Saturday, December 31, 2011

Salcha Native Cemetery--A people and place worth remembering

Salcha Native Cemetery

A couple of miles northwest of the Salcha River bridge on the Richardson Highway is a small cemetery perched on the bluff overlooking Munson’s Slough and the Tanana River.  The picturesque Salcha Native Cemetery, only a short distance from where the native village used to be, is one of the last vestiges of the Salchaket band of Tanana Athabaskan Indians.  (Salchaket means “the mouth of the Salcha,” but was used to refer to the people and location.)

Tanana Athabaskans were semi-nomadic. Each small band normally had a central winter camp with several seasonal hunting and fishing camps, and they moved cyclically, depending on the season and availability of resources. The region’s primary villages were located near the best fishing and hunting areas, usually on clear water tributaries of the Tanana River or near larger lakes.

The Salcha River, second-largest tributary of the Tanana River, is a salmon spawning stream and the Salchaket main village was located at its confluence with the Tanana River. It was here in 1898 that A.H. Brooks (with the U.S. Geological Survey) made the first recorded contact with Salcha natives.

Interaction between the Salchaket and Westerners was limited before the Klondike (1897) and subsequent gold rushes, but shortly after 1900 Westerners began moving into the area.  In 1902 the U.S. Army Signal Corp constructed a telegraph station several miles upriver from the native village, and in 1904 William F. Munson established Munson’s Roadhouse near the village. The Alaska Road Commission (ARC) completed a winter trail between Valdez and Fairbanks (which passed near the Salcha telegraph station) in 1907 and a summer wagon trail by 1910.

An Episcopal mission at the native village opened in 1909, the same year that a post office was established. By 1911 it was recorded that 40 natives were living there.  The mission closed in 1920, and during the mid 1920s the community lost its post office and the telegraph station. By the late 1920s the community’s population had dwindled to about 25 people. The area’s native population continued to shrink and by the 1940s only a handful of Indians remained.

Before the Episcopal mission’s demise, the native cemetery was established. A 1914 Episcopal publication wrote of the cemetery being started after the death of the village’s chief Jarvis. Aside from that little is known about the cemetery’s history. There are only seven graves there, most of them old with spruce trees growing up in their midst.  Several have picket fences around them. The most recent grave dates to 1988, when Bessie Barnabus, one of the last Salchakets familiar with the traditional way of life was buried there. Her family estimated that she was over 100 when she died.

The bluff is a peaceful location with a lovely view of the Tanana River. I enjoy watching chickadees and I drew the cemetery in late winter, after the birch catkins had dropped their winter seeds.  I hope that Bessie Barnabus is at peace with chickadees dancing on her grave.

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