Eyak and Alutiiq (Chugach Eskimo): Indigenous Peoples of the Copper River Delta and Prince William Sound
The Copper River Delta and Prince William Sound are breathtakingly beautiful. The region is a northern rainforest of wetlands, glaciers, alpine peaks, remote beaches and grassy meadows where delicate wildflowers and berries grow. This part of Alaska requires a hearty survival spirit and has produced a rich Native heritage that extends from the first settlers who arrived ten thousand years ago to the vibrant life of our present-day villages and towns. Eyak and Alutiiq (or Chugach Eskimo) are the region’s primary tribes, but Tlingit and Athabascan residents are also part of this diverse community.
The territory of the Eyak people has changed through history, extending at various times as far to the north as Port Gravina in Prince William Sound and as far to the south as Yakutat Bay and the Italio River on the coast of Southeast Alaska. People traveled extensively, and Elder Mae Lange, born and raised in Katalla near the mouth of the Copper River, recalls her mother’s tale of paddling in a large, open skin boat from Katalla to Middleton Island. The purpose of the trip to this remote island, far out in the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska, was to hunt seals.
Research in 1933 by Dr. Kaj Birket-Smith of the Danish National Museum and Dr. Frederica De Laguna of the University of Pennsylvania Museum showed that the Eyak are distinct in language and culture from neighboring peoples, including the Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound, the Tlingit of Southeast Alaska, and Athabascan tribes of the Copper River Valley. Their clan system, divided into the Eagle and Raven moieties, parallels that of the Tlingit. Eyak acted as middlemen in the Copper River trade between coastal residents and interior Athabascan populations.
The wider territory of the Alutiiq, or Chugach Eskimo people—historically also called Aleut and Sugpiaq—includes the Alaska Peninsula, parts of the Kenai Peninsula, and Kodiak Island (see “Sugpiaq” essay by Sven Haakanson, Jr.). Today there are two Alutiiq villages in Prince William Sound, Chenega and Tatitlek.
Joe Cook gives away salmon from his boat, Cordova, 1999.
Photo © Roy Corral.
The Prince William Sound—Copper River area’s natural riches of sea otters and other fur-bearing animals, copper ore, salmon, and seafood brought exploration and exploitation that greatly impacted the Native population. The earliest expeditions to the region were Russian, Spanish, and English. The Russian post at Nuuciq (Nuchek, established in 1793) brought fur traders who enslaved many Natives as hunters and guides. The American purchase of Alaska in 1867 was followed by immigrants of Asian, European, and Scandinavian descent who mixed with the Native population, contributing to the blend of family names, ancestry, and culture that exists in the region today.
The Eyak were hit especially hard by events of the early 20th century. They were displaced from their lands and nearly destroyed by the discovery of oil at Katalla, the settlement of Cordova in 1909, and the building of the Copper River & Northwestern Railroad between Cordova and the Kennecott copper mines (completed in 1911). The Eyak population, estimated at 300-400 in the late 19th century, dwindled to fewer than 40 by the 1930s.
The heart and soul of many Native people in Cordova suffered greatly as their language, culture and persons became devalued. In both Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools and public schools the students were punished for speaking their Native tongues. Fluent Eyak and Alutiiq speakers diminished. A main street business posted the sign “No natives or dogs allowed.” Natives were not allowed on the main floor of a theatre and were denied membership in local fraternal organizations.
The Eyak language declined until today these is only one fluent speaker, Marie Smith. However, it is now being revived through the work of Dr. Michael Krauss of the Alaska Native Language Center and the efforts of the Eyak people.
The distances spanned by the Alutiiq region produced several dialects from the same language base. The Prince William Sound Alutiiq dialect now has approximately 30 speakers with varying degrees of fluency. There are plans are to further document, teach and use the language, which can regularly be heard in the Russian Orthodox Christmas “starring” songs and in the singing of dance groups from the Native Village of Eyak, Tatitlek, and Seward.
Although the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 redrew and confused some traditional boundaries, a Native renaissance began and continues to rebuild and celebrate the indigenous spirit. Today, traditional knowledge, languages, and displays of tribal artifacts and art help to build that spirit. Access to cultural resources by rural residents has played a key role in this cultural resurrection.
The Tatitlek school hosts an annual Cultural Heritage Week with feasts of Native foods and the teaching of traditional skills, songs, and dances. The Chugach Alaska Corporation holds an annual Spirit Camp at the village site of Nuuciq, on Hinchinbrook Island, where Elders and youth from the region can interact to share, learn, and perpetuate our culture. In Cordova, the Native Village of Eyak opened the Ilanka Cultural Center, Museum and Gift Gallery as a repository, classroom and showcase of tribal treasures. Its museum exhibits are windows into our past, showing actual pieces of our history. The tribal library and artists’ workspace support heritage education, and a gift gallery provides a venue for artists to learn the value of their work through sales. The cultural center has a Subsistence totem and a complete killer whale skeleton. Educational tours and materials are provided to the public school and other groups. The Native Village of Eyak hosts a Sobriety Celebration to bring back Native pride through the promotion of healthy living. Seward’s Chugach Heritage Museum of History and Art opened in 2004, and its Quteck tribal youth perform traditional dance and song.
In all of this—Elders sharing stories and skills, the sight and sounds of language classes, the openings of buildings dedicated to our heritage, the revival of artistic traditions, the assuring presence of our foods, regalia, songs and dances—we see how alive our cultures are today. These efforts have brought healing and revival. Most importantly, our people are proud to be Native.
is Director of the Ilanka Cultural Center in the Native Village of Eyak. Her heritage is Chugach Alutiiq.