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A Yup'ik Story of living on the land

Qanirtuuq inc., the Village Corporation created under ANCSA for the village of Quinhagak, signed-up with Alaska Carbon Exchange to put land under contract with the idea of leasing the development rights for the purpose of creating ACE Carbon Offsets to reduce excessive carbon gas in the atmosphere. The intent is to ensure habitat integrity of Alaska Native lands and reduce carbon emissions in the air, with the understanding that this will help bring real changes to the climate.

On the southernmost tip of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is a village known as Quinhagak, or Kuinerraq as it is traditionally pronounced, home of the Quinhaghamiut Yup'ik. The Quinhaghamiut are Yup'ik Eskimos that occupy the eastern side of Kuskokwim Bay. The traditional name means ‘the new river' or ‘the new river channel' and originally referred to the lower part of the river, but now refers to the village. Long ago, according to Quinhagak elders, the mouth of the Kanektok River, which means ‘snowy', referring to the snow on the mountains and was originally referring to the upper part of the river, used to enter the Kuskokwim Bay several miles to the north. The river's shifting meanderings cut off this outlet and formed a new channel farther south, along which the community of Quinhagak was established, named for the birth of the emerging watercourse. Quinhagak is a very old village, whose origin predates European contact. Historically, the village has been one of the largest communities along the Kuskokwim Bay, with an origin that has been dated to 1000 AD. It was the first village on the lower Kuskokwim to have sustained contact with Europeans.

The delta is home of the Central Yup'ik Eskimos, and it covers most of southwestern Alaska in an area the size of the state of Oregon. For its 2,000-year history, the Native population has remained high, with over 20,000 people now living in 52 villages. It is the highest population of Native Americans living continuously on their traditional lands, and their culture and language remain intact. The large Native population is mostly sustained by the strong runs of salmon that enter Alaska's two largest rivers, located in the delta. The gathering of subsistence foods is still an indispensable part of everyday life. Average incomes are the lowest in the nation, but life needs different accommodations in different cultural settings.

The Quinhaghamiut established permanent villages that formed a base from which they wandered in an annual round of subsistence activities. This way of life centered on fishing for salmon and freshwater fish, hunting sea mammals, land mammals, and waterfowl, and gathering berries. The people had a deep respect and understanding of their life with the animals. For example, animal effigies were mounted on poles and carried around during ceremonies and festivals, such as the bladder festival. The bladder festival was one of the most important events of the year. It was celebrated in winter. The Yup'ik believed that no one ever truly dies, every soul, also animal's souls, were part of a cycle where it would be reborn again in another generation. When a seal allowed a hunter to kill it, its soul resided in its bladder where it will stay alive until returned to the sea. The bladder was kept by the hunters, and was after a five day celebration taken to the sea and pushed through a hole in the ice – the seal souls were returned to the sea.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Yup'ik settlements existed at various points along the Kanektok River. There is an abundance of archaeological sites on the upper Kanektok River and around Pegati and Kagati Lakes to validate this and indicate several thousand years of human use of the area for hunting caribou, fishing and gathering plants. A clustering of sites around Kagati, Pegati, and other lakes in the Ahklun Mountains shows that prehistoric hunters camped around interior lakes at the crossing points of several valleys and the river valleys that served as corridors for the passage of both caribou and people. Toward the end of the 19th century, the population of Quinhagak village itself grew from the migration of people from settlements along the Kanektok and Arolik Rivers and elsewhere to Quinhagak. The village, really, became a focus for the area's population in the late 1800s, when the Moravian church established a school there. So today's local village residence share a family history that extends all over the lower Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Today's generation has the unique opportunity to look into that history. The changes in the climate have created a race against time and a team of British researchers from the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, is working with partners in the village to win that race. The prize is the recovery of thousands of objects that had long been preserved in Alaska's permafrost that shows the old family histories. But losing the race means the artifacts being washing out to sea due to the permafrost melting and eroding from climate change. The longtime Alaska archaeologist Dr. Rick Knecht, now employed by the University of Aberdeen, is working with Quinhagak's village corporation, Qanirtuuq and the community of Quinhagak to preserve the artifacts in what is being called the first large-scale excavation in the Delta. The 700-year-old site is near the village of Quinhagak, about two miles south, and called Nunalleq, Yup'ik for "old village site". Excavation workers have discovered dozens of sod homes just under the tundra. Bone, stone, sod, and charcoal that often survive the centuries have provided many details about the makeup of Quinhaghamiut life settings. The combination of permafrost and moist soil conditions have preserved the artifacts, many of which were organic materials such as: wood, like carved dolls and harpoons; fur from pets, food, or clothing; bark, claws, berry seeds, matting, ropes and baskets woven out of grasses, human hair, and they have given a remarkably clear view of prehistoric Yup'ik culture. Samples of hair are one of the biggest finds. Stable isotope analysis of hair strands - apparently the remains of haircuts in a possible men's house - showed that people ate caribou and salmon year-round. Add a little rice, pilot bread, and canned corn, and you get a pretty good picture of what today's diet looks.

Dr. Knecht and others found the buried village by beachcombing for prehistoric artifacts in 2009 and following the trail of objects. Using local oral tradition to help interpret what was being found, has combined locally based traditional knowledge with academic research methods to reconstruct a glimpse of the prehistoric roots of modern Yup'ik culture. As would make sense, the artifacts belong to Qanirtuuq, Inc., but they will be on loan to the University of Aberdeen while they are being conserved, catalogued, and analyzed and are expected to return to Alaska in 2013. Interestingly, the Yup'ik who inhabited Nunalleq between 1350 and 1650 A.D. themselves experienced a period of climate change, named the Little Ice Age. Researchers hope that the artifacts and organic remains discovered at the old village site will illuminate how the Yup'ik responded to the rapidly cooling environment, how their diets and lifestyles changed, with hopes that the pre-history they find might help create a predictive model of how to cope with climate change in the future as well as explaining the past.

The river that has helped to sustain the Quinhaghamiut, the Kanektok River, has its headwaters in a large mountain lake approximately 100 miles of meandering and braided river to its mouth. The river hosts large runs of all 5 species of pacific salmon along with an enormous supply of gigantic Dolly Varden, grayling and arctic char that have helped to provide for subsistence needs of the village since time immemorial. There is an approximately two-mile wide strip of thick, willow trees that extend from the estuary all the way to the headwaters. This not only gives the village a good supply of fuel for its numerous steam houses, but also is an excellent habitat for an endless selection of animals. The Kanektok is the only clear river in the delta. It flows through granite deposits that also gives Quinhagak a good supply of gravel, which has allowed for 15 miles of groomed roads and foundations for houses and driveways—a rare luxury in the delta's sub-arctic tundra.

To the west, the lake-dotted terrain around Quinhagak gives way to sandy beach, the precursor to the Bering Sea, a marine resource that many say is less water and more sandbars due to the fact that during low tide, the sea literally disappears, revealing a large mud flat that extends into the horizon. This was created from millions of years of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers dumping silt into the sea to form a gigantic shelf, which created a very shallow coastline. It is a great place to view seals, belugas, and walruses and when it freezes in the winter, it becomes one of nature's playgrounds.

To the east and to the south, about 30 miles from the village, the Ahkluns Mountains transcend the rolling landscape to a higher altitude of rugged, treeless, granite mountain tops.

To the north, it is flat delta as far as the eye can see. The combination of muskeg humps and swampy grasslands make for an excellent habitat to sustain the huge migration of birds that the area sees. The area hosts a healthy wildlife population of brown bears, caribou and moose, and blue, salmon, crow and black berries can be found in abundance for making jam or aguduk- Eskimo icecream created from berries, sugar, and lard (now, most use Crisco).

All-in-all, Quinhagak is a good place for the Yup'ik to live a subsistence life. In the middle of the neighboring villages of Goodnews Bay & Platinum, it is a strong Native village. No matter the fact that during the winter, the weather can make a 180-degree U-turn out of nowhere, with wind chills approaching 100 below zero in just a few hours. And there is enjoyment in the fact that the terrain makes the area near impossible for logistics gives a comfortable bit of isolation. This is subsistence land in Alaska, where a person can enjoy that level of isolation and cold just kind of comes with the territory. Families here are subsistence wise active, and that is part of the way of life. Natives here have the infrastructure to survive and thrive in the Union's only arctic state. The village has some fish racks along the shore in some areas of the river and some fish camps up towards the mountains and an understanding of the land's character. Knowledge that helps an individual survive in the land and develops a community that can thrive in the land. Even the housing is looking to thrive with designing that is built to suit the land.

Originally, houses built in the 60s and 70s in Alaska were commonly built in the lower- 48 (continental US) design with little thought for Alaska's punishing weather. They were built for California and Iowa. In 2010, the Cold Climate Research Center worked with the community to design a prototype house with the elements in mind and with a traditional twist. To accommodate the environment of the sub-Arctic, the house is octagonal, which lessens the surface area-to-volume ratio, significantly reducing the amount of surface area exposed to the cold compared to a rectangular model the same size. The wind direction changes seasonally and wind-driven moisture is one of the primary causes of failure in the old style, existing housing stock. The windows follow the sun, so that wherever the sun is, it will be shining into a window to provide warmth and light. An elaturaq, or arctic entry, is wrapped around two of the eight walls, further improving heating efficiency and protecting the home from wet winds. Designing the layout to include an open floor plan reflects traditional values and was requested by the community in the design.

The design had its learning curb difficulties, such as needing a better ventilation system to maintain healthy indoor, but a new system was installed in December 2011 and is showing results in healthy indoor air and the prototype as a whole is showing beneficial results:

  • The house consumed only 171 gallons of heating fuel in the first year, an 80% improvement over the 880 gallons a year that the average rural house uses (AHFC, 2009).
  • It used about half as much electricity (an average of 350 kWh/month)as the average Alaska house (661 kWh/month) (U.S. EIA (2009).
    • The solar panels have generated an average of 7% of the total house electrical demand to the house, offsetting the grid power.

Traditional design plays a big part of everyday life. A good example is the Ceñaliulriit Coastal Resource Service Area (CRSA), during the past few years, the program director for has been working with the communities in the CRSA to document subsistence use. This effort has resulted in maps documenting subsistence usage by village and by species. With the understanding that the people use the area in the traditional manner and new tools used to give more information for decision making, traditional input works with modern tools.

The value is in the content of the map. As the writer of these entries and with a background in Native Lands background and know of the value of proper mapping of culturally significant areas. As Natives, we have a way of life that isn't always easily quantified in terms for State and Federal planning. The Ceñaliulriit CRSA has the opportunity to influence state decision-making regarding development projects that affects Native used subsistence lands along the coast, and was created for the sole purpose of coastal management. The Ceñaliulriit CRSA is located in the unorganized borough, and there for, has no regional government. Instead, a board elected by the region's residents oversees the coastal management program for the CRSA- a modern tool being used with traditional people that hold traditional knowledge.

The needs for Alaskan Natives are the same as any other people: food, shelter, and water, but the rural Native living in a village accomplishes the gathering of necessities in somewhat different way. A Native needs intuitive policies that administer the benefit of hunting and gathering to the way of life that sustains individuals and a community. The systems that supports and enhances the resource needs to be active and have an incorporation of the input from the policy beneficiaries (the people using the resource). We have water aplenty. And shelter needs to be in place to protect the community: culture, education, and sustainable practices. Many forms of these items are in place from the development of the village as it sits today. To keep the community strong, the ACE contract has become a tool for maintaining this traditional Yup'ik village.

Leased Holdings (Acres):

0 allocated / 45179 total