Skip to main Content
Arts and Entertainment

Alaska ghost villages are recalled by Native elders and scholars in two new books

  • Author:
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published March 19, 2015

Alaskan maps are dotted with settlements that once thrived with businesses and families, names to which the ghostly word "abandoned" is attached in parentheses or italics. Towns and villages like Iditarod, Latouche, Unga.

Like Hamilton, near the mouth of the Yukon River, a hub for commerce and paddle-wheelers in the last century. Just before statehood, it still had a good store and was home to maybe 40 people.

They all left long ago.

There's more to know about Hamilton than storeshelves and steamboats. There's the life of the people whose kitchen stoves and beds were there. There's its other name, Nunapiggluugaq, a name the people of the area used -- and still do.

We learn this in "Nunamta Ellamta-llu Auyqucia: What Our Land and World Are Like, Lower Yukon History and Oral Traditions" (Calista Elders Conference/Alaska Native Language Center), one of two big new publications that give voice to places that no longer exist, or rather continue to exist, but in ways that don't fit typical academic history.

Eyewitnesses

"Nunamta" is the latest installation in a series of oral histories collected by the Calista Elders Council in an ambitious effort to document traditional knowledge of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. This volume looks at the mouths of the Yukon, dominated today by the towns of Kotlik and Emmonak.

The format consists mostly of interviews conducted by linguist Alice Rearden and anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan. The original Yup'ik responses are published on pages facing the English translation. It contains abundant historic and contemporary photographs and the most detailed maps of the region that I have ever seen, putting names on the maze of channels and sloughs at the mouths of the Yukon and landforms that, as best as I can tell, have no English designations.

These are locales associated with fish camps, travel routes and hunting areas. There are so many Yup'ik names that they require pairs of maps, one identifying bodies of water and a second identifying sites on land.

The names are put into perspective by the elders familiar with them. Sometimes they recount stories that gave a place its name, like Anallram, "The Place Where One Escaped." Other times the interviewees speak from firsthand experience. This is how Mike Andrews Sr. of Emmonak recalled an old qasgiq in his boyhood home, Amigtuli:

"This qasgiq was filled with bodies," casualties of an epidemic. "They left them there, and we didn't touch them. And we didn't play here in winter, we didn't slide on our sleds."

The Amigtuli River "was once a wonderful river," said Eugene Pete of Nunam Iqua. "Many broad whitefish poured out of it in the fall ... blackfish, pike. Those awful beavers have ruined it, blocking it, making it unnavigable."

Other deserted settlements in the book include Caniliaq, at the very mouth of the Yukon, and Pastuliq, where the remnants of a giant dredge can still be seen. At one time that dredge was the key to Interior Alaska. It cleared the way for ships taking freight to Fairbanks, Dawson and Whitehorse before the Alaska Railroad, airplanes and roads made it obsolete.

Changing economies are one reason settlements disappear. Another reason is the land itself. A few beavers can block a river. The soft, low terrain swallows structures and vanishes in response to wind and waves. Delta people, like riparians everywhere, have historically been ready to move to higher ground or toward better resources. Traditional practices reflect that reality.

"Qaneryarat," or instructions regarding those practices, make up the bulk of the book and the most fascinating part. More than 100 pages contain teachings and sayings about good hunting practices, behavior toward others, the meaning of festivals and rituals, paying attention to the signals of nature, child rearing and getting your chores done.

Raymond Waska of Emmonak repeats his mother's saying: "If you continually tend to be lazy like that, you will live envying your peers when you grow older."

Fred Augustine of Alakanuk talks about coping with the cold as a child: "They really didn't want us to wear very warm clothing or be extremely warm. ... When one first goes outside it feels extremely cold, and it's a sharp cold. Then after a while we feel better ... we no longer feel cold. We become one with the weather."

Much of the discussion comes in the form of dialogue, with elders presenting different ways of approaching things. Barbara Joe of Alakanuk recounts that girls were told: "If you happen to get a spouse, don't talk back to him at all, or don't ever criticize him. It is said a woman, by being too loud and noisy, her husband will become easily angered. He will change."

To which Maryann Andrews of Emmonak responds: "I also used to hear that a man may have a bad nature, but that his wife, by continually speaking to him, makes him improve."

Two things make "Nunamta" difficult to use as a reference. Most spellings are in Yup'ik orthography, so anyone looking for "Pastolik" will need to make the switch to "Pastuliq." And it has no index. I couldn't find that it in e-book form, but an online version would be fully searchable and make the old-fashioned tool of a printed index as superfluous as the Pastuliq dredge.

Reconstructed legacies

"Lost Villages of the Eastern Aleutians," from the National Park Service, chronicles the history of three abandoned settlements -- Biorka, Kashega and Makushin -- in the vicinity of Unalaska. That's no easy task. Authors Ray Hudson and Rachel Mason had precious little in the way of documentation to work with.

"Written records about the villages are meager," they admit. "They flourished and declined with little information from the outside world."

Archaeology has shown oral histories to be accurate in many cases, although different events can be combined or rearranged to make a point. But Hudson and Mason did not have the broad field of eyewitnesses that helped compile "Nunamta." They would have had even less had not Hudson begun collecting stories and photographs in the 1960s.

Despite the hurdles, "Lost Villages" is a magnificently informative book. The authors have managed to find a good number of first-person accounts and pieced together thousands of details of lore, documents, illustrations, photos and artifacts to present a multifaceted picture of Aleutian history in general and the villages of the title in particular.

The book starts with an overview of pre-contact culture, when scores, perhaps hundreds, of small villages dotted the Aleutian Archipelago. It recounts the battles between Natives and fur hunters from Russia, a protracted war that raged between 1760-1775 and ended with most village sites abandoned, the Aleut population decimated, subjugated and rapidly adopting the "innovations" of European technology, clothing, commerce and religion.

A period of relative calm and prosperity followed. Natives from small communities were drawn to larger settlements where furs could be sold at a trading post and deep-draft ships could bring in goods from the outside world. Churches and schools were built. A written version of the Aleut language was read throughout the region. Smallpox vaccinations were delivered at a time when such services were unheard of in the frontier regions of the fledgling United States.

But the Unangax (plural for Aleut) never regained their pre-contact numbers. At the time the U.S. acquired Alaska, 1867, no more than 300 people lived in the three villages. Poverty struck hard under Uncle Sam's management, with traders gouging hunters in what one observer called "government-sponsored monopolies." At the same time, federal regulators restricted not only the commercial fur harvests, but banned the taking of marine mammals used for subsistence.

There were periods of better or worse conditions as industries came and went. Canneries, commercial fishing, whaling, work in the sealing grounds of the Pribilofs, fur farming, ranching and even an attempt at agriculture.

But decline was the rule throughout the first decades of the 20th century. The islands suffered in the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1919. A fourth "lost" village, Chernofski, was abandoned in 1928. Villagers moved to Dutch Harbor for work, where they were paid much less than white workers. The repeal of Alaska's "bone-dry" prohibition laws in 1933 brought new problems.

The military buildup of World War II brought boom times to the Aleutians. But not for the villagers. They were evacuated from the war zone and shipped to dilapidated facilities in Southeast Alaska where conditions were, in the words of the authors, "not so much substandard as non-existent." Internees died from inadequate shelter, food and medical care.

When the government finally let them return, in 1945, they found old homes and churches gone or vandalized. Larger communities, such as Atka, Akutan or the Pribilofs, rebuilt. A few former residents tried to go back to their lives in Biorka, Makushin and Kashega. But there were not enough of them.

Too many people had died, or moved to larger towns, or chosen to stay in Southeast. Young people, especially, were looking for opportunities they knew they would not find in their birthplace. "The call of home was strong," say the authors, "but the need for economic survival was stronger." The handful of older people who tried to stick it out eventually had to move themselves or passed away, taking their memories with them.

"By 1960, the lost villages were lost forever," the book concludes.

Hudson and Mason raise the question of whether the villages might still be here had they survived to the 1970s, when Native land claims settlements and war reparations provided the basis for today's regional and village corporations. It can be answered only hypothetically, but they assert that the lack of good water and port sites would probably have doomed them in the modern world.

The book ends on a particularly poignant note, describing pilgrimages to the sites made by descendants. In Biorka they poked through the remains of collapsed buildings for pieces of plates and other evidence that their family had once lived on this spot. They compared recollections and tried to see the town now covered over by grass. They erected a cross in the lonely, windy landscape to stand in memory of the people who, for 1,000 years or more, made this piece of ground a living community.

"Nunamta Ellamta-llu Auyqucia: What Our Land and World Are Like, Lower Yukon History and Oral Traditions" is available at Calista Corp. offices in Anchorage, the Anchorage Museum Gift Shop and the Alaska Native Language Center website, www.uaf.edu/anlc.

"Lost Villages of the Eastern Aleutians" is available through the National Park Service, where it is available for digital download at www.nps.gov/aleu/historyculture/lost-villages.htm. Contact rachel_mason@nps.gov.

For more newsletters click here

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments