Thursday, May 1, 2014

Nenana Native cemetery a peaceful place to rest

On the south slope of Toghotthele Hill (pronounced tog-hot-teelee), across the Tanana River from Nenana, sits the Nenana Native Cemetery. It is a wonderfully peaceful place, shaded by aspen, cottonwood, birch and spruce trees. We visited it several years ago in late June and spotted lady’s slipper (also called moccasin flower) blossoms profusely covered much of the hillside. 

The cemetery is approximately one mile east of the Parks Highway at the end of a gravel road that winds up the hill. There is no overarching design to the site. Most of the graves are in small hollows or on the hill’s 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’s Russian Orthodox cemeteries, but the Orthodox Church never penetrated into the Tanana River Valley until modern times.

Russians established a trading post at Nulato (an Athabascan village on the west bank of the Yukon River about 300 air miles west of Fairbanks) in 1839, but only traveled beyond that on a seasonal basis. They made periodic trips up the Yukon as far as an Athabascan trading site called Nuklukayet at the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana rivers, but as far as I know, never ascended the Tanana River.

Examples of grave fences could be found in many parts of Eastern Interior Alaska during the late 1800s though. U.S. Army Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka floated down the Yukon River on a reconnaissance trip for the federal government in 1883 and reported fences around Native graves as far east as Fort Selkirk in Canada. He mentioned a grave fence in the Rampart area similar in appearance to “Western” style fences, but the ones in Canada were merely rough boards bound tightly together with cords. It’s probably debatable whether erecting burial fences was “borrowed” from Russian America or reflects an independent indigenous tradition.

Athabascan Indians have occupied the lands around Nenana for generations and a seasonal village was located there before westerners began exploring the Tanana Valley at the beginning of the 1900s. I’m not sure anyone knows exactly how old the cemetery is, but it probably dates to sometime after 1907, when the Episcopal Church started a mission at the village. Church literature first mentions burials at Nenana in 1911, the year a missionary for the church and an Athabascan child were interred on the hillside.

It appears that the main part of the cemetery was originally just along the high bank above the river. After a 1920 influenza epidemic in Nenana, (when up to a quarter of the village’s Native residents died) there were about 40 graves located there. However, when the Alaska Railroad built a bridge across the Tanana River and ran its tracks along the base of Toghotthele Hill in the early 1920s it relocated many of the graves higher on the hill.

One of the surprises at the cemetery is a huge Celtic cross (shown in the drawing) that marks the grave of Annie Cragg Farthing, the first Episcopal missionary at Nenana. Farthing, who served at Anvik and Fairbanks before moving to Nenena, was in charge of the mission for its first four years. She died while nursing one of the mission’s boarding students (who also died a few days later). She and her young charge were buried side by side on the hillside overlooking the mission.

The cemetery is still in use. Please be respectful if you visit.


  • Bureau of Land Management land records
  • “Modern Foragers: wild resource use in Nenana Village, Alaska, Technical Paper No. 91.” Anne Shinkwin & Martha Case. Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 1984.
  • Photograph of Nenana Native cemetery taken by Alaska Engineering Commission in 1922. Cook Inlet Historical Society. Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center
  • Photographs of Nenana Native cemetery taken by Rev. Frederick Drane between 1915 and 1920. Frederick B Drane collection. UAF Archives
  • “Report of a Military Reconnaissance in Alaska made in 1883.” Frederick Schwatka. U.S. War Department. 1885
  • “The Alaskan missions of the Episcopal Church, A brief sketch, historical and descriptive.” Hudson Stuck. Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, 1920
  • “The Spirit of Missions, an illustrated monthly review of Christian missions, Vol. 76.” Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. 1911
  • “The Upper Tanana Indians.” Robert A. McKennan. Yale University. 1959

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