Quinhagak’s Nunalleq dig site starts a new chapter in community-based archaeology

Dr. Rick Knecht digs July 24, 2018, at the Nunalleq site. (Photo by Katie Basile/KYUK)

Dr. Rick Knecht digs July 24, 2018, at the Nunalleq site. (Photo by Katie Basile/KYUK)

Quinhagak took a big step to redraft its cultural narrative this month with the opening of the largest museum collection of Yup’ik artifacts in the world, located off the of the Bering Sea coast.

The village has been regaining pre-contact cultural knowledge, leading to a deeper understanding of its Yup’ik heritage.

The community gathered Aug. 11 to celebrate the official opening of the Nunalleq Cultural and Archaeology Center.

Qanirtuuq Inc., Quinhagak’s village corporation, owns the collection of 60,000-plus artifacts, and counting.

Elders have known about the old site at Nunalleq for some time. People were encouraged not to disturb the area, but artifacts began emerging as the permafrost thawed and the site eroded.

The University of Aberdeen, Scotland came in to help.

The window to save the items was small because most of the artifacts decompose quickly once unfrozen.

What they found confirmed old stories handed down by elders of what they called the Bow and Arrow Wars, which took place hundreds of years ago.

Elder Grace Hill spoke to a crowd of more than 100 people packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the corporation building. She’s glad the village corporation acted quickly to save the artifacts while keeping them under local control.

Hill encourages other tribal communities to do the same, adding that artifacts staying within tribal communities is crucial.

Dr. Rick Knecht explains July 24, 2018, the purpose of a small triangular piece of leather to student Lauren Phillips while digging at the Nunalleq site . The leather is likely caribou hide and was used to patch a larger piece of hide or clothing. (Photo by Katie Basile/KYUK)

Dr. Rick Knecht explains July 24, 2018, the purpose of a small triangular piece of leather to student Lauren Phillips while digging at the Nunalleq site. The leather is likely caribou hide and was used to patch a larger piece of hide or clothing. (Photo by Katie Basile/KYUK)

Many items in the past have been taken to places like the Smithsonian Museum for other people to learn from outside the Yup’ik cultural context.

Keeping objects in Quinhagak isn’t cheap, however.

“Most of those collections are organics, and so they need specialized skills to keep those maintained in a proper environment, and all of that,” said archaeologist Steven Street, who works with the Association of Village Council Presidents.

Parts of the collection were shipped until last year to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland to be conserved properly.

They opened up a laboratory on site last August, which has brought lab costs to preserve artifacts down considerably.

For elders like John Smith, a local carver who’s replicated many of the items dug out of the ground at Nunalleq, the rewards are in keeping with traditional Yup’ik values through passing down knowledge.

Smith says that it’s important through generosity and love to preserve and share the knowledge being gained at Nunalleq, where among other things, knowledge rediscovered in hunting tools can well mean the survival of those traditions and the hunters today.

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