Kenaitze Tribe and contractors uncover artifacts under Sterling Highway construction
Passing the white tent on the south side of the Sterling Highway, just outside of Cooper Landing, it’s hard not to be curious. That tent is the home of an archeological dig for pre-contact Dena'ina artifacts, which teams have been working on since 2020 as part of a Sterling Highway construction project.
Ruby Willoya-Williams is the Lead Cultural Coordinator for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, which means she oversees all of the construction work on the highway. She works with archaeologists from the tribe and a contracting company to make sure when cultural artifacts are uncovered, they’re properly documented and preserved.
“We have a lot of roots in the Cooper Landing area as Dena'ina Athabascan people. And to be able to see it again coming up is amazing, and it’s really pure,” she said “My whole goal in the project is just to make sure that our culture is being understood, and respected, and honored, because our ancestors deserve that.”
The Sterling Highway project Willoya-Williams and her crew are working on will divert traffic between mileposts 45-60 to a new, 10-mile stretch of highway. And it passes right through the Sqilantnu Archaeological District at the confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers. The Dena’ina people arrived in the region more than a thousand years ago, and at least four other Alaska Native cultures inhabited the area for the 5,000 years before that.
The Kenaitze Tribe has a memorandum of understanding with the Alaska Department of Transportation, which allows them to deploy cultural observers like Willoya-Williams to watch over construction at that site. It also allows for the two other observers that work under Willoya-Williams, and a tribal archaeologist.
“It’s pretty amazing to be a part of all of it. You’re getting to see a part of your culture uncovered and trying to preserve that knowledge for the next generations that come after us,” she said.
Many of the areas that Willoya-Williams oversees are called higher sensitivity areas, marked as such because they’re known to be sites of cultural resources.
“Like house pits, or cache pits, summer camps, winter camps, even historical — there have been a lot of historical finds on this highway as well,” she said.
When it comes to what exactly the data recovery crews have found, not all of that information is publicly available yet. But Willoya-Williams said that one of the most significant finds so far has been a brown slate point arrowhead, which she saw uncovered. During the 2021 construction season, workers found artifacts including elements of Dena'ina homes like hearth features and cache pits, animal remains, chipped stone flakes and tools like stone ulus — Alaska Native cutting tools with crescent-shaped blades.
Any artifacts that are discovered in the process are sent to the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, where they are recorded, cataloged and potentially curated.
“From a cultural view, that stuff is pretty sacred to me,” she said.
Willoya-Williams said that in addition to pre-contact Dena'ina artifacts, crews are also looking for historical artifacts like cans and bottles, or items that were used as territorial markers.
She said sometimes, the most interesting discoveries are what’s not found. Some of the sites turn out to be exceptionally clean
“Those are the types of sites where you can tell that these people that lived here before all of us, pre-contact, really respected their land and their animals,” Willoya-Williams said. “They weren’t leaving a bunch of debris behind for everybody to see — these were things that were extremely important to them, so they weren’t going to let these artifacts go so easy.”
The tribe also handles remains if burial sites are uncovered. The tribe collects the remains and ensures they are put somewhere other than beneath the highway.
There are many agencies involved in the highway project in addition to the tribe, including DOT, the Federal Highway Administration, the Cook Inlet Region Inc., the State Historic Preservation Office, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service. Construction contractor HDR employs the data recovery teams.
Construction for this phase of the Sterling Highway project began in 2020 after decades of discussion. The new highway will include a bridge spanning Juneau Creek Canyon, and reconstruction of a 4-mile section of the existing highway, where the current archeological work is taking place.
The new highway is expected to open to traffic in 2027.