By Jenny Neyman
These days, there isn’t much to see of Kalifornsky Village. An unmarked footpath leads away from Kalifornsky Beach Road into the woods, single-file and nondescript. You wouldn’t know it was there unless you knew it was there.
Dead trees and undergrowth have been cleared recently along the muddy path winding toward the bluff overlooking Cook Inlet, affording a clearer view of more branches and tree trunks, sprouting among indentations in the undulating ground.
The structures have long since been dismantled or disintegrated, and the Dena’ina Natives who once lived here were the original “leave no trace” campers, considering it bad form to leave much of anything behind.
Farther along, near the slowly, steadily eroding bluff, there’s two obvious indications of human habitation, or, at least, expiration — a hand-hewn, falling-down fence ringing a cemetery that contains 16 graves, with another just outside, the paint flaking off the whitewashed Russian Orthodox crosses with their telltale slanted bars. Just beyond it, closer to the bluff, is another fence, surrounding the site of an old Russian Orthodox chapel.
But who had lived here? Who had died here? Who is buried here? There is no explanation as far as the untrained eye can see. But on April 15, there was plenty of history for the ears to hear and the mind to ponder. A group of about 15 joined Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor Alan Boraas on a tour of Kalifornsky Village, to get a sense, through senses beyond just sight, of what is so special about the place.
“How many times have people driven by here — going to wherever they’re going, doing whatever — tucked away in this woods, this remarkable place, this powerful place. That we hope will continue to be a powerful place,” Boraas said. “I’m not saying it will be spiritual to everyone, but it’s a place where we can tell the story of the Kenai Peninsula in many different ways, in dimensions that are far beyond the, ‘Gosh, that’s interesting. Hey, that’s interesting,’ but really get to the core of the relation between people and place. That’s what’s important.”
Kalifornsky Village, or Unhghenesditnu, meaning “farthest creek over” in Dena’ina, was founded by Qadanachen Kalifornsky in about 1820 on the Cook Inlet bluff four miles north of the Kasilof River mouth. Qadanachen had just returned from working at Fort Ross, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, built by the Russian American Company to grow grain to feed Russian colonies. The grain was a bust, rotted by the damp climate.
Qadanachen’s heart was likewise deteriorating, from sadness at being away from home. He had brought a bag of soil from his home village of Ski’tuk at the mouth of the Kenai River, which gave him some comfort of connection. He wrote a song about his homesickness.
“‘Another dark night has come over me, we may never return to our home, but do your best in life, that is what I do.’ When your break down the third line, ‘do your best in life,’ it could easily be translated as, ‘live to enhance your soul.’ ‘Another dark night’ — we all have them, and will have them. Do what you can to live to enhance your soul,” Boraas said.
When Qadanachen returned home, he found disputes in the Kenai village and decided to establish a new village with his clanspeople, choosing an old village site dating back to prehistoric times. Dena’ina thrived here long before European explorers came to Alaska, living in multifamily log houses, called nichił, which were partially dug into the ground, with a hearth in a large room for sleeping, warming and cooking, and smaller rooms along the sides. Scattered around in the woods were food cache pits, in which Dena’ina would preserve the summer catch of salmon to sustain them through the winter.
In the second occupation of Kalifornsky Village, they built new houses and planted gardens. And there was a log Russian Orthodox chapel, where a priest from Kenai would visit periodically to tend to the spiritual needs of the villagers. Dena’ina spirituality and the imported Russian Orthodox religion were an amicable fit.
“Spirits and angels, powers of place, powers of ritual — all of these things would have been common, and just as many Dena’ina and Yup’ik today do not see serious conflict between the orthodoxy that they practice and the traditional ways,” Boraas said.