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Regional History
Southcentral Alaska

In this section you will learn about:

  • Growth of Southcentral Alaska
  • Resolution of land issues

Southcentral Alaska population explodes

One effort to deal with the growing interest in recreation and tourism occurred in 1970 when the State of Alaska established a Division of Parks, an organization that would grow to manage the second largest state park system the United States. Land, its ownership and use, became of overriding interest to most Alaskans and to people outside Alaska interested in the fate of the last frontier.

Although Juneau was Alaska's capital, most day-to-day work concerned with the lands issue took place in Anchorage. There the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which was responsible for all federal lands in the state not already in special withdrawals such as national forests and parks, maintained its central Alaska office. The comparable state agency was also in Anchorage. Drawn by the necessity to do business with these agencies, oil companies also located the management of their Alaska operations in Anchorage. Native corporations created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act found it advantageous, too, to be able to deal directly with public officials classifying and conveying land.

Its role as a transportation center for the rest of the state had already made Anchorage Alaska's largest city and, with contributions by military bases and personnel to its economy, one of the most economically stable communities. Then, as the city's population more than doubled between 1970 and 1980, Anchorage emerged as a focal point for Alaska's financial and business interests.

The concentration of more than half of Alaska's total population on upper Cook Inlet affected other parts of Southcentral Alaska. The farm economy of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley was destroyed by the demand for residential land that almost overnight turned places such as Wasilla into residential communities for Anchorage workers. While Kenai Peninsula towns such as Seward and Homer continued to depend upon fisheries, their recreational facilities were overwhelmed on weekends by people from Anchorage.

Mike Alex-Last Eklutna Chief

Now you are going from Eklutna, now you are going from your children.

This Tanaina mourning song was composed by an Athapaskan song leader for the funeral of Mike Alex in 197. Alex was the last traditional village chief of the Knik Arm Tanaina at Eklutna. With his death, the Tanaina people lost a link with their heritage.

Alex's father was Alex Vasily, who was the last practicing shaman in the region. Railroad construction workers nicknamed hire Eklutna Alex when they arrived in Cook Inlet in 1915, and the name stuck. Eklutna Alex grew up in a time when the Tanaina Athapaskans moved seasonally from winter villages to summer fishing sites on Ship Creek, Eagle River, or Fire Island. The villagers fished for salmon, which they dried for their winter food supply. Women also dug K'tl'ila--wild Indian potatoes--to store for winter use, and picked berries in the bogs and hills around Cook Inlet. They sewed clothing from the hides of mountain sheep and goats that the men hunted above Eklutna Lake.

Mike Alex was one of 13 children. He was born before Anchorage existed. From his father he learned how to hunt, how to make sailboats, and how to navigate the dangerous Cook Inlet tides. He helped build a driftwood and plank smokehouse that still stands at an Eklutna fish site on Fire Island. Alex also inherited a deep devotion to the Russian Orthodox faith.Eklutna, on the east side of Knik Arm, is now the major village for upper Cook Inlet Tanaina. In Mike Alex's youth, however, the village was a temporary camp. A number of trails leading into the Interior met here. The Russian Orthodox Church built a small log chapel at the site.

During construction of the Alaska Railroad, Eklutna was a railroad storage yard. In 1924 the U.S. Department of Education built an industrial boarding school for Native youths from throughout Alaska at the village. Three-story dormitories were built for boys and girls, along with a gymnasium, shop, and other buildings.

Most classes at Eklutna were devoted to vocational skills. Mike Alex taught fishing. Under his instruction students learned how to set nets in Cook Inlet, how to operate their boats, and how to care for their catch.

Eklutna Alex died in 1953. Mike Alex, the new chief, took over responsibility for maintaining St. Nicholas Chapel. He carefully replaced the foundation of the 100-year-old building and restored the floors, walls, altar, and icons. He also helped compile lists of Tanaina place names in upper Cook Inlet, and urged villagers to remember their traditional language and skills. By the time of his death, the last Eklutna chief had helped to keep his cultural heritage alive for future generations.

Congress resolves land issues

More and more of those people came to Southcentral Alaska to work with land issues. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act had created three regional corporations in Southcentral Alaska. Potential Ahtna lands included 38,000 square miles of the Copper River basin. Cook Inlet Region Corporation could select over 38, 000 square miles around Cook Inlet and in the Susitna River valley. Chugach Native Corporation could claim 15,000 square miles along Southcentral's southern coast. The difficult process of unravelling Native, state and federal land rights was complicated by U.S. Department of the Interior studies to identify national interest lands as provided for in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Finally in 1980 the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act reserved selected national interest lands in Alaska. In Southcentral Alaska, in addition to existing reservations such as Chugach National Forest and Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, an Alaska Maritime National Refuge set aside much of the Gulf of Alaska. The Kenai Fjords National Park, Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve, and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve encompassed much of the area outside existing communities, state lands, and Native corporation lands. A hundred years after census taker Ivan Petroff labelled the country north of Cook Inlet a sealed book," once apparently limitless and unknown lands of Southcentral Alaska were defined, classified, and circumscribed.

Summary questions

  1. What made Anchorage Alaska's largest city?
  2. What destroyed the farm economy of the Matanuska-Susitna valley?
  3. What are the three regional Native corporations in Southcentral Alaska?

Inquiry questions

  1. On a map of Southcentral Alaska identify the lands held by the federal government, the state government, local governments, and Native corporations.

Suggested Readings

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1930-1970 THE EXPANDING ECONOMY Suggested Readings

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