Hello! My name is Britt Cerny and I am currently working as a hiking guide for Go Hike Alaska. This blog post is meant to be an introduction to the histories of Indigenous peoples in the Anchorage area and Chugach State Park.
When the US bought Alaska in 1867 we called it “The Last Frontier” a land seemingly untouched by man or the pollution of our modern cities. But what are the implications of this notion of untouched wilderness ripe for the taking? In reality, people have lived on and cared for the land we settlers call Alaska for 15,000 years. So who are they and where are they now?
For a long time, Indigenous visibility has been a struggle. Our history lessons in school taught us that settler colonialism was an event that happened in the past rather than an ongoing structure. The narrative goes something like this: we arrived on pristine land not being properly used and taught the “savages” how to live in our society. This story, however simplified, captures a process of erasure that has been created to justify our place here. Understanding our place here is complicated and it can cause us to feel guilty or go into a state of denial. However, the best thing that we can do is try to learn about and from the people who have cared for this land for centuries.
The True History
The Dena’ina are the people of the Anchorage area and are one of 11 Athabascan peoples in Alaska. They arrived in the Anchorage area in the last 1000-1500 years. Often, our major cities were the traditional homelands of large Indigenous tribes. Take Anchorage, for example, its access to resources from the sea, waterways for travel, and forests for hunting make it the perfect place to live. It is a bountiful area.
When the US bought Alaska from Russia they weren’t quite sure how many Indigenous peoples lived there or how to engage with them.
Our reservation system in the lower 48 was a failed system and we knew it. Currently, there is only one reservation in all of Alaska and the story of how and why that was created is
a tad complicated and involves a Christian tribe led by a pastor who had fled Canada and wanted to create the “model Indian reservation.”
Real tensions between the Indigenous peoples of Alaska and US settlers began when oil was discovered in Alaska. Large oil companies wanted as much land as they could to drill, causing Indigenous peoples to start lobbying for land claims. This lobbying led to the creation of The Alaska Native Claim Settlement Act: Alaska natives retained 44 million acres of land and were compensated for just under a billion dollars of land that they weren’t able to recover. These were split between different Alaska Native corporations which you could enroll in if you were at least ¼ native. Eklutna Inc. is currently the largest landowner in Alaska owning 90,000 acres. This land can be used for recreational purposes if granted access by the tribe.
The Indigenous Place Names Project
Today, we see indigenous names all over Anchorage and Alaska. However, it didn’t always use to be like this.
"The indigenous Place Names Project” headed by Aaron Leggett, Dena’ina, is a project which aims to create awareness about the people who used to take care of and live on the land settlers now occupy. The project has put up signs all around the Anchorage area which show the original Indigenous name. Michael Fredericks, president of SALT and a project partner explains that the “Indigenous Place Names Project” is not just about putting up a sign, but about “acknowledging a different history, a longer history of who was really here before colonization.” Fredericks also explains that this project is about Alaska's identity. When she was growing up it was shameful to be indigenous and settlers did not look kindly upon her people. Now, she can see her children take pride in their identity. This project helps to create awareness about who took care of these lands before us as well as current indigenous visibility. It is important to change our cultural understanding of indigenous peoples and make young people proud of their heritage.
So, when you take a hike with Go Hike Alaska and are enjoying the beautiful land you walk on, take some time to also visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center or read the names of the places you exist. Learn about who ensured that these lands stayed beautiful for so long and who still pushes against the structure of settler colonialism which seeks to create a monoculture of understanding.