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Signs of ancient salmon culture persist

Shaylon Cochran/KDLL


Last week, we reported on a panel discussion that took place in Soldotna about salmon habitat. One of the takeaways from that event was the fact that in many areas of the world that have lost their wild salmon runs, gone too is a culture based around salmon. But on the Kenai Peninsula, both the fish and the culture they spawn remain.




KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran recently tagged along on a field trip led by Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor Dr. Alan Boraas, where he pointed out the signs of a generations-old salmon culture that remains today.



Full tour of Dena'ina sites near Kenai Peninsula College with Dr. Alan Boraas

"This is one of between 85 and 100 elnun t’ugh. At least that’s one word for it. (An) underground, cold storage pit. Around the year 1,000 A.D., the Dena’ina and Ahtna invented these pits. Once they were invented, they spread like wildfire from the Mulchatna River area to the west to the Copper River area to the east.


What they did is solve the problem of how to store salmon caught in the summer and fall for winter and spring. To me, it’s a remarkable invention. Simple, but effective.


It would be dug down and lined with birch bark. The birch bark was sewn with spruce root and smeared with slightly dried fish eggs, making a thermal unit. Like a bunny boot. Waterproof on the outside, waterproof on the inside, insulation in between. As we get into freeze-up, the fish would be put into the pit, probably put in frozen. Then a layer of grass, a layer of fish until it’s full. And then birch bark, moss, birch bark over the top. And a stake, so you can find it in February. Those fish would remain frozen because it’s in the ground with this thermal unit. These (pits) were overproduced. There’s about 100 in this area. You probably wouldn’t need that many, but if bacteria go into one or two, then you would have others.


In addition, it changed the social structure. A village was, I don’t know if controlled is the right word, but an individual that in Dena’ina is called Qeshqa. It was his or her responsibility to see that the fish made it through the winter. But they overproduced, so what’s that about? This is a social/political system, where each Qeshqa had a partner in another village. So, let’s say in that village, a bear wakes up or bacteria gets into much of their food and they’re hurting. This partner would be obligated to distribute food from here to there. Why would he do that? Reciprocity. Some day it might be the opposite. It might be this village that needs help, and the reciprocal agreement would hold.


A political/social organization that enhanced survivability. Another reason why the Ahtna and Dena’ina were very sustainable cultures; a mechanism to distribute food equitably.”



Dena'ina elder Helen Dick explains how elnun t’ugh, or cold storage pits for salmon, were built beginning around 1,000 A.D.

George Holly of Soldotna performs an original song to cap a tour of Dena'ina settlement sites near Kenai Peninsula College.

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