Nanutset – Our History
The Ninilchik Village Tribe traces its roots to the ancient indigenous people of the southern Kenai Peninsula. Original settlements in tribal lands were made by Dena’ina people, the Athabaskan culture of the south-central area and Cook Inlet of Alaska. More predominant theories suggest that the Dena’ina came to be from among the first waves of indigenous people traveling from East Asia and Siberia to settle the North American continent via the Bering Land Bridge. Other Athabaskan cultures of North America include those from areas in Alaska’s interior, alpine Canada, the Pacific Northwest’s plateau region, northern California, the American southwest, and north-central Mexico. While this large group of cultures is made up of distinct identities, they share various commonalities from one tribe to the next. Among Athabaskan cultures in Alaska, Dena’ina is unique because it is the only one to have made permanent coastal settlements and developed prominent maritime traditions. This is evident in traditional subsistence and trade patterns which valued the rich sources of the sea as well as those of the inland elevations, and the culture evolved sophisticated methods of ocean harvest and travel.
Today’s name of both the tribe and town of Ninilchik is derived from the Russian derivation of the Dena’ina name Niqnalchint, which means “A place were a lodge is built.” The Dena’ina language name of the tribe is Niqnalchint Qayeh Kenu (literally “Ninilchik Village Tribe”). Additionally to riverine sites and barabaras in the Ninilchik and Deep Creek area, ancient settlements and camps were created as far as Kasilof, Tustumena Lake, the Caribou Hills, Anchor Point, Homer, and in the Mt. Iliamna coast area of the western Cook Inlet.
|Dena’ina Language Place Names of Ninilchik Lands||English/Today|
|T’ch’anen||Caribou Hills Ridge|
|Ch’aqiniggech’||Bluff Point/Diamond Ridge|
|Shtuhtałent||Cape Starichkof/Happy Valley|
|Qałnigi D’nazludt||Clam Gulch|
|Dusdu Bena||Lake Tustumena|
|Bentuggezh K’enulgheli||Mount Redoubt|
Although first tribal settlements were a Dena’ina culture in origin, the Ninilchik Tribe has a rich and unique cultural history with several distinct waves of influences within a relatively short amount of time. The tribe is closely related to the Kenaitze and Salamatof tribes, the Dena’ina of the west-central and north Kenai Peninsula, and also the Seldovia tribe of the historically Dena’ina enclave located in the south Kenai Mountains across tribal boundaries from Kachemak Bay. While each is independent culturally, these tribes share significant portions of history and have mixed with Ninilchik people for generations. These tribes also share a common indigenous language, the Outer Inlet dialect of Dena’ina. What is unique about the original peoples of the Ninilchik tribe is that it’s settlements had traditions and language that were a combination of both the Kenai region and Kachemak region branches of the Dena’ina culture, which have some distinct characteristics especially concerning language, geography, and subsistence practices.
Most Alaska Native tribes were semi-nomadic before European contact. They resided in different settlements at different times of year to subsist on the food and resources that were plentiful during the season. Because of this mobile lifestyle the Ninilchik Tribe were in contact with not just other Dena’ina people but also with nearby tribes from other adjacent and nearby cultural groups including the Ahtna, the Yup’ik, and most significantly the Alutiiq, whose ancient settlements include inlets around the south Kenai Mountains across the Kachemak Bay and the eastern Kenai Peninsula. The contact between these groups led to cultural mixing in all facets of tribal life.
Russian and American Influences
When the Russian Empire established Russian America in 1799 and created the crown monopoly Russian American Company to oversee colonial production and trade, Alaska’s southeast, Cook Inlet, Aleutian Islands, and part of northern California’s coast became home to several Russian settlements. Despite foreign disease, conflict, and cultural coercion having a severe adverse effect on natives’ health and cultural practices, the settlements’ interactions with tribal people were often peaceful. Russian settlements brought eastern European culture into native homes and left an impressionable mark on tribal populations that remains to this day. Hardship and times of strife happened less frequently the longer Russian settlements became naturalized and established their roles in the colony. According to colony-era documents the Russian Ninilchik Village (what is the historic European style village near the mouth of the Ninilchik River) was established in the early 19th century for a variety of reasons including being a retirement community for colonists no longer of working age, and to establish what was hoped to be an agricultural center.
Policies that encouraged intermarrying into the indigenous population to ensure the longevity and success of a colonial population changed the cultural makeup of tribal people, so much so that some population records well after the United States’ purchase of Alaska in 1867 referred to mixed Niqnalchint Dena’ina and Russian people as “Ninilchik Creoles”. This term was created because the way post-colonial Ninilchik people had balanced aspects of different cultures simultaneously was similar to that of Creole people in Louisiana, who evolved a distinct mixed culture in the years after the American government completed the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803.
In the late 19th century the Alaska and Yukon Territory gold rush brought thousands of people north hoping to amass mineral wealth. After the formal establishment of the Alaska Territory in 1912, more Americans and Europeans coming north through Canada ventured to Alaska to not only try to strike it rich but to lay roots and start new lives as well. The people commonly referred to today as pioneers built permanent cabins and homesteads, adding a dense and complex layer of cultural influences to Alaska’s tribal populations. Most significant of the influences were features of domestic and agricultural life such as cooking, home gardening, and animal husbandry. These shared traditions came from a wide range of Americanized European cultures and ethnicities. During the period of time between World War I and the resolution of World War II these homesteads quickly grew into villages, neighborhoods, and entire towns. The townships and population that arrived with the Americanization of Alaska led to Alaska’s American statehood in 1959. Later in the 20th century the formal establishment of federally Native Sovereign Nations laid the foundation of what the modern Ninilchik Village Tribe has become.
The 21st Century and Tomorrow
Today the Ninilchik Village Tribe is made up of nearly 900 tribal members representing a rich diversity of mixed cultures, and the members live in different communities throughout the tribal lands, the state of Alaska, and across the United States. Currently, the tribe has a semi-open enrollment policy which allows non-Ninilchik descendants with Bureau of Indian Affairs recognition to join the tribe as non-voting members if they meet certain criteria including making their permanent residence within tribal boundaries. Several tribal members today are not direct lineal Ninilchik descendants and the modern tribe is made up of a mosaic of people from mixed Alaska Native, American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and other cultures. The tribe is as socially complex as it is ethnically complex with members having a wide range of different professions, beliefs, and general ways of life.
Having had such rapid changes in the past two centuries, the Ninilchik Village Tribe continues its sovereignty on a broad scale by embracing new ideas and technology in conjunction with traditional practices and ancient knowledge. The tribal organization works today to ensure the strength and health of its people and lands for generations to come, and so that its culture will continue to exist as it has since time immemorial.
Tribal Boundaries and Service Area
Within federally-recognized tribal boundaries the departments of the Ninilchik Traditional Council provide a variety of services for Ninilchik descendant tribal members, non-Ninilchik descendant tribal members, and the public at large including health services, housing programs, youth programs, family services, and educational outreach.
Ninilchik Tribal Boundaries
Ninilchik’s tribal boundaries include the Ninilchik and Happy Valley area and:
- North to south Kasilof in the Cohoe Census Designated Place (CDP), including the south side of the Kasilof River and Tustumena Lake.
- East to the Caribou Hills and Kenai Mountains
- South to the City of Homer and the Homer Spit
- And a portion of the western Cook Inlet and upper Alaska Peninsula surrounding Mt. Iliamna, the east side of Lake Clark, and the south face of Mt. Redoubt.
While they are not precisely the same size or shape geographically, the tribal boundaries also constitute an Alaska Native Village Service Area (ANVSA), which are congruent service areas that correspond to Alaskan tribes’ traditional lands. Unlike the contiguous 48 American states or Canada, Alaska did not establish native reservations for governing bases (except for Metlakatla), but rather parallel governing boundaries that encompass the state as a whole. Generally when traveling through populated areas of the state, one is always within a particular ANVSA, similar to how one is always in one of the 48 states when traveling through the United States. Nearly 15,000 residents live within the Ninilchik Village Tribe ANVSA which is analogous to 14 census areas of the Kenai Peninsula comprised of 9 CDPs and 2 incorporated cities.
The Ninilchik Tribe works with all communities and neighborhoods in the boundaries, striving to lay and maintain foundations in the places its members and their neighbors live in. By supporting the local economy and preserving our environment, resources, and way of life, we help ensure that all people residing in our lands will flourish.