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KENAI: Unearthing the Past on the Refuge
Alaska Region, August 3, 2011
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Susten campers investigate a prehistoric house site near the Russian River on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Susten campers investigate a prehistoric house site near the Russian River on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. - Photo Credit: USFWS

Each summer, for nearly 20 years, one self-described “child-phobic” archaeologist and an assortment of young people have taken to the woods and riverbanks of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge searching for pieces of the past. What they’ve found over the years has shed new light on the early history of the area and helped the teens forge connections with their culture. And the archaeologist has learned she enjoys working with kids.

Susten Camp, or Trail breaking camp in the Dena’ina Athabascan language, was started in 1992 by Sasha Lindgren, the Cultural Heritage Director of the Kenaitze Tribe. Lindgren invited Debbie Corbett, the Alaska Region archaeologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, to incorporate archaeology into the camp’s cultural mission.

The long history of contact with Russian and American traders and explorers led to assimilation of the Dena’ina people and they eventually became almost invisible to their Euro-American neighbors. As a result, few people know of the Kenai Peninsula’s early history and the youth are even more detached from their roots. Incorporating a strong archaeological component into camp has been one way to bring this Native past alive to the modern descendants.

 

Archaeology is not a casual pursuit and Corbett decided that it wasn’t enough to want to do something fun with kids and give them a taste of archaeology.

“If we were going to involve the youth in archaeology they were going to do it right. The surveys were real, the excavations real. This posed some challenges,” said Corbett. “I was often the only ‘professional’ archaeologist on a crew with eight to 14 enthusiastic, but untrained, volunteers.”

The early camps were a tentative experiment in how to effectively involve youth in archaeology and how to integrate an archaeologist into a youth camp.

“The road hasn’t always been smooth, but youth are resilient, tribal leaders and camp counselors are patient, and archaeologists are trainable,” said Corbett.

The campers took to archaeology, with impressive diligence. They learned to look for features on the landscape that indicated signs of prehistoric habitation and to take care as they unearthed everything from stone tools to fish vertebra. As the campers developed skills and an interest in those who once inhabited the Kenai Peninsula many returned to Susten camp each summer.

Some summers were spent surveying the landscape, searching for signs of human use, and mapping features. Other summers included multi-year excavation projects at prehistoric sites, drawing, photographing, and cataloging excavated items before turning them over to a local museum. During another summer project the campers helped move an historic cabin to a new location and excavated the original site to recover information and artifacts that would have been lost in the move.

Along the way, the youth of Susten camp have contributed greatly to increased knowledge about the prehistory and history of the Kenai Peninsula and Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

“This is a highly successful partnership, friendship and collaboration,” Corbett said.
 


Contact Info: Maureen Clark, (907) 786-3469, Maureen_Clark@fws.gov



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