A federally recognized tribe in the Ahtna region of the Copper River area hopes to buy more than 450 acres of its traditional homeland and return it to the tribe.
A permanent village of Tazlina was established in the early 1900s near the confluence of Tsedi Na, or Copper River, and Tezdlen Na, or Tazlina River.
Tezdlen or Tazlina is one of eight villages in the Ahtna region. It’s about 70 miles north-northeast of Valdez and about 150 miles northeast of Anchorage.
And now the Native Village of Tazlina hopes to buy back 462 acres of land east of the village from the Catholic Church and return it to traditional and cultural use.
Village Council President Gloria Stickwan said the land would give the tribe better access to traditional fish camp and fish wheel sites.
Stickwan also works for Ahtna Incorporated as its customary and traditional environmental coordinator, where she reviews proposed state and federal hunting and fishing regulations and brings comments to the Cultural and Traditional Use Committee.
“We don’t have any other place to fish to use a fish wheel, because … we just don’t go to someone’s fishing site and start fishing there,” Stickwan said. “We really don’t have a place to fish unless we go to Chitina,” which is about 60 miles southeast of the village, about an hour and 15 minutes of driving. Stickwan said a lack of roads to the fish wheel site limits access to the Copper River.
The 460 acres equates to just shy of three-quarters of a square mile. But the land has historical and cultural significance to the tribe.
Tribal Administrator Marce Simeon started her position in May 2020 but has worked with the tribe for about 15 years.
“The families of Tazlina tribal members in our community have been utilizing that land right there specifically for generations to harvest salmon,” she said. “It’s such an incredible part of people’s diet day-to-day, even through the winter season.”
The Catholic Church bought the property from the federal government in the early 1950s so that the church could open a boarding school.
The Copper Valley School operated in the area for 15 years. But the school closed in 1971, and five years later a fire destroyed its main building. Over the years the remaining structures deteriorated.
“That land was essentially left vacant from the 70s until some years, I believe it was 2011, the Native village of Tazlina had a strategic planning process where we had identified that there were contaminants on that site because of the old school,” Simeon said. “Through our village, we were able to secure funding under the Environmental Protection Agency. Our brownfield program was a response program that identified that as a contaminated site in our community.”
A brownfield is a property or site that potentially is contaminated with hazardous substances or pollutants.
According to Alaska Division of Spill Prevention and Response, potential contaminants included asbestos, underground fuel storage tanks, lead-based paint and other pollutants.
“With the assistance of EPA, we reached out to the Catholic Church to clean up the debris that was left on that property, and they did,” Simeon said. “That was the last action that had taken place. And it’s my understanding that the archdiocese had incurred incredible expense in remediating that contaminated site.”
The Archdiocese completed the EPA- and DEC-mandated cleanup in 2014.
Now the federally recognized tribe is dedicated to buying back the land for cultural use, conservation and restoration.
Simeon says the church has since decided to liquidate the property to cover its costs. Since the church and the village had worked together previously, particularly to grant certain access to a fish wheel site, the Archdiocese reached out to the village.
“They wanted to see if we were interested in purchasing that lot, and we definitely were,” he said.
In 2011, tribal members prioritized a fish research center, a new meeting hall and open spaces for recreation and a community garden — for use of the property.
Simeon says the village currently works with the Catholic Church to monitor limited authorized use of fish wheels on the property.
Plans for the parcel would include turning it into a cultural gathering place, a tribal college, a place to host subsistence use fish wheels, as well as contribute to fisheries research.
“The process of harvesting salmon and consuming salmon is a lot more than just food,” Simeon said. “It’s such a huge part of a lifestyle here that individuals it’s really imperative to how hard it is to be a person in the Copper River.”
The Archdiocese of Anchorage declined to comment, other than an email response from chancellor John Harmon: “The Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau generally does not discuss details of its business transactions,” the email says. “The Archdiocese has established a very good working relationship with the Village of Tazlina and looks forward to the sale of the property.”
While the total asking price is $1,856,000, the village says the archdiocese will knock off $50,000 if the tribe can raise $50,000 by June 1, 2021.
While Tazlina has until next year to purchase the land, it is trying to get funding committed by this fall and secure one of its largest sources of funding to this point.
“We are pursuing some larger-scale funding sources because if you’re trying to come up with almost 2 million dollars, it’s nice to be able to get them in as big chunks as possible,” said Kristin Carpenter, who working as a fundraising consultant for the village on the project. Carpenter also served as the executive director of the Copper River Watershed project for a little more than 20 years. “But we also there’s a piece of that that is going to have to come from individuals and donors and, you know, smaller-scale sources.”
Interested donors can find more information on the tribe’s GoFundMe page or call the Native Village of Tazlina.
(Special recognition: Thanks to Phillip Sabon for pronunciation and translation help on the Ahtna river names.)