Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

Nanwalek and Port Graham History

Nanvw.gifPort Graham (Paluwik) and Nanwalek (formerly English Bay or Alexandrovsk) are two small Alaska Native villages at the southwestern tip of the Kenai Peninsula in Southcentral Alaska. Many current residents of both villages trace their origins directly to the Alu'utiq people who lived in a number of permanent and seasonal settlements along the outer coast of the lower Kenai Peninsula between Kachemak Bay and Prince William Sound, in what is now Kenai Fjords National Park. The Alu'utiq are also known as Pacific Eskimo or Suqpiaq, and the people often call themselves "Aleuts." The subgroup of Alu'utiq who occupied the outer Kenai coast are called the Unegkurmiut in the ethnographic literature. The name literally means those who live "down that way" (Ukatish 1997:pers. comm.) and may have been applied by Prince William Sound Alu'utiq to refer to those other Alu'utiq who lived along the outer Kenai Peninsula coast. Another self-ascribed name has not been found.

The ancestry of Nanwalek and Port Graham people also extends to former residents of Kodiak and Afognak islands, to early Russian immigrants, and to more recent arrivals. In the 1880s, the last permanent occupants of the outer Kenai coast villages moved to Nanwalek and Koyuktolik Bay at the request of the Russian Orthodox priest residing in Kenai. But even before this permanent move of Native inhabitants from the outer coast to Nanwalek, there had been over one hundred years of European exploration, fur trading, and other development activities in the region. These activities caused major changes in the social organization and territory of the Unegkurmiut.

PGARG1.gifThe traditional territory occupied by the Alu'utiq people encompasses much of the Gulf of Alaska including Prince William Sound, the lower Kenai Peninsula, the Kodiak Island Archipelago, and the Pacific coast of the Alaska Peninsula. Nanwalek and Port Graham are located in Southcentral Alaska near the tip of the lower Kenai Peninsula and on the outer reaches of Kachemak Bay, where Gulf of Alaska and Cook Inlet waters meet. Cook Inlet is a large tidal estuary of the gulf, and is about 231 miles (370 km) long and 83 miles (133 km) wide at its entrance. Kachemak Bay is an eastern arm of the lower inlet, and is about 46 miles (75 km) long. It has inner and outer reaches which are separated by the Homer Spit. The shoreline along the southeast side of Kachemak Bay and the lower inlet is fairly rugged with coves, bays, and fjords (Selkregg 1974:19).

KOYUK3.gifThe landscape of the region is a very dynamic one, which has frequent tectonic movements, earthquakes, several volcanoes, and occasional tidal waves. Most of the area is mountainous, and rides on the plunging North American plate of the earth's crust. Consequently, the shoreline tends to be rugged, abrupt, and fringed with many small islands. The 1964 Alaska earthquake caused massive land subsidence along the outer Kenai Peninsula coast, while areas toward Prince William Sound were dramatically uplifted.

Very little information was available on the prehistoric occupants of the outer Kenai Peninsula coast until specific studies began in the mid to late 1980s (McMahan and Holmes 1987). Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, more extensive survey work took place (Schaaf and Johnson 1990; Haggerty et al. 1991; Crowell 1993). One of the major factors influencing the archaeological record of the outer coast was the Little Ice Age, which lasted from approximately 1100 A.D. to 1850 A.D. Glacial fluctuations were a critical factor in determining the paleo-environmental factors that governed human use of the inner fjord zone of the coast. Land subsidence was also a factor which caused the disappearance of potential human occupation sites along the coast.

EB2LGI.gifThe recent archaeological studies, noted above, have found evidence of extensive occupation of the outer coast in pre-contact times. Archaeological sites are located on the mainland opposite the northern and southern ends of Nuka Island, along McArthur Pass, and in Resurrection, Aialik, and Harris Bays. In addition, occupation of some sites such as Yalik Bay, Port Dick, Windy and Rocky Bays lasted well into the 1800s. All these locations are mentioned in historical journals and Native oral history as habitations of outer coast Natives during and after contact. Extensive documentation by early European explorers appears to have been limited by the difficult navigability of the outer coast.

For the inner, lower Kenai Peninsula, archaeological evidence from studies by de Laguna (1934), Workman and Workman (1988), and Workman, Lobdell, and Workman (1980) document occupation of Kachemak Bay by Eskimo groups well before contact with Europeans. The studies found evidence of a strong orientation toward a maritime subsistence way of life. This included a highly specialized technology for hunting marine mammals like seals, sea lions, sea otters, and whales. There are also remains of land mammals such as bear, goat, and marmot in some sites. Because they are often not well preserved, finfish and shellfish remains are not very abundant in the earliest sites, such as those dating to around 3,500 years ago. In more recent sites there is increased evidence of the use of shellfish and finfish; however, marine mammals were still the primary food item. Habitations were of two types: more or less permanent semi-subterranean dwellings, and temporary, seasonal campsites. This indicated a degree of seasonal movement predicated by the presence of specific food sources like seal or sea lion haul-outs, shellfish beds, whale migration routes, or salmon streams. During about the last 1,000 years before contact with Europeans, the archaeological record shows a culture much like that found at the time of contact. This included elaborate types of tools such as ulus, toggle harpoons and spear points, adzes, and oil lamps, and stylized ornamentation on many tools. There was also a complex development of personal adornments such as labrets, and ceremonial implements such as masks, figurines, rattles, and drums which indicate dance as part of seasonal celebrations. After contact with Europeans, trade items such as glass beads, porcelain, and metals appeared, and they are frequently found in post-contact sites.

AIALEK.gifThe ancestry of current Port Graham and Nanwalek residents is a mixture of Alu'utiq (Pacific Eskimo), American Indian, Aleut, Russian, Euro-American, and Asian ancestry. This is a result of intermarriages which occurred among the Natives and different cultural groups, primarily following Euro-American occupation of the area. Most of the Native residents trace their heritage to places along the Gulf of Alaska, including Nuchek, Tatitlek, and Chenega in Prince William Sound; Kodiak and Afognak Islands; Resurrection, Aialik, Yalik, Rocky, Windy, Chugach, and Koyuktolik Bays, and Port Chatham on the lower Kenai Peninsula coast; and Nanwalek, Port Graham, Seldovia, and other Cook Inlet communities. The indigenous inhabitants of the lower and outer Kenai Peninsula are the Alu'utiq, also known as the Pacific Eskimo or Suqpiaq. The Native language of the region is also called Alu'utiq, or Sugcestun. It is a member of the Eskimo family of languages and can be split into two mutually intelligible dialects: Koniag Alu'utiq and Chugach Alu'utiq. The former is spoken on Kodiak Island and along the Pacific coast of the Alaska Peninsula. Chugach Alu'utiq is the dialect spoken by the Native people of Port Graham, Nanwalek, and Seldovia; in former communities along the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula; and in Prince William Sound communities (Leer 1978:3; Woodbury 1984:53).

For more in-depth information, see: "Ethnographic Overview and Assessment for Port Graham and Nanwalek" (Alaska Department of Fish and Game Technical Memorandum No. 8. Submitted to U.S. Department of the Interior, Minerals Management Service, Cooperative Agreement No. 14-35-0001-30788: Anchorage, 2000).

For more about the history of Nanwalek (English Bay/Alexandrovsk) and traditional stories, see: "Alexandrovsk: English Bay In Its Traditional Way." (English Bay Elementary/High School; Ken Farr, T.I.C., Kenai Peninsula School District; John Cook, Director Federal/Bilingual Programs; Alice Taff, Bilingual Program Coordinator, and Seraphim Ukatish, Sugcestun Consultant. Kenai Peninsula School District, May 1982).