Linguist James Kari, who worked with Dena’ina speaker Peter Kalifornsky on preserving the vanishing Dena’ina language in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, speaks at a Kenai Peninsula History Conference panel on Saturday, April 22, 2017 at Kenai Peninsula College near Soldotna, Alaska. Kari presented his work at both last week’s history conference and the one that preceded it in 1974. (Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Peninsula Historical Conference sheds light on Russian, Native history

Like the history it examined, the weekend’s history conference at Kenai Peninsula College was many things to many people. For Michael Skinner, who gives summer tours of Old Town Kenai as the Kenai Historical Society’s sole employee, the gathering was “a Woodstock of local history.”

“There’s all these people that I’ve read and seen videos of, and they’re all here speaking in the same place,” Skinner said.

Attendees at the conference ranged from academic historians to amateur history buffs, with several, like Skinner, falling somewhere in between. The focus was on the 1867 U.S purchase of Alaska from Russia — 150 years ago this year.

“It was a diverse audience — a lot of people were local, and this material was very new to them,” said conference organizer Shana Loshbaugh. “But we also had a lot of specialists in the audience who were perhaps linguists very interested in what was going on with the Dena’ina language programs, and archeologists, and some professional historians interesting in hearing about the new frontiers of what’s going on.”

About 120 people attended, the result of an inherently interesting subject and a low admission price of $50, enabled by a state grant, organizer Shana Loshbaugh said.

“We stopped advertising fairly early on when we got this great surge of interest,” Loshbaugh said. “Some of the people who came, I have no idea who they were and how they even found out about it. There were people coming out of the woodwork to attend this… The Kenai Peninsula really is a very fascinating area, and anyone who’s spent any length of time there gets curious about it and realizes there’s a lot to it.”

Growing up on the Central Peninsula, Skinner recalls being surrounded by a local history that seemed both omnipresent and vague.

“I remember asking why it’s called Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School when I was a kid, and I couldn’t find an answer,” Skinner said. “But I’ve always had an interest in history. I was in the military, and after I came back in 2009, I started to want to know: why is there this Easter egg-colored church? And hearing about this battle, about the Homesteading Act, which I was not too familiar with, I just really wanted to know more and keep building.”

In 2012, Skinner’s personal interest in history led to the job he still holds with the Kenai Historical Society. The space that he spends all summer leading visitors through — Kenai’s blufftop — is a small piece of ground which many events have left dense with significance. In 1791, the Russian mercantile militiamen of the fur-trading Lebedev-Lastochkin Company erected the palisades of St. Nicolas Redoubt atop the Kenai River-mouth bluff that is now Old Town.

Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor Alan Boraas made a case for regarding the 1797 attack on the St. Nicholas Reboubt as a major turning point in Alaskan history. In that incident, Dena’ina angered by the economic exploitation and sexual slavery that Russians practiced upon Alaska Native women, killed the roughly 100 Russians living in the fort. In the aftermath of the battle, Russian official Alexander Baranof passed over Kenai when searching for a mainland capital. Boraas calculated that because of their dependence on imported food, Russian America never had more than about 800 people, and the choice of Sitka over the agriculturally-viable Kenai Peninsula contributed to the Russian American Company’s ultimate economic failure.

Russian-born historian Andrei Znamenski probed into the religious aspect of Russian-Dena’ina relations, arguing that the spread of Russian Orthodoxy among Alaska Natives owed less to the Orthodox Church’s missionaries — none of whom became fluent in Dena’ina, preaching instead through Dena’ina translators — than to self-conversion by Dena’ina reacting to the chaos of smallpox and the disrupting transformations of their traditional culture.

Loshbaugh said Znamenski’s subject may have been “unfamiliar material to a lot of people in the area, because there’s been a problem with Russian language materials.” Though Znamenski has published English translations of Russian Orthodox missionary journals, Loshbaugh said he estimated in a post-conference conversation that only 1 percent of the Russian-language documents related to Alaska have been translated to English. The documentation of Russian activity in Alaska remains scattered through Russian Orthodox Church archives in Kodiak, at various Orthodox churches around the state, and in Russian American Company records transferred in the sale to the United States and now warehoused in the Library of Congress.

For local scholars in the audience, one of the most exciting talks may have been from Library of Congress Historian and Content Manager Michael Nordlander, who works on the Library of Congress’ Meeting of Frontiers project, an effort to digitize and post online historical documents from both the Library of Congress and archives in Russia. Having primary sources on the internet “really helps scholars, especially if you live in a rural place out of the mainstream, such as Alaska,” Loshbaugh said.

Historical action, modern reaction

Lillian Elvsaas, a Homer resident who said she lived most of her life among the Alaska Native community in Seldovia, said the conference had “talked” to her and felt “very spiritual.” However, she had a wish for future history conferences.

“I would have loved to see more Native people express their experience from their ancestors, from their elders,” Elvsaas said. “Hopefully when you have this again, you’ll have a younger generation come up and know more about the transition.”

This is also the hope of Joel Isaak, a leader of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Language Revitalization program who spoke at the conference on the present state of the Dena’ina Language. Isaak is considering pursuing a PhD degree.

“We as Native people need to take the initiative to participate in the historical arena and the academic arena,” Isaak said. “… There’s some Russian history that we should delve into and actually write from our side, from an indigenous perspective.”

Isaak devoted part of his talk to countering what he called mistaken notions of pre-Russian Dena’ina civilization: that Dena’ina society lacked social cohesion and moral strength. He later commented on the danger of focusing too narrowly on the Russian minority in Alaska, while leaving the historical activity of Alaska’s much larger Native population as blank spaces in the story.

“Environments where you’re dealing with issues of colonization from a Western perspective are very hostile-feeling for indigenous people,” he said. “You’re dealing with a lot of identity issues, because some people have Russian and indigenous blood — so you’re reconciling the dichotomy between feelings. It’s going to be difficult for people to represent indigenous views, or even the reconciliation between the two cultures, when the topic is so personal and we haven’t processed it yet.”

Znamenski said he usually puts the word “Russians” in quotes when writing about Russian America, as “a reminder to myself about the fictitious nature of this expression, Russians.” Those referred to as Russians in contemporary documents and in most modern discussions, he said, actually had much more confusing mix of identities. Zmanenski estimated that there were only about 12 native Russian speakers in the Kenai settlment in the early 1800s.

“The rest of them were creoles — the offspring of mixed marriages in Kodiak and other Aleutian Islands, or Siberian natives,” Znamenski said. “So we always have to be careful when we say this word ‘Russians.’”

The melding of Russian, Native, and later American cultures into the stew of contemporary Alaska was a first-person experience for many conference attendees — one that occasionally made for uneasy experiences. Writer McKibben Jackinsky comes from a Russian family in Ninilchik and spoke in the conference’s concluding panel discussion.

“This conference… brings up something for me that I will probably be struggling with all my life,” Jackinsky said. “On my father’s side of the family, there’s Alutiiq. I hear about what happened to the lives of the people who lived here when the Russians came — the negative impacts. When I hear it, I get angry. I get defensive. I feel the hair on the back of my neck start to stand up. Then I hear about what happened when the U.S bought Alaska, and the next wave came. That makes me mad. Then I hear about the battles between the Russians and the Natives when the Natives won the battle, and then the Russian in me gets angry about that… And I hear us badmouth the Lower 48, how they come up here, but that’s my mother’s side. So there’s a reconciliation that needs to take place within me. And within us.”

Others felt their place in the world more unified by history than divided by it. Carol Ford, a Homer resident and friend of some of the scholars who presented, took Dena’ina language classes at Kenai Peninsula College with Peter Kalifornsky during the late 1980s, and has devoted much of her time since to telling Kalifornsky’s Dena’ina stories. Listening presentations at the conference, she said, helped her stitch the stories of history into a greater narrative.

“I think what this has done for me is it’s tied a lot of stuff together that I sort of knew, or was interested in, or kind of knew a little bit about, and it started to make more and more sense — so it feels like it’s quadrupling my knowledge by connecting things that I already knew,” Ford said.

1974 History Conference film

More recent local history — from 1974 — also came up at the conference. That was the year of a prior historical conference in Kenai, also on the American purchase of Alaska. While preparing for the 2017 conference, Loshbaugh discovered a video recording of the 1974 event in the Alaska State Library Historical Collection in Juneau. She edited the eights hours of footage into an hour-long highlight video, which was shown at last weekend’s conference.

In 1974, linguist James Kari was two years into his collaboration with Dena’ina linguist and writer Peter Kalifornsky, who was among the last living speakers of the east Cook Inlet dialect of Dena’ina. Kalifornsky died in 1991 after recording Dena’ina mythology and traditions in both English and Dena’ina, becoming an important source for modern study and revitalization of the language. Kalifornsky appears in the 1974 video, along with Kari, who spoke at both the 1974 and 2017 historical conferences.

The crowd who turned out for the conference packed the lecture hall for the video, which left Loshbaugh “actually not surprised.”

“Especially for the people in the community interested in local history, that was a big deal, getting that back,” she said.

Loshbaugh gave Boraas and Kari copies of the entire eight hours of footage, and plans to distribute copies of the both the complete footage and the highlights to those who’ve requested them.

Future history

If you missed last weekend’s Kenai Historical Conference, some of its material will soon be available in other forms. Loshbaugh said the conference’s website will stay up and its proceedings will be published in a book alongside historical columns that Loshbaugh has written for the Peninsula Clarion, which she said will likely not be printed until the end of the year. Videos combining audio from each presentation with slides will also be available. Other conferences, less extensive in scope, may follow.

“After everything is evaluated and the follow-ups are done, I hope that the historical societies in the area would consider doing things that are somewhat like this, on a more modest scale, maybe moving from community to community — having a Seward History Conference, a Homer History Conference — every few years, and try to bring in some of these guest speakers and bring in the community,” Loshbaugh said. “Because it seems like there really is a hunger to know more, and there’s still more to be said.”

Reach Ben Boettger at

Yuri Shishkin of the Russian folk trio Moscow Nights plays the traditional Russian three-stringed balalaika, with bandmate Boris Bezrodnov on the bass version, on Friday, April 21, 2017 at Alaska Christian College near Soldotna, Alaska. With accordionist Vitali Bezrodnov, the group played for attendees at a Kenai Peninsula History Conference held on the 150th anniversary of Russia’s 1867 sale of Alaska to the United States. (Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion)

Yuri Shishkin of the Russian folk trio Moscow Nights plays the traditional Russian three-stringed balalaika, with bandmate Boris Bezrodnov on the bass version, on Friday, April 21, 2017 at Alaska Christian College near Soldotna, Alaska. With accordionist Vitali Bezrodnov, the group played for attendees at a Kenai Peninsula History Conference held on the 150th anniversary of Russia’s 1867 sale of Alaska to the United States. (Ben Boettger/Peninsula Clarion)

More in News

Daily school district COVID-19 risk levels: Aug. 3

Risk levels are based on COVID cases reported in a community and determine how schools will operate.

A fire crew can be seen here at a containment line for the Swan Lake Fire in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management)
Fire crew’s departure highlights different wildfire season

With fire season winding down, state sends firefigthers south

Photos by Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion 
                                Part of a newly installed interagency public lands display at the Kenai Municipal Airport.
Kenai airport gets public lands display

The murals stretch from floor to ceiling in the ticketing area of the newly remodeled airport.

Seward extends emergency restrictions

Emergency ordinance 2020-009 was adopted unanimously by the city council on July 27.

State reports 1 new COVID death, no new peninsula cases

The person who died was an Anchorage man who was in his 70s.

Image via Kenai Peninsula Borough School District
Daily school district COVID-19 risk levels: Aug. 1

Risk levels are based on COVID cases reported in a community and determine how schools will operate.

Rep. Gary Knopp is seen in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy Jayme Jones)
Lawmakers remember colleague killed in crash

State Rep. Gary Knopp, who represented Kenai-Soldotna area, was one of seven people killed Friday.

COVID week in review: Cases climb; state reports new deaths

18 new hospitalizations and four deaths associated with COVID-19 were reported this week.

A screengrab of Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintedent John O’Brien announcing in a Thursday, July 30, 2020 video that masks will be required in school buildings this fall, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Schools to require masks, face coverings

Masks are now mandatory for all staff and students in third grade and higher.

Most Read