Native Tribe of Kanatak

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By Marlane Shanigan

Although some claim Kanatak, an Alutiiq village and for a short time, an oil exploration boom town, is an abandoned village, it remains inhabited in the minds of the Native elders and their offspring that deny Kanatak is dead.

Before Kanatak was put on the map, it was once a quiet village with Alutiiq/Russian village whose families lived off the land and sea traveling through the mountain passes to Becharof Lake and down to Egegik, Ugashik and other coastal communities. Kanatak managed to maintain its tribal identity transitioning into the 1920’s and weathering through the oil boom and 1919 pandemic. Families, such as the Amock’s Boskoffsky, Chernikoff, Fred’s Kalmakoff’s, Kosbruk’s, Giacommetti’s, Murphy’s, Rufe’s, Shangin’s Takak’s, Yagi’s, Yagosloff’s Survaloff’s and Zakoff’s, that were captured in the 1939 census are the backbone of our tribe.

Kanatak became synonymous with oil and gas industry in the 1920’s in Alaska, America’s newest frontier, sharing the limelight with only Katella in the entire state of Alaska. Walt Disney even had an interest in the Kanatak oil and gas leases!

The oil and gas boom town continued for about 30-35 years, ending quickly in the late 1940’s, after all efforts to produce recoverable oil failed. Needless to say, that when the oil companies left so did the stores, the bakery, the hotels, and the merchants. This was followed by the closing of the post office and later the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) School. The non-Native population was the first to quickly vacated the boom to bust town, eventually followed by the local residents who by now were becoming westernized and were told they need to put their children in the BIA school.

I remember the day in 1954 when my Dad finally made the decision that he too had no choice but to move his fast growing family to Egegik for the winter – normally, we would travel to Egegik only in the summer months to fish, now we were leaving our home in the fall. Because we were coming back, we left most all our possessions there in the large house that was once a store (Dad bought the house for $100 from Grandpa Harold’s uncle). I took off my Russian Orthodox cross and put it in a jar in the kitchen cabinet just to make sure it would not get lost and be there the next time we came back. Dad said later that he had a gun collection with guns from World War I and World II. Mom and Dad had numerous family pictures left in boxes I the attic and numerous other family treasures that were left there until we returned.

The next spring when we returned, every member of our family discovered that Kanantak was no longer safe from vandals and thieves, for we had all lost a great deal of our possessions. For me, I was devastated! My precious Russian Cross was stolen! I remember crying and thinking now I can’t get to Heaven! Dad had ALL his precious gun collection stolen, Mom no longer had our family pictures and my siblings all seemed to have a special item stolen!

Commercial fishermen from Kodiak discovered the treasures in this quaint little quiet town. It didn’t take them long to empty out the homes of the rifles, photos, and other items of value. Although some of the former members returned to their homes either by treks over the mountains, by boat, or by small aircraft, Kanatak eventually received less and less visits from its residents. While many articles on Kanatak refer to it as “abandoned,” several traditional families continued to maintain their residence there on a seasonal basis until the Wildlife Refuge initiated it’s ritual of “burn” everything down within their boundaries.

Through all this, as a federally-recognized village, Kanatak Tribal Council has the opportunity to work with Koniag, an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act regional corporation (who received the land under a Historic and Cemetery Site selection) and explore opportunities for our Alutiiq culture.

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