Friday, January 6, 2012

Summer morning at Nenana Native Cemetery

Since my last post was about the Salcha Native cemetery, I thought I’d highlight a trip we made this summer to the native cemetery in Nenana. I have spent almost 30 years in Fairbanks, but until last summer I had not spent more than an hour or so in Nenana (my bad—especially since Nenana is only an hour drive south of town!)


Anyway, we spent an entire morning wandering about the cemetery, which is on the south slope of Toghetthele Hill, across the Tanana River from Nenana. (The old native village used to be on the same side of the river as the cemetery.)
It is a wonderfully peaceful place, shaded by aspen, cottonwood and spruce trees. We were there in late June and luckily, Spotted Lady’s Slipper flowers (Cypripedium guttatum) profusely covered much of the hillside. (They only bloom for about two weeks.) Unfortunately none of my flower photos turned out very well. (It was the middle of summer—the mosquitoes wee vicious and I couldn’t stand still long enough to take a decent close-up photo. I’ll be back this summer to get better photos.)

Athabascan Indians have occupied the lands around Nenana for hundreds of years and there was a seasonal village there before westerners entered the country, so I’m not sure anyone knows how old the cemetery is. It dates to at least 1907, when the Episcopal Church started a mission there.

Looking at old photos it appears that the cemetery was originally located at the base of Toghotthele Hill.  However, when the Alaska Railroad built the Mears Memorial Bridge across the Tanana River and ran its tracks along the base of Toghotthele Hill in the early 1920s it had to relocate the cemetery. (Here is a link to a historicalphoto in the "Alaska Digital Archive.") . 

One of the surprises at the cemetery is a huge concrete cross that marks the grave of Annie Cragg Farthing, the first Episcopal missionary at Nenana. She was in charge of the mission for its first four years. (It appears her grave and memorial cross were also moved up the hill when the railroad was built.)

There is no overarching design to the cemetery. Most of the graves are in small hollows or on the gentler slopes. Narrow footpaths wind up and down the hillside linking the burial areas. Many of the graves are in family groupings.

A majority of the graves are surrounded by fences, which is fairly common for native burials in many parts of Alaska. Fenced graves are a frequent feature in Alaska’a Russian Orthodox cemeteries, but fenced graves also occur outside areas of Russian influence. I don’t think anyone really knows whether this is an example of “cultural diffusion” or reflects an older indigenous tradition.

I was surprised by how large the cemetery was, and we didn’t have time to see everything. We will definitely be returning.

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