How two cultures intermingled in a small Alaskan town.
On the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska, in the village of Eklutna, we found a vivid reminder of a clash of two cultures nearly 250 years ago.
In a spruce forest at the foot of the Chugach mountains, a cemetery is filled with graves marked by dozens of tiny spirit houses painted in bright colors that have been pummeled relentlessly by winter snows and summer rains.
Close beside it an onion-domed Russian Orthodox chapel that is filled with elaborate gold icons and intricately-painted images of Orthodox saints.
Looking around, we found that Alaskan Natives had built the ornate church as well as the spirit houses. The spirit houses are an expression of their native culture, while the three-pronged Russian Orthodox crosses reflect the new faith they have adopted.
This is the cemetery of the Dena’ina, Alaska natives who are descendants of the Athabaskan people who crossed the Bering Strait from Asia more than 12,000 years ago. Their traditional religious beliefs held that the world was filled with spirits, both human and animal, who could be called on by shamans to heal the sick or ensure success on a hunting expedition.
Dena’ina Chief Stephan of Knik is shown wearing a ground squirrel parka, headdress, and dentalium shell (k’enq’ena) bandolier in this late nineteenth-century photograph. The dentalium shells and headdress are symbols of Chief Stephan’s status as a qeshqa, a leader. Photo: Louis Weeks Collection, Anchorage Museum.
After contact with Russian traders, Orthodox priests sought to eradicate the Dena’ina shamans and by the late 19th-century many of the Dena’ina had shifted their faith to the Orthodox Church. The transition emerged after decades of abuse by the traders who quickly established their dominance over the native people.
Beginning around 1784, Russian traders moved from the Aleutians and Kodiak Island to the Kenai peninsula and mainland where they implemented the practice of capturing local natives and holding them as hostages until their kinsmen returned with piles of furs to sell to the Russians. Female natives were forcibly raped and a Russian Orthodox missionary reported that traders “treat the natives in the most barbaric manner…they take the wives and young daughters as sexual partners. They kill any who refuse to hunt sea otters.”
Perched at the edge of a vast, cold wilderness, and fearful of retaliatory attacks, the Russian traders built fortified settlements and later brought the Dena’ina inside their walls where they introduced them to the Russian language and religion while training them to become servants. Smallpox and flu epidemics shrunk the Dena’ina population as well.
By the mid-20th century, the Dena’ina culture was fading. The elders still spoke their language but the young people grew up speaking English and lived among the burgeoning population of immigrants who settled in Anchorage and the Cook Inlet.
In more recent years, a cultural revival has focused on reviving the Dena’ina language and culture. Working with the Smithsonian Institute, native Alaskan people have recorded their stories and traditions. They have also created the Eklutna Historical Park.
In the overgrown Dena’ina cemetery in Eklutna, one can almost feel the life of those buried here. Each spirit house tells a story, with the names of the dead painted on wooden panels and plastic flowers or hand-painted tributes written on stones.
William Bryan Walters Sr. died at age 38 but the red-checked curtains in his spirit house and the row of red stars across the roof bring a part of him to life.
Before contact with the Russians, the Dena’ina people cremated their dead and buried their ashes. After becoming Orthodox, the bodies were interred in the ground. The spirit houses at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna provide a resting place for the spirit on its journey from the grave. Friends and neighbors left personal belongings for the departing soul.
After Walter’s burial in the plot beneath the spirit house, the elders held a potlatch in the nearby community center to celebrate his life.
Traditional Dena’ina potlatch ceremonies featured a song composed for the deceased that immortalize their talents and works. Family members give gifts to those who attend a potlatch, a way of repaying any debts to the community.
The impermanence of life is overwhelming at the cemetery in Eklutna. The Dena’ina people believe that the spirit resides in the little houses for 40 days before moving on. Once the spirit leaves, they see little reason to maintain the now empty tiny residences, letting the grass grow up around it and the paint to peel.
It took 23 years but I finally made it back to McCarthy, Alaska, a town deep in the Wrangell Mountains. When I was first there, the place was a virtual ghost town, no sign of the thousands of miners who came seeking fortune in the Kennicott copper mine. From 1900 to 1938, an astounding supply of high-grade copper ore kept the mines working full steam. When the ore was gone, the owners abandoned the mine, the mill, the bunkhouses and kitchen. Hardly anything had been touched since 1938.
In 1995 I flew into McCarthy with my husband and toddler son. The small plane carried us above expansive ice fields and glaciers in the Wrangell Elias National Park about 250 miles from Anchorage. Two glaciers still flow within walking distance of Kennecott and a fine day hike will bring you close enough to touch the icy surfaces. This video of an ice chunk moving down the Kennecott River past our campsite will give you an idea of just how cold it is there in July.
The Richest Copper Mine in the World
On our first visit, we walked Inside the Kennecott mine buildings and could see abandoned furniture, medical supplies and other detritus left behind when the mill closed. Our guide, Chris Richardson, described how men slept in the bunkhouse beds in shifts, one man taking over when the other went to the mine. He told us how laborers endured temperatures of fifty below zero to build a railroad over a grueling mountain terrain to transport the copper to market.
A Deadly Day in McCarthy History
Most of all, Richardson talked about the winter day in 1983 when a local resident massacred six of the 22 people in McCarthy, part of his futile plan to stop the Alaska oil pipeline. Richardson was shot in the head by the assailant and lived. Richardson relived the details of the attack daily, haunted by his survival while good people died.
As we walked the mine’s crumbling ruins, you could sense the ghosts of copper miners and laborers. But when I looked into Chris Richardson sharp dark eyes I could feel the trauma he experienced in this isolated mountain town. I knew I wouldn't see him on this second trip to McCarthy as he died in a house fire more than a decade ago.
Restoration of Mine Buildings by the National Parks
Today, most visitors to McCarthy and the Kennecott Mine appear to be unaware of the massacre. They come instead to see the glaciers and the mine facilities that have been restored by the National Park Service.
Where Chris Richardson once led a handful of visitors around the ruins, park rangers roam. Kiosks describe the mine and the living conditions and tourists pose in front of newly painted structures in Kennecott. This June, the park service opened an interactive exhibit bringing to life the workers and the families who lived in Kennecott during the mining operation years from 1911 – 1938.
The McCarthy Road
We took it slow when we drove into McCarthy. The 60-mile dirt road is notorious and we didn’t want to bust another tire on Alaska roads. The road runs along the bed of the old railroad and old wooden ties and spikes still surface. We picked up a CD disc available at the National Park Service visitor’s center and enjoyed its account of the monumental challenges and heroic efforts that went into building the railroad.
Once it snows, the road is not plowed and stays largely shut down through the winter. We arrived in early July and the sun was out all day. We parked on the banks of the Kennecott river and took the footbridge to cross into McCarthy town.
History, Hiking and Honky Tonk
The local museum focuses on daily life in this isolated community that sprang up to offer liquor, women and other amenities to the men in the mine. The mine administrators brought their families and a small professional class tried to lead ‘decent’ lives amid the ribaldry. Today, behind the Old West-style façade of a few buildings, you can find hand-made jewelry and crafts, burgers, salads and beer. While we were there a country band from Tennessee got people dancing at the local saloon.
You can walk or talk a local shuttle five miles up the mountain to the Kennecott Mines and from there hike to the Root Glacier (3 miles). Or, weather permitting, hike up 3800 feet to the Bonanza and Jumbo Mines.
Just outside McCarthy we hiked to a moraine field with mounds of glacier ice covered in gravel. Ice cool pools of water with chunks of ice floating in it dot the landscape.
We spent four days in McCarthy before heading back out the road, which we traversed without
Valdez: Vistas to Die For
At the main road we took a left and swung down to Valdez, a port on the Prince William Sound. The ride down was astonishingly beautiful: massive glaciers and ice fields on one side giving way to towering waterfalls on the river side.
A fishing town and the terminal of the Alaska oil pipeline, Valdez is a thriving community that is tied to the sea.
We only stayed a few hours then retraced our steps. The clouds had disappeared and the sun was shining, exposing the majestic snow covered Wrangell Mountains, including Mount Blackburn, the 5th tallest peak in North America.
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.