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.
Kalifornsky Beach Road, which now runs just east of the village site, didn’t exist then. The villagers walked or kayaked the 10 or so miles to Kenai, and many, many more to visit other villages farther away, even across Cook Inlet.
The area was ravaged by the influenza epidemic of 1918. In the 1920s the survivors dismantled and barged out their homes and the chapel, moving to Kenai or across the inlet to Tyonek. The village was eventually abandoned, the crumbling bluff sloughed away much of where the newer village sat, and the 27 acres of the remaining site was eventually “sold” for $1 by the Kenai Peninsula Borough to the Kenaitzie Indian Tribe.
“It was a worldwide Spanish flu. More people died in that influenza epidemic than died in World War I, and a lot of people died in WWI so it was a horrific event, and it hit indigenous people in Alaska very hard. About half the Dena’ina died in two or three years,” Boraas said.
Kalifornsky Village was never a large place, but plays a large role in the Dena’ina heritage of the area today, not the least because it was the birthplace and childhood home of Peter Kalifornsky, Qadanachen’s great, great, great-grandson, who, in the 1980s, was vital in saving the Kenai Dena’ina dialect from extinction.
The memories passed down from the village, many preserved by Peter Kalifornsky in his book of Dena’ina stories, “A Dena’ina Legacy — K’tl’egh’i Sukdu,” demonstrate that it was a spiritual place.
One story tells of the village being the site of a shaman war, a continuation of a conflict that had begun on the west side of Cook Inlet.
“A shaman war represents tension between the people, and it would be couched in spirituality,” Boraas said. “It wouldn’t necessarily be couched in political terms but in spiritual terms, as in, who’s right from the heart, who’s right from the soul?”
As the story goes, shamans possessed a bear and sent it to rampage a village on the west side of Cook Inlet in revenge of travelers stealing a vital food cache. Following 30 years of war, shamans from across the inlet caused their spirit to invade a moose and sent it to harass Kalifornsky Village. It was a frightening thing, even moreso in that it couldn’t be killed by regular weapons.
“Maybe some of you have run into an angry moose, and that, I guarantee you, is just as ominous (as an angry bear),” Boraas said. “I’m not sure which one I’d want to encounter if I had to encounter one or the other. Neither, of course.”
A powerful village man took three .45-70 cartridges to the chapel, carved an orthodox cross in each one and baptized them. Only then could the moose be brought down.
“The first bullet stopped it, the second bullet dropped it,” Boraas said.
“They cut off its head, and the moose was watching the man who had shot it with its severed head. So they shot it with the third bullet and that killed it, and they buried it behind the village,” he said.
Boraas has a few stories of his own from his time at the village site, visiting with Peter, doing archeological excavations of the house pits and giving tours to his 20 years of Cook Inlet anthropology class students. A bear paw randomly showed up next to the trail, where the moose/shaman was supposed to have been buried, and disappeared a day later. He’s also seen a young Native woman feel as though she encountered a presence at the village, which she felt so strongly that it led her to seek much-needed treatment for a life-threatening eating disorder.
“The events become mystical. To traditional Dena’ina, they would be literal. To anthropologists like me, we look for the symbolism in it, and look for the meaning that way,” he said.
Since 1993, when Peter Kalifornsky died, the site has taken on a different meaning for Boraas — the eternal home of his good friend. During the tour he bent down briefly to Peter’s grave, murmuring something and rubbing soil between his fingers, reminiscent of what Qadanachen had done while he was in California.
“When times got hard he would hold that soil, so I think it’s important to have some symbolic contact with the place,” Boraas said. “I said, ‘Hello Peter, my friend.’ Almost every day I think of a question I wish I could ask him.
“Peter was a keen intellect. He was a brilliant person, brilliant mind, and he just gravitated to writing and writing the old stories. … Why work so hard, so diligently to get it right in a book that, well, you can only read half of it (half is written English and half is in Dena’ina)? And I believe it’s because, embedded in these stories is a lot of wisdom of the place, and by reading them in the original there will be a greater understanding of what this place is and what some of those traditional values are. And history. With it written down we now have the potential to teach people to read and write and hopefully, eventually, that will lead to revitalizing the language as a spoken language for those who care to,” he said.
The open-to-the-public tour drew a mix of participants, many associated with the college or tribe. Stephanie Carroll and Terri Cowart live just down the bluff from the village site.
“I wanted to learn about it. It’s in my backyard — or front yard, I’m not sure,” Carroll said. “I’ve always known this was here, but I knew that it was a cemetery and I just felt it had some sacredness to it and I didn’t know if it would be appropriate for me to come walking up the bluff and, you know, flopping around.”
Cowart said she was aware of the village but didn’t know much about it and was happy for the chance to hear the history and stories.
“It was very interesting because (Boraas) gets into so many details you wouldn’t know unless you really did the research,” she said. What was especially interesting? “I think the specialness of the cemetery, what he said about Peter. Especially about his friend. The spirituality of this place. He brings it alive.”
So, Boraas would point out, do visitors — people learning about the history help preserve it. Given the impact of the influenza epidemic, the acculturation of Western influence from early Russian explorers all the way through homesteaders, and the near extinction of the dialect, it’s even more important that the history be purposefully preserved.
“Part of the story of homesteading was to write out of the story the indigenous people of the place. It isn’t necessarily an insidious thing, but part of that whole euphoria of coming and being ‘the first.’ First to put in a road? Name it after yourself, of course. Name the lake after yourself, of course. And so it goes. So in that whole sort of morality, indigenous rights and indigenous people get in the way of that, so nobody either cared or asked,” Boraas said.
“For me to come back is a very positive experience. Sometimes I come by myself just to walk around or sit by the bluff. It’s a place to reflect and think and just get my mind clear. For me to take and share with others the types of things that happened here is fulfilling. It’s good,” he said.
And, to the tour, “I’m glad you came.”
They ended next to the cemetery by the bluff, in distance not far from where they’d parked, but in experience, now a century away.
“So, which way should we go out?” a tour participant asked.
“Follow your ears to the sound of the traffic,” Boraas said.