The Upper Kuskokwim River Region, Alaska
The Upper Kuskokwim Athabascan language (Dinak’i) is spoken in the villages of Telida, Nikolai, Takotna, and McGrath, which are located in the Upper Kuskokwim River drainage of Interior Alaska. This website was developed to serve the Upper Kuskokwim River region with all the bilingual and curricular materials that we have recreated from earlier versions, or have been created as a result of this Dinak’i Language Preservation and Revitalization Project.
The website was created under a grant from the Administration of Native Americans (ANA) and we thank them for helping us get this project off the ground. Many source materials have been provided by the Alaska Native Language Archive.
Our language was originally written down through the work of linguist Raymond Collins, who began linguistic work at Nikolai in 1964. Collins established the practical orthography which is still in use today. After that, he worked with Betty Petruska (Nikolai area speaker) to produce many small booklets and a school dictionary for use in the bilingual program. He continues to update and expand the dictionary, as well as encourage all efforts at language preservation and revitalization.
We have four fluent speakers on our website. There are at least two dialects being spoken in the various recordings. For simplicity sake, we will categorize them into two categories. The first dialect is spoken by people from the Telida area (see descriptions below). There is one male speaker and a female speaker from this village. The other two speakers are women from the Nikolai area, further downriver.
The descriptions below begin with the village at the “top” or headwaters of the Kuskokwim River and work their way downriver.
Telida is an Upper Kuskokwim Athabascan village. Telida is located on the south side of the Swift Fork (McKinley Fork) of the Kuskokwim River, about 50 miles northeast of Medfra. 100% of the population is Alaskan Native. Telida is heavily dependent on subsistence activities. Employment is primarily in seasonal summer jobs. Trapping, handicrafts, and gardening also sustain residents.
Foundation of Telida Village2
The story of the founding of Telida is a remarkable tale of hardship, courage and resourcefulness. Two families from the upper Kuskokwim were living in the foothills near Denaze (Mt. McKinley). While the men were out hunting they were killed by some other men who were never identified. Somehow the women became aware of what was happening and managed to avoid the raiders. They must have fled their camp with very little as they seem only to have had a knife and no other weapons or tools.
The women were fortunate in that spring was near. At that time of year ground squirrels start coming out of their burrows. But how could they catch them? They found some eagle feathers under a nest. By stripping the feathers they made snares out of the spines. They were able to catch enough squirrels to feed themselves through the summer. One of the strengths of Athabaskan life has been to travel light and to have the knowledge of how to make what is needed with just a few simple tools, as illustrated in this story.
The women could not have survived the winter in the foothills, however, as the squirrels go into hibernation, and they had no means of catching large game such as sheep and caribou. So they started down the Kuskokwim valley by way of the Todzolno’ (Swift Fork on the maps but locally called the McKinley Fork of the Kuskokwim). The only food they found on the way was berries. Finally they came to a creek flowing out of a large lake where they found whitefish. Somehow they made a fish weir and began catching the fish that were migrating out of the lake. They caught a lot of whitefish, and at last had plenty of food and could even put enough away to see them through the winter. The fish run at this lake occurs just prior to freeze-up and the fish can be dried or stored in underground pits and allowed to freeze. These are the large lake whitefish locally called tilaya and the place became known as tilayadi’ or “whitefish place.”
Next the women used something to make a winter house. This was the old style semi-subterranean house called, appropriately, nin’yekayih (in-the-ground house). The ground was excavated to a depth of three or four feet and a pole frame constructed. The frame was covered with a layer of birch bark, or perhaps grass, and then covered over with dirt and sod. There was a smoke hole in the middle of the roof. This is the same type of house that is described in all the old stories where smoke was seen coming out of the ground and people could walk up on the house and look down through the smoke hole. Carl Seseui described such a house as “all the same, beaver house”.
By the time the house was completed it was winter. During all that time the women had not seen any other people, but one day during the winter, someone came to the door and asked, “Who are you people?” The person who came to the door was their only brother who lived somewhere down the Kuskokwim River. He had been looking all over for them and had finally located them on the McKinley Fork.
From that time on people continued to live at Telida, catch whitefish, and to travel out to the mountains by way of the McKinley Fork. This is the way the story had been told from long ago (Seseui and Deaphon, personal communication).
Other versions of the ending of this story have made their way into print. Edward Hosley was led to believe that the women were found by stragglers from the war party who then settled down with them at Telida. However, the current elders in Nikolai and Telida believe they were found by relatives who went looking for them when they did not come back from the mountains. This is the most logical version. Warriors often took women in raids and married them. However, they usually took them home. To settle down near where their husbands were killed would be to invite revenge by the men’s relatives once the story was out. In any case, relatives of these two women still live in the upper Kuskokwim but the event was so long ago that knowledge of the direct kinship links has been lost.
When the Anthropologist Charlene Craft and party visited Telida in the summer of 1949, Carl Seseui showed them two underground house depressions. He said one of them was the house of the two women. There have been three Telida winter village sites, the first being the one visited by the Herron party in 1899 when he was rescued by Chief Shesoie, Carl Seseui’s father. In 1900, the village site was moved ½ mile upstream due to erosion of the Swift Fork (locally called McKinley Fork). In 1935, Carl moved it downriver to higher ground (present site) where an airfield could be constructed (Seseui, personal communication). In addition to winter sites, numerous summer fishing sites have been utilized throughout the area.
Nikolai is an Upper Kuskokwim Athabascan village. Eighty-one percent of the population is Alaska Native or part Native. Nikolai’s tribal members are active in subsistence food-gathering. Employment opportunities are primarily seasonal jobs such as firefighting and the Iditarod Dog Sled Race that comes through the village.
Foundation of Nikolai Village4
The first known location of Nikolai (Nikolai #l) was at a site at the confluence of the Little Tonzona River and South Fork of the Kuskokwim. Its’ location was important as it was the site of one of the major king salmon runs in the Upper Kuskokwim. The Salmon River was the other important site. There was a summer trail between the two that continued on to the east Fork and Telida. From the Tonzona village it was an easy walk to the mountains. The site was noted by two early explorers, Spurr and Herron, on their maps as Nicoli’s Village. In the late 1800’s major changes began to take place. Prospectors entered the Kuskokwim area and trading became increasingly important. The people began living in tents made of canvas. With the aid of newly available metal axes and saws, cabins were being built for winter dwellings, replacing the semi-subterranean houses of former years. Stoves were needed for the cabins. People were hunting with rifles and using steel traps, instead of just the bow and arrow and dead-fall traps. These new goods became available closer to home, eliminating the need to travel hundreds of miles to trade at a post or wait for once-a-year visits from the Susitna traders or the Russians from the lower Yukon.
Old Nikolai – Holten’s Trading Post and Roadhouse
In 1910, Captain Holten ascended the Kuskokwim River in his steamer Maddie. At the mouth of the South Fork he was met by Chief Nikolai who had gone down the river in a canoe. Captain Holten depended on Nikolai to guide him as he did not know the channel in the shallow South Fork. Due to low water, he only made it upriver to the location that was to become old Nikolai. According to Collins (cited in Oswalt, 1980), inhabitants of “Nikolai #l” or “First Old Nikolai” were advised to move from the location further downstream where the stern-wheeler was wintering. This location was to become Nikolai #2 or “old Nikolai.” There he pulled his boat out on a sandbar and built a roadhouse/store where he could trade with the people of the Upper Kuskokwim. That same year a Russian Orthodox priest traveled up the river to Nikolai village, passing Holten along the way. He met with the people and helped them organize their first Council. Nikolai was appointed first chief and Devian was second. This early Council represented not just the Church, but governed the village as a whole. At the first council meeting, with the encouragement of the priest, they decided to move the village downriver to the location where the steamer had stopped at the head of navigation.
At this new village site the first church was built. Hudson Stuck, the Episcopal priest who visited the village in late February of 1911, wrote: …”We were four and a half hours making eight miles or so to Nicoli’s village and the road-house…”…”Nicoli’s Village is a very small place with a mere handful of people, situated on the South Fork of the Kuskokwim forty miles by river above the junction of the Forks. Before the epidemics devastated it, it had been a considerable native community. A Greek church, which the people built themselves, and which boasted a large painted icon of sorts, was the most important building in the place… Thus far the Kuskokwim is navigable for vessels of light draught, and a small stern-wheel steamboat lay wintering on the bank” (Stuck 1914:321,322). Stuck’s account verifies that the steamboat did winter over in 1910 -11, that Chief Nikolai had moved to the village, and that it was being referred to by his name. Stuck also indicated that the Church was already built and that it was the most impressive building in the community. He also reported that the village was located at the head of navigation. This is an important account because some upper Kuskokwim stories report that the event took place in 1892. It could not have been 1892 – Spurr’s expedition took place in 1898. He met Chief Nikolai in the village at the mouth of the Tonzona River and did not report any other villages between there and the mouth of the South Fork down which he paddled. In 1899 Herron reported there was a village at the mouth of the Tonzona. He did not go down the South Fork but was apparently not told about any other village when he visited Telida people who referred to the Tonzona village as Nikolai’s village. Edward Hosley reported that the move was in 1910 based on information he got from elders in 1961 and 1962. Captain Holten, the trader, signed into Happy River Roadhouse on January 11, 1911, on his way from Nicoli (his spelling in the ledger) to Seattle. He made a quick trip as he registered again on March 21 of 1911, on his way back to Nicoli from Seattle (Happy River Roadhouse Log 1910-1929). Each time he spent a couple of days at the roadhouse. He was not at Nikolai when Hudson Stuck arrived so he must have left someone else to run his store. On February 9, 1912, he again signed in at the Happy River Roadhouse, this time registering as from Nickolai and heading for Seattle. It is not clear when he returned from the 1912 trip, or if he returned, and no further information on his store and roadhouse has come to light. Note that in 1911 he used the same spelling as Hudson Stuck but by 1912 it had changed.
Second or “Old” Nikolai was established about midway between the original village and the present-day community. Excepting the confusion over the date, oral accounts of the arrival of the first steamboats that led to establishment of Nikolai #2 are quite detailed. Two sternwheelers, unable to reach the Little Tonzona site arrived late in the summer. While one wintered at the future village site, the second descended to the mouth of the North Fork, eventually ascending as far as the mouth of the Swift Fork where it too wintered. According to one older Nikolai resident, the second boat was a “liquor boat,” in apparent reference to its cargo, and the community forced it to leave. A single-room Russian Orthodox Church was constructed of logs at this new site at the direction of a priest who arrived that winter. While the second site afforded access by downriver steamboats, it was susceptible to annual flooding. As a result, the community moved to its present site in 1918 (Nikolai #3). The contemporary site was apparently selected by a Russian Orthodox priest who arrived shortly after a severe flood damaged most structures at the old site. The log church was disassembled and relocated to the present community where it stood until 1929 when a new structure was completed. The “new” church, completed late in 1929, is the oldest building in Nikolai. Itinerant Russian Orthodox priests serve the community’s single church, the St. Nicholas’ Orthodox Church.
During the 1910s and early 192Os, Nikolai received traffic along both the Rainy Pass and Nenana trails and, according to one older resident, a roadhouse was successfully operated by Athabaskan proprietors Theodore and Mary Pitka during that period. Nikolai also featured a trading post established by Dan Callighan and Charlie Holland around 1919. Holland departed soon afterwards to assume mail carrying responsibilities between Iditarod and Big River. Closed in the mid-1920s in response to changes in the overland trail network, Callighan re-established the post near the mouth of Big River.
The McGrath Native Village is located in the community of McGrath. The population of the community is about fifty-five percent Alaska Native or part Native. As a regional center, McGrath offers a variety of employment opportunities, but subsistence remains an important part of the local culture.
The original location of contemporary McGrath was a prehistoric meeting place and trading site used by Big River, Nikolai, Telida, met Tanana Indians from Lake Minchumina residents where they traded and entertained one another. The spot was called Tochak, meaning “Takotna mouth” in Upper Kuskokwim Athabascan.
The Old Town McGrath site was originally located across the river. In 1904, Abraham Appel established a trading post at the old site. In 1906, gold was discovered in the Innoko District, and 1907 at Ganes Creek. As river traffic increased up the Kuskokwim River in route to the Innoko mining district, “Appeltown” grew along both banks of the Takotna River. Around 1910 the growing settlement was renamed after U.S. Deputy Marshall Peter McGrath. From 1911 to 1920, hundreds of people walked and mushed over the trail on their way to the Ophir gold districts. Mining sharply declined after 1925. After a major flood in 1933, some residents decided to move to the south bank of the river. Changes in the course of the river eventually left the old site on a slough, useless as a river stop. McGrath was reestablished on its present site along the south bank of the Kuskokwim River shortly before World War II because of the recurrent flooding and river channel changes. In 1937, the Alaska Commercial Company opened a store at the current location. In 1940, an airstrip was cleared and the FAA built a communications complex. McGrath became an important refueling stop during World War II as part of the Lend-Lease Program between the U.S. and Russia. The last residents of “Old Town” moved across the river to the present-day community site in the late 1950s. Since McGrath is the northernmost point on the Kuskokwim River accessible by large riverboats, it became a regional supply center.
Takotna Village, a federally-recognized tribe, is located in the community. The population of the community consists of forty two percent Alaska Native or part Native. Takotna is a mixed population of non-Natives, Athabascan, and Eskimos. Subsistence is a prevalent activity.
Takotna is a small community situated along the north bank of the Takotna River approximately 15 air miles northwest of McGrath. Takotna is the oldest single-site community and has been known as Berry Landing, Portage City, Takotna City, Takotna Station, and Tocotna. In 1908, merchants in Bethel hired Arthur Berry to bring supplies up the Takotna River. The village was founded at the farthest point on the river Berry’s small sternwheeler was able to reach. By 1912, the community had several stores that supplied miners. Gold discoveries in the upper Innoko Region enabled the town to prosper. By 1919, there were several commercial companies, roadhouses, a post office, and about 50 houses. In 1921 the Alaska Road Commission improved the Takotna-Ophir road, and an airfield was constructed. In 1923 a radio station began broadcasting in Takotna, and the town had its own newspaper, The Kusko Times. Low waters at times prevented the arrival of steamboats, so the Takotna-Sterling Landing road was constructed to the Kuskokwim River in 1930. During the 1930s, however, McGrath became the more dominant supply center, and the Alaska Commercial Company store closed. In 1949, construction was begun on nearby Tatalina Air Force Station. It was the site of a White Alice communications system, whose operations were phased out during the 1980s.
2 Ray Collins. (Revised 2004) Dichinanek’hwt’ana, A History of the People of the Upper Kuskokwim Who Live in Nikolai and Telida, Alaska National History and Culture U.S. Department of the Interior Website.
3 State of Alaska, Community Description of Nikolai.
4 Ray Collins. (Revised 2004) Dichinanek’hwt’ana, A History of the People of the Upper Kuskokwim Who Live in Nikolai and Telida, Alaska National History and Culture U.S. Department of the Interior Website.
5 State of Alaska Website, Community Description of McGrath.
6 Ray Collins. (Revised 2004) Dichinanek’hwt’ana, A History of the People of the Upper Kuskokwim Who Live in Nikolai and Telida, Alaska National History and Culture U.S. Department of the Interior Website. Also Jeff Stokes, Natural Resource Utilization of Four Upper Kuskokwim Communities, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Subsistence, Technical Paper No. 86. Juneau, Alaska 1984
7 State of Alaska Website, Community Description of Takotna.