical steps, not just to identify the problems, but the solutions, as well? It’s really that collaboration and knowledge exchange two ways, and how cultural and mainstream land management can evolve together.”
The tribe welcomed Guilfoyle’s outreach with enthusiasm.
“I really appreciate and respect the fact that he is willing to involve not only our youth, but our elders in the process. Not a whole lot of these private companies like that are reaching out, that I’m aware of, to the tribes and letting them know what they’re doing and getting their input on what they’re doing,” said Michael Bernard, Yaghanen coordinator with the Kenaitze tribe.
Four of the Susten Camp participants accepted the invitation to work at the armory site, and a few will even participate in a work exchange program that will have them traveling to Australia next year, where Guilfoyle’s organization is based.
It’s been a great opportunity for the students, Bernard said. “The kids go out there and work with professionals and see how professional archaeology is done. That’s part of learning the skills, being exposed to potential careers in the future,” Bernard said. “So it’s building a sense that, ‘You can do this, you can go on to college or higher education or a trade. You can do it, it’s within your grasp.’”
Getting that work experience in a cultural context is even more meaningful.
“We also are trying to instill within them a sense of pride in their culture, whether they be Kenaitze or any other Alaska Native group, or any other Native group, period. They’re learning that the stuff that happened a long time ago is still important and valuable and definitely worth preserving,” Bernard said.
Guilfoyle will be back next summer to work more with the youth, excavating and testing more of the site’s features, as the management plan is drafted and works through the Integrated Cultural Resources Management Plan process.
Guilfoyle’s hope for the site’s future is, in a way, to return it to the past with the idea that it takes a village — a collaborative, community-based effort — to care for the remnants of this village.
“Ultimately, it’s about giving the youth some career pathway, but one that’s embedded in cultural protocols,” Guilfoyle said. “They’re working in mainstream land management but we’re not telling the kids, ‘You have to leave school and go work for the Forest Service, (for example), under the Forest Service agenda. You can take your cultural authority and merge that with how the government wants things managed. So how do we bridge that? And it’s about educating the governmental agencies, as well, about cultural values and protocols and different ways of managing.”