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Nondalton kids dig into their history at Dena'ina culture camp

Hannah Colton / KDLG

At culture camp on Lake Clark, kids explored an archeological site where their ancestors may have lived more than 130 years ago. 

On the north shore of Lake Clark, there's a place called Kijik. It's the historic homeland of the Dena'ina Athabascans of the area, and also the site of a culture camp where youth and elders from the village of Nondalton came together last week.

Dozens of abandoned house sites dot the area, and KDLG's Hannah Colton joined as the kids got their hands dirty learning about one of them.

“A little push down, flick out, and then you wanna keep going down the wall…”

Randy Tedor kneels in front of a 50-centimeter square of dirt. The bushy-bearded archeologist is showing a group of kids how to carefully excavate the quadrant.

“Excavation is an art,” he tells them, deftly pulling layers of soil loose.

11-year-old Cordelle Balluta-Trefon puts down a metal detector he’s been playing around with, and gets to work in the dirt with a dustpan and a trowel.

After a while, Balluta-Trefon puts down the trowel and hands something to Tedor. It’s a tiny red speck.

“Good eye, man! I can’t believe you saw that” says Tedor laughing. “A little baby bead.” 

That little bead, Tedor explains, is a huge clue. This type of glass bead was only manufactured in Europe after a certain date, so it helps archaeologists like Tedor figure out how old the site is. They think this house was occupied between 1840 and the 1880s.

As he explores more into the site, Balluta-Trefon says he’s getting a picture in his head, visualizing what it might have looked like when people lived here

“I don’t see people, but I just see a house. There’s a firepit, there’s a storage room, a bedroom, that’s the front door over there,” Balluta-Trefon muses. “I’m still kinda putting the picture together.”

This curiosity is exactly what Tedor is trying to inspire; he wants the kids to wonder how people lived back then, maybe to realize that the people living on this land were, in many ways, just like us.

But like many old village sites in Alaska, this land and its people have a troubled history.

Cordelle Balluta-Trefon holds up a square-sided nail, another artifact archaeologists can use to date the site.

Fur hunters and explorers from Russia started plundering Lake Clark’s Dena’ina villages in the late 1790s. Next came the Russian Orthodox missionaries, who by the 1830s were traveling around regularly to baptize and hold services in villages.

And of course, with this new contact came new diseases. Around 1900, a measles and flu epidemic devastated the population at Kijik. The survivors moved down the lake to what is now the village of Nondalton, seeking better access to salmon runs and trading posts.

They left Kijik behind, along with a lakeshore full of graves and sad memories.

“They’re estimating up to 200 graves here,” said Karen Evanoff, a Dena’ina Athabascan cultural anthropologist with Lake Clark National Park. For five years she’s been working with the Nondalton Tribal Council and researchers to identify and mark the graves.

The work culminated in a blessing ceremony last summer.

“Close to a hundred people were here, and we combined the traditional way of spirituality and blessing with the Russian Orthodox way, so it was a huge celebration,” said Evanoff. “This is a healing place.”

There’s still controversy over the land at Kijik; parts of it are now owned by a Native allotment and a homesteader, who built structures on and around the church and grave sites. The Kijik Corporation has managed to buy a few acres back, and Evanoff says they hope to regain more of the land the people consider sacred. 

“That’s part of the vision,” she said, “to clear this of the cabins and have some plaques here to identify who’s buried.”

Credit Hannah Colton / KDLG
Michelle Ravenmoon (right), Nondalton elder Pauline Hobson (left) and kids sing a Dena'ina song at the end-of-camp potluck, June 26, 2016.

Holding the culture camp here is another part of that healing process. Evanoff planned the camp along with Michelle Ravenmoon of Pope-Vanoy on Lake Iliamna

“Of course, we want the kids to have a lot of fun and enjoy themselves and grow their self-confidence and pride,” says Ravenmoon, “but we also wanted to make sure they learn their history and their identity, where they come from, who they are.”

Each activity – from wood carving to caribou hide-tanning to language classes – is meant to help kids understand their Dena’ina culture.

“We’ve been very unsuccessful as Native people sending them out, preparing them for this outside world,” says Ravenmoon. “We give them computers, and we teach them history of the United States, but we’ve taught them so little about who they are where they come from. I think it’s important for kids to know their history.”

A piece of that history lies in the ground at the archeological site, waiting for the kids to get their hands on it.

Up until recently, the archaeological site was known to scientists as “house pit XLC-098.” But Michelle and Karen were happy to share that the site is now being officially renamed: “Quk Taz’Un,” the same name as the culture camp.

It means “the sun is rising,” hopefully on a brighter future for the Dena’ina Athabascans of Lake Clark.