The Dena’ina Indians had native names for all kinds of places on the Susitna river…villages, creeks, mountains, fishing and hunting spots, trails to here or there. Shem Pete shares a lot of those Dena’ina place names in his book “Shem Pete’s Alaska” written by Jim Fall and James Kari. (see my list of recommended reading). As I spend a lot of time out on the Susitna I love to use Shem’s book to identify the places the Indians traveled and named so long ago. These days these places are no longer called by their Dena’ina names very often by very many people. At Susitna village there was and still is to this day a hill made out of rock. It was about 40 feet long and overlooked the village jutting out into the river. These days I spend a lot of time on that rock overlooking the river near where our cabin is. For some reason it’s the only place where I can get a cell phone connection so I go up to the rock if I need to make a call. Here’s a picture of me standing on that rock overlooking a view of the Susitna River and also a close up of the rock I am standing on as taken from the river.
It’s fascinating that this rock was around when the Dena’ina lived here and still remains here today. The Dena’ina named this rock Tsat’ukegh meaning “beneath the big boulder”. Though the Dena’ina abandoned the village almost a hundred years ago, the rock still stands while the village itself has mostly disintegrated or been washed into the river. If you are standing on Tsat’ukegh there is also another rock outpost on the river across and upstream from Tsat’ukegh called Tan’ai by the Dena’ina, meaning “point that extends into the water”. The Dean’ina also settled on that side of the river and to this day there are still people who have cabins there. There is an old cabin from homesteading days that sits right on top of Tan’ai that has been there many decades. Our friends built a new cabin next to it and we’ve been to that property many times where I’ve stood by that cabin on that rock overlooking the Susitna River like so many before me.
These 2 rock outposts, Tsat’ukegh and Tan’ai, are at Susitna Station 20 miles up the river from its’ mouth in Cook Inlet. They have been focal points on the river as long as people have been here. They are on opposite sides of the river, one upstream and the other downstream from each other. The Denai’ina Indians have a legend about how they came to be that way. The legend was told by Alexandra Allowan in the book “Shem Pete’s Alaska”. It was about a man named Yubugh Tayqan (the man who paddled around the world) who came upon these rocks in the Susitna River when they sat side by side and killed people who fell in near them. He kicked them apart – one (Tsat’ukegh) and the other one (Tan’ai) on opposite sides of the river where they remain today. Here is a photo of me with both of them – Tsat’ukegh in the foreground and Tan’ai far off in the distance on the opposite side of the river.
The Susitna River remains relatively wild and untouched and I find it intriguing to travel to spots that the Indians traveled a hundred years ago and identify the places that the they traveled so long ago. I say to myself “this is where Shem Pete stood and this is the names he used so long ago.” In this way I try to honor the Dena’ina homeland and their legacy here. It’s a rich history.