Hundreds of years ago, before anyone dreamed of a railroad or city, the Dena’ina subsisted off this land. A history touched on by Alaska Native Aaron Leggett, who joined Daybreak Wednesday to talk about his ancestors and his role in the documentary, “Anchorage Is…”

“So, my people, the Dena’ina, are the indigenous inhabitants of Southcentral Alaska,” Leggett explained. “We have been in the area for well over a thousand years.”

After a rough winter, the Dena’ina would venture to different creeks around Anchorage to retreat for the summer months.

“The Dena’ina used all creeks around Anchorage, but when we typically think about early Anchorage we think about Ship Creek and the founding down there,” Leggett said. “So, we usually talk about that as Stickleback Creek. Certainly all the creeks and the bluffs in areas in Anchorage were used by the Dena’ina. There was no actual winter village here. Our winter villages were in Knik and Eklutna, but we came to the Anchorage bowl in the summer.”

As Anchorage grew, fishing became harder for the people.

“In 1915, 100 years ago, it meant the end of fishing at Ship Creek,” Leggett said. “As Anchorage grew, our fishing became more and more restricted. So, you know, you can kind of watch it grow out. By about World War II, there were no Dena’ina fish camps in Anchorage. The last fish camps really that were continually occupied were out at Fire Island.”

Between the 1830s and 1840s, a smallpox epidemic wiped out half of the Dena’ina population. That was the time they were introduced to the Russian Orthodox Church.

“Our previous practice was to cremate human remains, but the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t allow that,” Leggett said. “As a compromise we constructed the spirit houses as a way to necessitate that. That’s probably what we’re most famous for today, a temporal portal that houses a person’s spirit until they made the final journey to the high country, what today we call heaven.”

You can see the more of Leggett in the documentary “Anchorage Is…” airing next Monday on KTVA after the NCAA championship game.

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