The interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services stand with flowers they helped to plant in Leif Hansen Memorial Park (Photo courtesy Michael Bernard)

The interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services stand with flowers they helped to plant in Leif Hansen Memorial Park (Photo courtesy Michael Bernard)

‘Not just building resumes’

Salamatof youth interns connect with culture, learn skills to enter the workforce

Under the patter of a light rain, a group of teenagers Tuesday were dutifully chipping away at the dirt inside a cache pit on an island near Nikiski, reporting their observations to archaeologist Debra Corbett.

The teenagers are a part of a summer youth intern program run by the Salamatof Tribe’s Duhdeldiht Youth Services. Michael Bernard, education coordinator for Salamatof Tribe, said that the internships are intended to keep older youth involved, picking up skills and exploring opportunities for adulthood.

“It’s what we need to be doing,” Bernard said. “Keeping these older kids, giving them summer wages and keeping our culture alive, teaching them those activities.”

Bernard said that alumni of the internship program have gone on to seek jobs in some of the fields explored by the group.

One alumni, Chris Anderson, was recently hired as one of the instructors for the program. He called the internship’s impact on his own life “very influential.” He said that it prepared him at the age of 16 to take a step into the professional world.

“It’s not just building resumes. It’s your conduct, how you act around others,” Anderson said. “When it gets time to be serious and do work, that’s when it gets done. That’s the main lesson.”

Tuesday was the 14th day of the program, and Bernard said they had previously spent time planting flowers with the City of Kenai’s Parks and Recreation Department in Leif Hanson Memorial Park; they had learned and practiced harvesting, fileting and vacuum sealing salmon; the group had made syrup and salsa from spruce tips they’d harvested; and they performed in Homer at the opening of the Heroes Healing Homestead.

The archaeology project has been a part of the internship for many years, Bernard said, but this year looked a little different. The plan had been to, over the first three weeks, spend time working at three different sites — instead they spent almost all of their time at the island in Nikiski.

The Nikiski site is on Bernard’s own property — he said he purchased the land around three years ago, and that he stumbled upon a depression in the earth that he suspected might be a “cultural feature.”

Corbett said the space, which by Tuesday had been dug out and divided into three distinct units, is a “cache pit,” sort of a catchall term that describes a variety of similar features around the local area. She said that the site in Nikiski is interesting because there are “almost no sites recorded north of the Kenai River.”

The cache pits, Corbett said, may have been used for a variety of things, like storage, steam baths or fish fermentation.

“We find these pits all over, but we don’t have a real good idea of what most of them are used for,” she said.

To learn more about the cache pits and ideally identify their uses, she said it’s important to identify more spots and draw connections. People who suspect they have a potential site on their property can report it to the State Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation — she said it doesn’t change what the owner can do with their private land, but it helps to put “dots” on a map.

Corbett said that identifying more locations helps to build a “more complete picture” that can illuminate the uses of the cache pits, but also features of the surrounding land.

“In the Lower 48, there’s more awareness of how Native people change the landscape to suit their needs,” Corbett said. “About 10 years ago, I started noticing that where we find Dena’ina sites, there’s often these big grassy meadows associated with them. … That’s something that hasn’t been explored much in Alaska.”

There aren’t many artifacts found in cache pits. The teens, Corbett said, want to “find cool stuff.” She said it takes a different sensibility to perform archaeology on the cache pits and other Dena’ina features. She said that any friction from the kids usually fades quickly when they start to understand the significance of the space.

“It’s a way to bring their distant past into some kind of contemporary reality,” she said. “Getting a little deeper into their own culture.”

Anderson said that when he was an intern he wasn’t entirely onboard with “digging in the dirt,” at first. But then he said he was “struck” by the importance of the work — preserving and connecting with real history.

Tuesday, the group was carefully recording differences in the color of the soil — sifting through that soil to observe the rocks and birch bark fragments within. They bagged samples to test later.

“It’s not just dirt,” said one of the interns, JaLeen Gattenby. “You see something that’s not what you have been seeing — that’s cause for, ‘Oh, hey, this is cool.’”

One of the details that had caught the group’s eye was a thick line of gray soil encountered as they had excavated the pit. Corbett said the gray is ash, and they think it may well be from the Katmai eruption of 1912.

A sample of the ash had already been sent for testing Tuesday.

Gattenby said she had been working as an intern for the last three summers, and that the historical element was something that appealed to her. She credited the program with sparking her interest in her own culture.

“Knowing that people were actually here hundreds of years ago and seeing how they lived — that’s really interesting,” Gattenby said.

For Marcus Wong, a first year intern, it was the opportunity to be outside, learning and working hands-on, that drew him to the program.

“I don’t like being cooped up in the house for too long,” he said.

The interns only had one more day at the site before they needed to move on to other tasks, but Wong said he wanted to check out other areas of the clearing for more pits, and he shared his own theories about what the pit could have been used for — based on the amount of fire-cracked rock and birch bark they had found.

Corbett said the different teens bring different life experiences and perspectives. She pointed to Wong as an example of this with his keen interest in hunting and the outdoors. He will see different things than she can. He can also take different lessons away from the experience.

“You know that continuity with their past and see how it can inform their life today,” she said.

For more information about the Summer Youth Intern Program, search for “Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services” on Facebook.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

The interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services participate in a first aid and CPR class. (Photo courtesy Michael Bernard)

The interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services participate in a first aid and CPR class. (Photo courtesy Michael Bernard)

The interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services learn to harvest salmon from an educational set net. (Photo courtesy Michael Bernard)

The interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services learn to harvest salmon from an educational set net. (Photo courtesy Michael Bernard)

The interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services excavate an archaeological site near Nikiski, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Michael Bernard)

The interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services excavate an archaeological site near Nikiski, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Michael Bernard)

One of the interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services digs through a layer of soil at an archeological site near Nikiski, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

One of the interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services digs through a layer of soil at an archeological site near Nikiski, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Marcus Wong sifts through a soil sample poured by Michael Bernard at an archeological site near Nikiski, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Marcus Wong sifts through a soil sample poured by Michael Bernard at an archeological site near Nikiski, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Marcus Wong sifts through a soil sample at an archeological site near Nikiski, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Marcus Wong sifts through a soil sample at an archeological site near Nikiski, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

One of the interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services collects a soil sample at an archeological site near Nikiski, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

One of the interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services collects a soil sample at an archeological site near Nikiski, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

One of the interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services collects a soil sample at an archeological site near Nikiski, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

One of the interns working with Salamatof Tribe Duhdeldiht Youth Services collects a soil sample at an archeological site near Nikiski, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

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