Historic Resource Study
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Near the geographic center of Alaska, Denali National Park and Preserve surrounds Mount McKinley, which hinges the great arc of the Alaska Range. The mountain, called Denali—The High One—by neighboring Athabaskan Indians, soars more than 20,300 feet above the sea, highest of North American peaks. It dominates its 12,400-foot consort and the lesser elevations of the range as a monarch commands his court.

From the mountain's high buttresses and perpetual ice fields glaciers descend radially, sculpting great gorges in the granite and sediments of the massif. Then the landscape falls away through barren rock canyons to lake-dotted tundra benches and, finally, to wide valleys formed by turbid glacial rivers, their braided beds flanked by stands of boreal forest.

On these lowlands more than 3 miles below the banner mountain, backdropped by the far-stretching range, roams a panoply of wildlife: caribou, bear, moose, wolf, fox, and, on the lower crags, the white mountain sheep of the north. In summer the animals blend into folds of landscape, moss-floored forest, and distant tundra moors. As migratory bands, as packs and family groups, or as solitaries, they forage the slopes and stream courses, building the reserves of fat to carry them through winter.

Alaska, superimposed on a map of the United States. American Automobile Association, Alaska, A Guide Book Containing Descriptions of the Territory, 1948, frontispiece.

From earliest times, for at least 11 millennia, humans have been seasonally attracted to this remote and elevated country because of the concentrations of game animals. The migratory bands of caribou and sheep, the numerous moose and bear, and, in those earliest times, the relict bison and elk at the end of the last great ice age, have spurred human migration to the Denali region despite its isolation and forbidding terrain. In traditional times, a century and more ago, the people came from camps and villages on the many rivers fed by Denali's glaciers: Susitna, Chulitna, Kahiltna, Yentna flowing south; Kuskokwim flowing southwest; Kantishna, Toklat, Teklanika, Nenana flowing north. Some of the hunters cut the arc of the Alaska Range, travelling westward 200 miles from the Copper River basin. Others congregated from the Tanana or portaged from the Yukon. These people came to hunt the high, sparsely forested slopes and valleys and the funneling narrows of the passes. They came by boat as far as shoaling streams allowed, then overland to the killing sites. After the hunt, their meat and skins in tow, they left Denali's shelterless flanks and returned to the forested lands of the big rivers where logs for building and fuel, and migrating salmon for sustaining food, allowed survival through winter darkness and cold.

Migrations continue to this day. The animals still band together for their seasonal convocations. And people come from afar to behold this recurrent display of wildlife posed against the mountain. The great difference from the primeval scene is the migrant humans. Today, except on the fringes of the recently expanded parkland, they hunt with spotting scope and camera.

It was this gathering of wildlife, and fear that market hunting would destroy it, that inspired hunter-naturalist Charles Sheldon in the early years of this century. After extended visits to the Denali region in the years 1906-08, he turned his concerns into a vision: a park-refuge where Denali's vulnerable concentrations of game animals could roam and propagate unhunted—a reservoir that upon overflow would populate surrounding areas to the benefit of isolated mining camps and communities dependent on wild meat. He saw the fulfilling combination of protected wildlife and magnificent mountain scenery as a lure to visitors who would benefit the economy and development of Alaska.

After a decade of tireless efforts, Sheldon and the cohort of individuals and organizations that followed his lead joined with officials of the newly established National Park Service at the first National Parks Conference in January 1912, just weeks before Congress passed the Mount McKinley National Park establishment act. There he asked, in reference ". . . to descriptions of emotions evoked by the scenery of our national parks in this conference, why it . . . [is] that animals are not more mentioned as an adornment to the landscape." He cited the adornments of civilized landscapes—for example the spires and castles of Spain—then asserted:

Well, it's just exactly the same way in the wilderness. Does not,. . . like the spire in the civilized landscape, a wild animal, the product of . . . [the wilderness] environment, so adorn it that we feel that it is complete? That feeling, that completeness of all your feelings aroused by such wild scenery will in . . . [the Mount McKinley] region be gratified to the uttermost. [1]

Sheldon's vision of a park-refuge where visitors could view plentiful wildlife against the backdrop of stupendous mountains shaped the park's founding legislation; it inspired the policies and practices of the new park's first stewards and their successors through the years; it still determines the management philosophy and the visitor expectations of the expanded Denali National Park and Preserve created by Congress in 1980.

The relationship between Denali's mountains, wildlife, and people has changed drastically through the millennia that separate the ancient hunting parties and last summer's park visitors. In those first days remote geography and mountain ranges translated into time-and-energy barriers that hunters overcame in the quest for game. Today, modern transportation transforms distance into minutes and mountain barricades into scenery. The park ideal changed game into wildlife—the living adornment that, in Sheldon's synthesis, makes the scenery complete. These evolutions of human action and ideal, from traditional times to the present, form the backbone of the history that follows.

Alaska base map, showing location of Denali National Park and Preserve. U.S. Geological Survey, The National Atlas of the United States of America, 1970.

The first people to enter the Denali region were big game hunters, recently migrated from Asia over the Bering Land Bridge. They entered a world dominated by the brute physical facts of massive landforms, ice, roiling glacial rivers, and a climate usually frigid and only occasionally warm. The scenes that greeted them had evolved from ancient sea basins and colliding continents. These collisions and coalescings of migrant terrains had earlier raised great mountains, which had eroded and disappeared. Then another surge of plate tectonics some 10 million years ago gave birth to the young Alaska Range. Great forces fractured and faulted the mountains and the jig-saw fragments of land from which they had risen. Volcanoes spewed ash over this raw landscape. And torrent streams carried massive loads of gravel from the new mountains to fans, valleys, and lakes below.

Then came the ice of the Pleistocene epoch, in sheets and gouging glaciers. On the north side of the range, in the dry chill beyond the probing glacier snouts, grass-and-sage-covered steppes hosted an amazing array of Pleistocene mammals: mammoth, lion, giant bear and bison, wapiti or elk, horse, camel, antelope, and more.

Toward the very end of this time of dry cold and arctic steppes filled with herds of grazers, those first hunters appeared in the plateaus and foothills overseen by the great mountain. The changing climate—getting warmer and wetter—had diminished the dry, hard steppelands. Wetland bog and tundra occupied the stream-laced lowlands north of the range. Spruce and birch began to move in from the south. The mammals of the arctic steppe had by then largely disappeared, except for relict populations of bison and elk in the elevated valley-and-foothill refugium north of the range, where winds funneled through mountain passes maintained for awhile a micro-environment of the disappearing epoch.

On a terrace above Dry Creek, just west of present-day Healy and the Parks Highway, the hunters established a camp sited to overlook the creek valley and the crags and drainage amphitheaters of the foothills to the south. These were opportunistic hunters (as distinct from the specialized "drive" hunters of the Great Plains) who sought grazing sheep, bison, and elk. They came in small numbers, adult men, having left women, children, the aged and infirm at a central base camp in a more sheltered location. The hunting season was probably autumn, when the animals were fat, extending into winter. From their lookout the hunters spotted game, moved to kill it, then brought the butchered meat and skins back to camp for drying and fleshing. In the intervals between hunting and processing its products, they made and repaired the stone, bone, wood, and sinew tools of their trade.

The strategy of several seasonal hunting camps operating from a more stable base camp (as remains at Dry Creek suggest) fit well the opportunistic hunting techniques dictated by the kinds and numbers of game available. Dispersal of small hunting groups from a central camp to spike camps scattered through the country maintained the proper balance between human predators and their scattered prey. And the meat brought back to the central camp sustained the band between hunting forays. From evidence found at several other sites in Beringia (those parts of Alaska and Siberia bordering the former Bering Land Bridge), this Beringian pattern of big game hunting persisted from about 11,000 to 8,000 B.P. By the latter date the last remnants of the oversized Pleistocene mammals and all but patches of the arctic steppe had disappeared.

By then, also, the basic frame of flora and fauna that we see today had established itself in the Denali region. Tundra, brush, black-spruce bog, and forests of white spruce, birch and poplars occupied the old steppe grazing grounds. With extinction of the northern bison, some of the Beringian hunters may have migrated southward to the grasslands of the Great Plains where the buffalo still roamed. Moose and caribou, along with the persistent sheep, became the principal big game animals of the Denali region. In this evolving boreal forest environment, human hunters developed new seasonal and settlement patterns, which combined hunting for big game with fishing for migrating salmon, whose spawning runs up Alaskan rivers brought rich marine resources to the spare lands of the Interior. Seasonal rounds included hunting forays into the elevated valleys and foothills of the Alaska Range, with permanent or semi-permanent villages and camps located in the timbered, riverine lowlands for winter dwelling and fishing. [2]

Roosevelt John and wife
Roosevelt John and wife, 1919. Stephen Foster Collection, UAF

Over succeeding thousands of years marked by unrecorded migrations and exchanges, a family of peoples evolved who later would be culturally and linguistically identified as Athabaskans. These Indians occupied and settled into the Interior geographies of present Alaska and neighboring Canada. Archeologists have noted the changing tool kits of the various and differentiated groups. They have traced a general change from a root Siberian-Beringian culture to one that showed progressive adaptation to North American boreal-forest conditions. Within that general pattern of adaptation would emerge the special refinements that allowed each group to fit effectively into its particular homeland environment. As centuries went by these special and constantly evolving variations of tools, clothing, food processing, travel, housing, and survival techniques would reflect ever more precisely each group's special knowledge of the demands and opportunities of its distinctive homeland.

As the millennia passed by, strong patterns emerged: some groups depended more on big game than on fish, and vice-versa. Others, closer to the sea, relied more on marine resources—either directly or by trade. Some groups controlled special assets, such as copper, which gave them trading advantages over their neighbors. Yet others, on the fringe of Eskimo territory, served as cultural and trading middlemen who transferred both ideas and goods across cultural boundaries. In these ways evolved differences in material culture, spiritual concepts, and language amongst the groups. On the eve of European penetration of the Denali region in the mid-19th Century, these differences marked each cultural group as a distinct tribe or nation: thus the Koyukon Athabaskans of the Yukon, lower Tanana, and Kantishna rivers; the Kolchan of the upper Kuskokwim River; the Tanana of the mid-Tanana and Nenana-Toklat rivers; the Tanaina of upper Cook Inlet and the Susitna drainage; and the Ahtna who were moving into the Denali region from the Copper River basin. Despite their cultural variations, all of these people belonged to the Athabaskan tradition, a generic lifeway developed over several thousand years of Interior Alaska living.

Chief Thomas
Chief Thomas of the Birch Creek Athabascans, at Nenana, 1917. Stephen Foster Collection, UAF

From the European perspective of linear cultural development—starting with the hunter-gatherer lifeway, progressing to pastoral, agricultural, and the urban, then the urban-industrial-technological forms of modern civilization—a hunter-gatherer culture of such long duration might represent a broken cultural clock. But such a judgment fits ill with a broader view of human history and the constraints of Interior Alaskan geography. We have all descended from hunter-gatherer societies. All of our ancestors spent endless millennia in lifeways that changed hardly at all and only gradually over time. When environments themselves changed, through climatic shifts or the like, then human inhabitants adapted to the new conditions, or migrated to other places, which in turn forced the new arrivals to modify their cultural patterns.

The archeological record for Interior Alaska exhibits constant change, territorial adjustments, and cultural dynamism from 11,000 B.P. to the end of the traditional period, ca. 1850. But these changes occurred within the frame of the generic hunter-gatherer pattern of life, for very good reasons. The subarctic Interior Alaska environment contained no animal species that could be domesticated and herded, thus eliminating the pastoral alternative. Nor, given rigorous climate, wet and frozen ground, and telescoped growing seasons, was this a place for agriculturalists. As top predators in landscapes usually hungry, only seasonally rich in biomass (as during caribou or salmon migrations), the Athabaskans and their precursors had to disperse in small bands during most of the year, barring "urban" concentrations (which would have required pastoral and agricultural hinterlands anyway).

Fish Camp at Cape of Good Hope
Fish Camp at Cape of Good Hope, on Lake Minchumina. Stephen Foster Collection, UAF

As ecosystem (or living-off-the-land) people, deriving their entire stock of sustaining resources (food, clothing, tools, shelter) from the immediate environment in which they dwelt, the Athabaskans remained hunter-gatherers because there was no alternative in this place. This pattern holds true today in Interior Alaska for anyone who cuts the umbilical cords of imported goods and technology from warmer climes: wild meat and gathered wild vegetable products are the only foods available. And the same sort of thing can be said for other necessities of human livelihood.

It is in the endless refinement of knowledge—the traditional science of land and animals that allowed flexible response to environmental constraint and opportunity—and their rich spiritual life, all passed on with the embellishments of succeeding generations, that the Athabaskans demonstrate the depth and power of their culture. Over thousands of years in the isolation of their remote world, as integral parts of it, they grew to know this land as no other people ever will. In this light—illuminated by physical, intellectual, and spiritual union with the homeland—the traditional Athabaskans possessed a cultural inheritance very different from but every bit as rich and complex as that of the Europeans who would discover them.

The bands of Athabaskans who frequented the Denali region occupied the highland frontiers of their larger tribal territories. They roamed the upper rivers and foothills of the central Alaska Range, dominated by the great mountain. Compared to brethren bands on the main rivers—those arteries of salmon migration before dispersal into hundreds of spawning streams—the highland people depended more on big game. They tended to be more nomadic, spending less time congregated at winter villages or fish camps, more time in movement to intercept migrating caribou, more time dispersed in family hunting parties pursuing scattered winter game.

Illustrative of the lifeways of these upper river, highland bands were the people who ranged the northwest flank of the range. Their territories intersected in the Lake Minchumina vicinity at the divide between the Kuskokwim and Tanana drainages. Here lies a southwest-northeast trending lowland of forests, lakes, marshes, bogs, and streams. The Alaska Range and its outlying foothills parallel one side of this broad valley, the Kuskokwim Mountains the other. Mountain snows feed the waters that host fish and breeding waterfowl. Moose browse streamside willows and wade the lakes and marshes to feed on aquatic plants. Black bears haunt the forests; grizzlies wander over tundra and foothills. Bands of sheep and migrating caribou move through the flanking mountains, and in winter the caribou descend and disperse into sheltering forests and low hills. Fur bearers—so important for clothing—pursue their streamcourse and ridgeline rounds.

In Alaska terms this is a rich environment for the subsistence of Indian hunters. The variety of accessible habitats, populated in the succession of seasons by many different animals, provided fresh meat at hunting and fish camps during times of plenty. Much of the meat from these intensive harvests was dried, smoked, or, in the fall, allowed to freeze, and, along with rendered fat, was stored to carry the people through the lean winter. And usually, in the hungry days of late winter, opportunistic hunters could find the solitary moose, the elusive caribou, the fat beaver, or the denning bear to bridge the final weeks before migrant birds returned to signal spring and freshen winter's monotonous diet—or save the day if the old meat were exhausted.

The Kuskokwim-Tanana Lowland runs from the forks of the Kuskokwim, near the present village of Nikolai, northeast 200 miles, passing through the environs of Telida village to the watershed and portage near Lake Minchumina. Thence it trends down the Kantishna River past traditional camps at the junctions of Birch Creek, Bearpaw River, and Toklat River, and on to the confluence of the Kantishna and Tanana rivers.

In late prehistoric and early historic times the Kolchan Indians of the upper Kuskokwim (represented by today's villages of Nikolai and Telida) maintained ties of trade and cultural interchange with their close linguistic relatives, the Lower Tanana people, who utilized the Kantishna and Nenana drainages. The two groups were probably in seasonal contact around Lake Minchumina and the upper Kantishna.

By the time of direct European contact Koyukon-speaking people had intruded into the Minchumina area, interdicting the traditional overlap between Kolchan and Lower Tanana groups. Family histories related by Minchumina elders trace the Koyukon settlers to the village of Coschaket at the mouth of the Cosna River, which is near the Tanana River's junction with the Yukon. [3] In a recent ethnohistorical study, the authors comment: "This incursion of Koyukon speakers . . . [is consistent] with historic cultural patterns of movement, displacement and settlement." [4]

Lake Minchumina's favorable hunting and fishing location, astride a watershed-portage-trail complex that gave access to three great Interior rivers—Kuskokwim, Tanana, Yukon—made it a cultural frontier. Both the historical record and the prehistory revealed by archeology demonstrate a series of occupations by ancient and recent Indian groups, with strong evidence also of an Eskimo interlude of three centuries beginning some 1500 years ago. [5]

Trade and cultural interchange followed the trails radiating from Minchumina, making it a rather cosmopolitan place over a span of nearly three millennia. Yet, in the European experience, the Minchumina environs remained one of the last places explored in Alaska, and then with great difficulty, for it nested in the extreme upper reaches of tributary streams far from easily navigable major rivers. This contrast between ancient crossroads and historic-period remoteness tells us something about the skill with which Native peoples moved through daunting country that even now is seen mainly from the air.

Nenana natives
Nenana natives, 1917. Stephen Foster Collection, UAF

Let us now glimpse the realities of day-to-day life in traditional times. In a 1983 report National Park Service anthropologist Susan Morton summarized the ethnography of the Birch Creek people, a Kolchan band of the Lake Minchumina-upper Kantishna River area. Her primary source was the work of Edward Hosley, ethnographer of the Kolchan. His reconstruction of their late-traditional lifeway typifies cultural patterns shared with localized variations by several Athabaskan bands in the Denali region. Morton's felicitous abstract, benefitting from her own interviews with Native elders, is quoted at length below as a convenient window on a lifeway now extinct:

The basic household unit for all Alaskan Athapaskans including those of the Upper Kantishna was composed of two families. The two families shared a single dwelling and acted as a single economic unit throughout the seasonal round. Efficient exploitation of resources scattered throughout their territory required the cooperative efforts of anywhere from a few individuals to a large group. This flexibility involved several different levels of social and political organization.

The next level of social and political organization was the local band composed of from two to five households. A local band was usually made up of a large extended family, traditionally centered around two brothers, or a brother and his sister's husband along with their wives, children, and perhaps daughters, spouses and grandchildren. The group might number between fifteen and seventy-five, sometimes including more distant relatives.

The local band tended to stay together throughout the year, breaking up into individual households only when resources were scarce. The local band was usually exogamous, that is, members married outside of their own group into neighboring local bands.

Several local bands scattered along the same river drainage or foothill region were often linked by kinship, tradition, a shared dialect, and economic cooperation. This larger group has been called a regional band.

Individual local bands exploited territories that averaged 2500 square miles in size. Each band visited different locations in its territory on a regular basis in accordance with an established seasonal round. Winter encampments, which were the most sedentary phase of the annual cycle, were often located on the freshwater tributaries of the Kantishna or a lake. The entire winter season was customarily spent at one location, where permanent dwellings were built.

These dwellings were sometimes subterranean, oval or round in outline, and often had a dome-shaped roof. However, in winter sites predating Western influence (1850s and earlier), dwellings were rectangular, straight-sided, gable roofed, and usually excavated two or three feet into the ground. These structures were most often covered with layers of birchbark on willow or spruce pole framework, but caribou skins were sometimes used instead. Earth or snow was usually banked around the base of the dwelling for added insulation from the cold. Underground caches or pits held stored food.

During pre-contact times, the seasonal round focused almost entirely on hunting. During the winter months the most important species were beaver and bear; other sources of food were ptarmigan and hares. The people also hunted caribou whenever they were available during the winter months, although, in more recent times moose became more important. They turned to fishing only when other supplies of food failed.

About the end of March the people abandoned the winter settlement and began preparations for the spring caribou hunt. Prior to the break-up of the river ice, lightweight birchbark canoes and virtually all of a band's belongings would be loaded on hand-pulled toboggans and on dogs for the trip to the traditional caribou hunting grounds in the Alaska Range. Since the people were more mobile during the summer months, dwellings were usually less substantial than those built for winter. They were dome-shaped or more often conical tipi-like pole frames covered with caribou skins.

The spring and fall caribou hunts were usually cooperative hunts requiring two or more bands to come together and hunt as a single group. In pre-contact times, the entire summer season was frequently spent in the foothills of the Alaska Range hunting caribou, sheep, and occasionally a bear. The band returned to the winter village just before or after winter freeze-up.

Each band was usually led by a family patriarch. Although a fair amount of social contact did take place between neighboring bands, each band was an independent unit. There was no concept of a large, political group beyond the regional band. The people did not recognize political leadership beyond the level of an informal headman, and such leadership often took the form of experienced elders offering advice to younger band members.

Kinship ties were the basis for social control within each band. Such ties meant there were strong obligations of mutual support and cooperation, especially for sharing food and other resources. Kinship ties, particularly among male siblings, were often the basis for relations within a band. However, a band might also form around a skinnah, a "partnership" bond between two men who often worked and hunted together. Sometimes they were also married to sisters or had exchanged sisters in marriage. The members of such a partnership were obligated to mutual support and hospitality. By extending the partner system to men of other bands, a man could be assured of a welcome wherever he went.

A man could also rely on such support and hospitality from fellow clan members whether in his own village or a distant community. The clan system which cross cut the local and regional band structures consisted of three named groups. Clans were exogamous, members married outside their own group, and matrilineal, that is, descent and membership were traced through the mother's side of the family. Residence after marriage was usually with the wife's clan, at least temporarily.

Western influence came relatively late to the Upper Kantishna. The late 1830s saw traders from Kolmakovskiy Redoubt making regular trips to the Upper Kuskokwim for furs. They had established regular trade at Khunalinde (Vinasale) by early in the 1840s. Tanaina [Indians] from Cook Inlet were crossing the Alaska Range as early as 1844, acting as middlemen from Nikolaevskiy Redoubt and trading with Upper Kuskokwim (Kolchan). But in spite of additional explorations between 1834 and 1863, the Russians never reached farther into the interior.

So although many regions in Alaska had been visited and described by Westerners by the 1860s, the Upper Kantishna was one of the last areas to be explored by Europeans. The long period of indirect contact with Westerners had a profound effect anyway. The introduction of the fur trade and foreign trade goods by neighboring Native groups caused shifts in the annual cycle of subsistence activities and trading patterns. These economic shifts along with the spread of Western diseases brought about irreversible changes in the traditional way of life. [6]

The relative isolation of Indian groups in the Minchumina area, sheltered by mountains and shoaling streams, meant that indirect contact with Europeans was the rule, with direct contacts the rare exceptions until after the turn of the century. Being once removed from the accessible coast and the navigable rivers, these Indians were able to perpetuate a modified traditional lifeway into the 1920s, a time of still living memory as this is written. Today's elders, who witnessed these times of change, have shared their experiences in a rich oral history, which will be tapped in later chapters. From the stories of their elders, and their own childhood experiences, today's tradition bearers remember the time of the homeland—the world that encompassed the history of their people, the hunting camps and villages, the ties of kinship, and the spiritual associations that gave meaning to each part of that world and each human act within it.

The area's isolation prolonged the history of an earlier Alaska in another way. When the first Westerners came into this country around 1900 there was a replay of the kinds of dependence on the local Indians that had long since faded in Alaska's more settled regions. The elders recall that time, too, when a lost army exploring expedition was saved and guided on its way, when the lore and the lay of the land was shared with other newcomers—traders, trappers, and prospectors. This theme punctuates the narratives of exploration that follow. [7]

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Last Updated: 04-Jan-2004