• Nanwalek’s Sugpiaq ancestry and Sugt’stun language studied in ethnohistory project
By Christina Whiting
Just 35 miles southwest of Homer, on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, is a community abundant in culture and history. This is Nanwalek, aka English Bay, aka Alexandrovski. So rich is Nanwalek’s history, Hungarian anthropologist Dr. Medeia Csoba-DeHass and her husband moved to the Native village.
Nanwalek, which means, “place by the lagoon,” was the first Russian trading post on the Alaska mainland. This traditional village is currently home to 300 residents who are of Russian and Sugpiaq ancestry, and whose first language is Sugt’stun.
Through archival sources, museum collections and close collaboration with elders, Csoba-DeHass is collecting and cataloging oral histories and photographs. Compiling an ethnohistorical account of the Lower Kenai Sugpiaq cultural area and the Native people inhabiting the region, she plans to create a book manuscript.
Last year, as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow, Csoba-DeHass worked with the community of Nanwalek on the Sugpiaq Ethnohistory project.
“This collaboration was in response to the concerns of village elders and culture bearers,” she said. “They often expressed that they were ‘at the verge of ‘losing everything’ because there was no information or proper documentation available to use for educational and cultural projects.”
Csoba-DeHass is working with staff at the Pratt Museum, where hundreds of Sugpiaq pieces reside in their collection. Reviewing these pieces, Csoba-DeHass is creating a catalog as part of the Lower Kenai Peninsula Material Culture and Heritage Preservation project. The information will be shared with the communities of Nanwalek and Port Graham.
Csoba-DeHass was first inspired to study the history of Russian-America as a teenager, when she watched a television show about the work of the late Lydia Black. Black was an expert on Alaska history. The show was in German, so while Csoba-DeHass couldn’t understand what was being said, she was drawn to the images showing village life in the Aleutians, including the Russian-Orthodox culture.
“Thanks to the devotion of local people, the Russian Orthodox heritage remains strong in this community today,” she said. “It helps people maintain their identity and holds the community together.”
Csoba-DeHass holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology, as well as an M.A. in History, from the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.
Working toward her masters, Csoba-DeHass came to Alaska in 2000. She attended college in Valdez, and met her future husband Dave DeHass. Historian Lydia Black encouraged her to focus on the Sugpiaq-Alutiiq region of Alaska, and the couple returned to Hungary in 2001 so she could complete her degrees.
They moved to Fairbanks in 2002, where Csoba-DeHass entered the Ph.D. program in Anthropology, wanting to focus on villages with a Russian Orthodox history. With the help of Sperry Ash, a fellow student from Nanwalek, Csoba-DeHass and her husband got permission to fly into the village.
They met with Chief Emilie Swenning and the Nanwalek IRA Council, where she presented her research. In 2005, the couple was invited to live in the community, which they did for the next year and a half.
While Dave was working on a Sugpiaq cultural K-12 curriculum for his M.A., Csoba-DeHass completed her dissertation research on Sugpiaq Russian Orthodoxy.
The couple said they found the community to be generous and gracious; their greatest challenge was the weather.
“We had a few difficulties coping with Nanwalek’s extreme weather that often cuts the village off from the outside world,” she said. “During these times, community members supported one another and worked together to find effective ways to resolve emergencies like a lack of supplies, electricity, or medical help.
“When talking about village life, Nanwalek Elder Nina Kvasnikoff would tell us, ‘Even the people in Nanwalek who are not related by blood or by marriage are like family by living here – we’re all in this together.’”
Csoba-DeHass and husband Dave have been living in Homer since August 2013, but regularly return to Nanwalek for research and personal visits.
Dave is writing a dissertation on decision-making and the introduction of new technologies — such as ATVs — into small communities. Along with her other projects, Csoba-DeHass will be teaching a semester-long course on Sugpiaq-Alutiiq Culture and History at the Kachemak Bay Campus.
In the class, students will examine historical documents, review oral history recordings and explore museum exhibits to learn about the Sugpiaq-Alutiiq way of life. The focus will be on ways of living and contemporary issues concerning Sugpiaq people and communities.
The class runs from Jan. 15 to Apr. 30 on Wednesday evenings. It will also be video-conferenced to the Kenai River Campus. Students can register online at UaOnline.edu or in person at the campus in Homer. Deadline to register is Jan. 9.
Dave and Medeia love living in Homer, but Nanwalek will always have a special place in their hearts.
“There was never a boring moment in Nanwalek;” they agreed. “Quite the opposite; the problem was deciding where to go, what event to participate in, or who to visit.”
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