The Kenai Peninsula local history conference, held in Soldotna April 21-22, was the exciting fulfillment of a dream to bring people together to discuss the area’s rich and dramatic past. Although satisfying, the event itself left much unresolved.
We had a full house at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and so many speakers that, ultimately, not all could present as planned. Still, many voices were not heard, and many others could and should have been present both to learn and teach.
Officially called 150 Years: Kenai Peninsula History Conference, this was not a dry academic exercise, but a gathering that touched hearts. Looking at the faces in the room, sometimes I saw laughter, discomfort, revelation, pride or even tears.
The Kenai Peninsula is unique for its people as well as for its natural grandeur. The peninsula remains a place where some families and communities have deep roots about which their newer neighbors may be ignorant. Even happenings hundreds of years ago shape modern lives. This is a living history, just as Southcentral Alaska’s landscape still moves with tectonic, volcanic and ice-age forces.
The sesquicentennial – the 150th anniversary of the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia – provided an opportunity to leverage state funding and interest to talk about this for the first time since the 1974 Kenai Area History Conference. Generous funding from the Alaska Historical Commission and the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association, plus major help from our partners, Kenai Peninsula College and the Pratt Museum, made the conference possible.
Despite focusing on the transfer in 1867, we organizers couldn’t find anyone to speak about Fort Kenay, established in 1869 as the official beginning of U.S. rule in the region. Fort Kenay closed down after only a year, leaving its name attached to the Creole village formerly known as Nikolaevsk.
Instead, we attracted linguists, archaeologists, anthropologists, journalists and local historians who told us about the peninsula’s Native cultures (Sugpiaq and Dena’ina) and Russian influences. These cultures, which many associate with the 1800s, endure despite the socioeconomic tide of White Americans that swamped the area, starting in the 1860s.
An amazing audience attended, spanning several generations, expert and amateur, from near and far. At the conference’s end we passed around a microphone and let people ask questions and contribute comments. It is impossible to honor all who joined us, and not everyone could stay for the entire event. I do want to mention a few people from out of town who honored us with their presence: Bill and Karen Workman, retired archaeologists who did much of the region’s pioneering research; Bishop David Mahaffey, the Russian Orthodox Bishop of the Diocese of Sitka and Alaska; and Helen Dick from Stony River, respected elder, teacher and one of the few living fluent speakers of Dena’ina, who graced the conference with a prayer in that language.
Nearly all peninsula residents now are citizens of the United States, a nation that seeks equal justice for all and unity from the diversity of its peoples.
What does it mean now to be Native on the Kenai Peninsula, after more than two centuries of violence, epidemics, racism and assimilation? What does it mean to be ethnically Russian, since only a handful of actual Russians lived in the area, and their control ended 150 years ago? Being a relative newcomer, I cannot answer those questions. But the conference let us hear people who have spent their lives confronting those questions and scholars who have explored their context through archaeological digs, archival research and interviewing elders.
The day after the conference, some of us went on a field trip to sites of historic interest on the central Kenai Peninsula. The sites echoed conference talks.
In Kenai’s Old Town, we passed the place where irate Dena’ina tried to burn down the brutal Siberian fur traders’ fort in the 1790s, a story Alan Boraas told us. We saw the chapel over the grave of Igumen Nikolai, the exiled Russian monk who lived out his days serving the village and establishing its first Russian Orthodox parish, only to die the year Russia sold his adopted home. It also marks the grave of Makary Ivanoff, the Creole deacon who vaccinated Natives against smallpox and fostered the church’s role in the community during decades without any Russian priests; Andrei Znamenski and Tom Kizzia shared aspects of Ivanoff’s story. We toured the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church, the city’s most recognizable landmark, where Dorothy Gray showed us restoration work and historic icons she had described. A short walk later, we looked at preserved cabins that had been homes for local families of diverse backgrounds. And we paused to admire the new Dena’ina Wellness Center and Raven Plaza, with its sculptures by Joel Isaak, one of the new generation of culture-bearers, who spoke about Dena’ina civilization.
This history is all around us on the Kenai Peninsula, and it is time to pass it to a new generation. So little of it is written down, recorded or even known. Learning about these roots helps build a sense of community, and the people of the past still can teach us lessons such as American democratic values, the Russian church’s emphasis on spirituality and indigenous literacy, and Native advocacy of family life and sustainable resource use.
In many ways, this 2017 conference is not an end point, but the continuation of a project that began long ago, flourished at the 1974 event, and continues into the future. Response to the conference has been positive, yet we barely touched on topics such as the region’s subsequent Americanization and the questionable legality of the sale.
People eager to learn more should consider attending the annual conference of the Alaska Historical Society, set for Sept. 27-30 in Anchorage. Its theme will be “Exploring the Legacy of the Alaska Purchase” – a perfect sequel to our Soldotna gathering. This also is a good time for people on the central peninsula, Seward and Hope to join their local historical societies, which can always use new energy and ideas.
I hope that peninsula residents won’t wait another 43 years before the next local history conference. The information and emotions shared are only the tip of the iceberg. Many inspiring and instructive stories about the Kenai Peninsula remain to be told.
Shana Loshbaugh, a former Clarion reporter, was lead organizer of 150 Years: Kenai Peninsula History Conference at Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna.