Snow falls in the Chugach National Forest on Dec. 18, 2021. Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith for The Cordova Times

By Raven Cunningham  

The people of our region have called Chugach home for 10,000 years, since our glaciers have receded and our mountaintops emerged from the ice. As stewards of the region, we have had an intricate, respectful, and protective relationship with our land and its resources. Disruptions to traditional cultural ways started in the middle of the 18th century when Russian explorers entered the Chugach region. The Chugach people were the first to meet explorer Vitus Bering’s expedition, which came to Alaska in 1741 under the Russian flag. 

The Chugach people successfully kept Russian explorers from utilizing the Chugach region until the late 18th century, when Russians began occupying portions of the region and enslaving the Chugach people. Aleksandr Baranov dominated the early Russian occupation, and Chugach men were forced to hunt for sea otters for the Russians, who were heavily involved in the fur trade during this time. European explorers followed the Russians into the region and created further disruptions to the Chugach lifeways.   

Since the founding of Fort Saint Constantine at Nuchek in 1793, Russian culture has played a significant role in Chugach history. Famous Spanish explorer Salvador Fidalgo came to the Prince William Sound in 1790, which is why you see names like Cordova, Valdez, and others that stem from the Spanish language. Additionally, other European and American explorers have left their mark on the region. During the early American period, the wealth of the region’s minerals and fisheries attracted immigrants from all corners of the globe. 

By 1861 Americans were a commercial force in North Pacific, and the Russian American Company was on the brink of bankruptcy. Fur trading declined and other commercial endeavors failed, including coal mining, timber harvesting, and ice operations. Competition with other companies was fierce, and the ability of Russia to successfully defend Alaska from other countries proved difficult. Russia believed Alaska to be owned by them and decided to sell Alaska to the United States in 1867. 

The Chugach people, like all Alaska Native people, were treated as second-class citizens, with the United States purchasing Alaska from the Russians. Population increased in Southcentral Alaska after the purchase and rose sharply in the 1940s with the arrival of military personnel to fight in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The influx of non-Native peoples moving into the region brought illness (influenza, chicken pox, meningitis, whooping cough) to the Chugach people, who had no immunity. The lack of immunity caused a sharp decline in the Chugach Native population as many fell ill and never recovered from sickness. Other disruptions included highway building, mining, missionaries, boarding schools, and the overharvest of subsistence species taken as trophy animals. 

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Since 1993, Tatitlek has hosted an annual Cultural Heritage Week, also known as Peksulineq, every May. The mission of Peksulineq is to help preserve Tatitlek’s culture and heritage through fun classes like carving, skin sewing, beading, fish processing, basket weaving, and more. At the same time, Nuuciq Spirit Camp was established. Participants attend camp for a one-or two-week session where they travel by boat or floatplane to Hinchinbrook Island to the long-standing traditional village of Nuchek to learn about and celebrate their culture and heritage. Classes offered from year to year include plant lore, bidarka (qayaq) building, drum making, traditional song and dance, dAXunhyuuga’ and Sugt’stun language, beading, basket weaving, fur sewing, carving. Classes are also offered on subsistence activities like learning to catch, clean, smoke, and can salmon; hunting seals, sea lions, and deer and learning how to process and preserve the meat; and collecting and eating chitons and snails at low tide. These camps were created for bringing the Chugach region people together while teaching the culture, heritage, traditions, and subsistence lifestyle. On the Lower Cook Inlet, Nanwalek hosts a camp called Sea Week, and Port Graham hosts Fun in the Sun for students to learn about environmental science while incorporating language, culture, and knowledge on traditional foods that are harvested from our marine ecosystems. It is vital to share this knowledge with the younger generations to ensure that it is passed on to future generations. 

Raven Cunningham is the Tribal Fish & Wildlife Director for the Chugach Regional Resources Commission. The Native Voices Column is a Cordova Times column that highlights and uplifts the experiences and culture of the many Native populations that make up our community through guest contributions to the paper. If you are interested in submitting something about your Tribe, Village or a Native topic that is important to you, you can email us at [email protected]. The Cordova Times covers and is distributed on the historical and unceded territories of the dAXunhyuu (Eyak people), the Prince William Sound Sugpiaq, and the Yaakwdáat Lingít. 

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