The Alaganik River hummed along as long-time resident and local historian Mark King offered tales of the community’s cultural past.
Gaps in the soggy branches and leaves offered a view of rafters passing by, the current moving them quietly past the Alaganik pavilion, at mile 22 of the Copper River Highway. Trucks with boat trailers lined the far parking area near the boat launch while the occasional vehicle zoomed by on the highway and the morning Alaska Airlines jet roared overhead, causing storytellers to pause.
Alaganik was once a village site for the Eyak people, prior to their relocation to Odiak Slough and eventually the Eyak Lake area. Alaganik was comprised of the Alaganik Trading Post, and longhouses, where community members resided, near 21.4 mile of the highway. King also spoke of Shaman’s Cave, where the medicine man or important person in the tribe resided, located across the highway on the cliffside.
“It’s a sacred site,” King, 63, said of Alaganik. “It’s changed a lot just in my lifetime. Delta raised up and was a mud flat when I was a youngster and now it’s got trees that are 40 feet tall on it. It’s still changing, but I guess that’s the way deltas are.”
On Aug. 9, members of the community gathered to celebrate International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
Cordova’s U.S. Forest Service Developed Recreation Program Coordinator Erin Cole helped promote the event, while Cordova resident Anita Smyke suggested that King speak, inviting him to share his knowledge and experience of the area.
“We are interested in history and celebrating the local Alaska history here and Alaska Native culture,” Cole said.
Brooke Johnson, cultural director of the Ilanka Cultural Center, spoke on the medicinal uses of Devil’s Club while Pam Smith, a Native Village of Eyak tribal council member, offered stories and remembrances of those who have passed, reciting each name as people gathered in a circle.
King spoke of the history of the area, a topic he has presented before. He recalled seeing the change in landscape after the 1964 earthquake, collecting Copper River and Northwestern Railroad spikes, and shared stories of his time during spring break as a teenager, snow machining to trap muskrat and beaver, when road maintenance stopped at mile 14.
“I was born on Third Street and spent the rest of my life on Fourth Street,” King said with a laugh.
King’s eyes widened as he shared stories with the engaged audience, but they also fell heavily when he spoke of misunderstanding and lack of recognition of the Eyak people, both in history and in modern day.
“There’s quite a history of that area that a lot of people don’t realize,” he said. “Growing up in this community here in Cordova, sometimes I feel like the Native people don’t exist …”
King hopes that people will show respect for the land and resources and acknowledge the historic and cultural significance of Alaganik.
The Ilanka Cultural Center is available for people to learn more about the tribe make-up, traditional land boundaries, the significance and history of the loss of the Eyak language and culture in the 20th century, and cultural arts. A reference library is also housed within the center.
Books are available at the city library, including “In Honor of Eyak: The Art of Anna Nelson Harry” by Michael Krauss, who had transcribed traditional tales in Eyak from recordings by Anna Nelson Harry, one of the last fluent Native speakers.
The public is also encouraged to join the Ilanka Cultural Center, whose activities include cultural classes on drum making, beading, fur sewing and more.
Upcoming events include the Mt. Eccles Culture Week, the first week of October, and the Ilanka Cultural Center Membership Dinner, featuring skits from the Eyak and Chugach Legends books, in January.
The cultural center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, closed Saturday and Sunday. For more information or questions, contact Brooke Johnson at 907-424-7903.