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Afognak Village History
Compiled and Written by Dr. Gordon Pullar
Copyright © 2004 Native Village of Afognak

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As we walked the narrow rutted road past the old schoolhouse in the summer of 1999 I was concerned that 89-year-old John Pestrikoff may not be up for the hike he had insisted on taking. A colony of Russian Old Believers had purchased land and set up a small colony to the rear of what remained of the old village of Afognak and he was determined to meet them. He was not resentful of them moving into “his village” while he and all the other residents had been required to leave 35 years earlier. He just wanted to meet them and become acquainted with his new neighbors. John (usually called Johnny or simply “J.P.” by friends) had lived in Afognak from 1912 to 1964 when the village was mostly wiped out during the Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami. They established a new village, Port Lions, on nearby Kodiak Island and J.P. has lived there with his wife, Julia, ever since.

Sugtestun-Afognak map click to enlarge

Sugtestun-Afognak map   Zoom in or Download Hi-resolution PDF

J.P.’s formal education extended only to the fourth grade but he speaks three languages fluently. More importantly, he possesses a traditional education that can only be learned from those who lived “before” and gained from thousands of years of observations, storytelling, trials and errors, adaptations, and a crucial need to survive. The traditional knowledge necessary to live, provide, and thrive in this sometimes harsh and unforgiving environment is part of the fabric of John Pestrikoff’s very being.

J.P. is one of a vanishing group of trilingual Alutiiqs who were born in a time when the old Russian America part of Alaska was still adjusting to the new ways of the Americans. While this was happening, the Alutiiqs continued to practice and retain much of their traditional culture. J.P. spoke Alutiiq and Russian at home, Russian at church, and English in school. While he converses mostly in English these days, he remains fluent in the other two languages.

There were four of us who began the walk from the beach where we had landed in a skiff after a short ride from the Dig Afognak site at Katenai across the bay. Johnny’s 83-year-old wife, Julia (Knagin), began the walk with us, but wisely decided to stop to sit and wait for us along the road just past the abandoned schoolhouse. Emily Biglio (Christiansen) of Old Harbor, a youngster at fifty-something, continued with us. J.P. and Emily were deep in a conversation I could not understand. They were speaking Alutiiq (or more properly, Sugtestun, the language of the Sugpiaq people) as we made our way along the old winding road.

Afognak School

Afognak School

We passed the old schoolhouse in the part of the village known as Aleut Town. It still stood, even if damaged in the tidal wave and deteriorated by 35 years without maintenance. A modern fiberglass speedboat on a trailer, owned by the Old Believers, was parked next to the school’s front door, creating an incongruent sight. Green foliage grew heavily around the school and next to the road. Spruce trees of varying sizes sprouted out of the tall grass. Lush plant life was everywhere as it is throughout the Kodiak archipelago in the brief, but spectacular, summers. A short distance away, the remains of a house, severely damaged during the 1964 tsunami, were visible in a large clearing. Seagulls and ravens flew overhead with their usual incessant chatter. The indescribable sense of the innumerable generations of people who resided here for countless centuries was all around. The place was definitely alive!

J.P. led the way down the narrow road, even as it became muddy in places. He was definitely on a mission and his determination to meet the Russians seemed stronger with each step he took. Then the sound of a motorized vehicle ahead broke through the sounds of nature and got our attention. In a few seconds an All Terrain Vehicle, an “ATV” or “four-wheeler” to most Alaskans, came into view headed our way. Two men were on it and as they stopped they looked at the old man with interest or maybe even suspicion. J.P. greeted them in Russian and the mood changed. I couldn’t understand anything he said except for his name as he introduced himself. He later explained that he had introduced himself and told them he was from Afognak village. He just wanted to meet them and find out what they were doing there. They were surprised but spoke warmly to him. They were concerned for his safety if he tried to walk across a crudely built small bridge up ahead. The Russian Old Believers left and we continued across the bridge, the condition of which confirmed the two men’s concern. J.P. clearly felt a sense of accomplishment from walking in to meet these Russians. Or maybe he felt a little pride as he spoke to them so fluently in Russian, a language he probably hadn’t spoken much lately.

The Russian Old Believers were not the first Russians to come to Afognak. They were latecomers, just as the Russians who were there before them were. The first Russians arrived over 200 years earlier and severely disrupted the lives and culture of the Sugpiat, the indigenous inhabitants of southcentral Alaska. Unlike the Old Believers, the first Russians did not come in peace. They came in search of the valuable pelts of the sea otter, which were plentiful in this area. These Russian fur traders, called promyslenniki, had brought much of Siberia under their control and continued their eastward expansion to Alaska.

The promyslenniki greatly desired to establish a permanent outpost on Kodiak Island to act as a shore base for their fur gathering activities. They first arrived on the Kodiak Island area in 1761, but the Sugpiat fiercely resisted their attempts to establish such an outpost. Then in 1784, Gregorii Shelikhov brought more powerful weapons in the form of cannons and defeated the defending Sugpiat at Refuge Rock near present day Old Harbor. He was then able to establish a permanent post at Three Saints Bay and begin establishing smaller posts throughout the region. Among the first of these smaller posts was one on Afognak Island, established in 1786.

After many years of operations the Russian-American Company began feeling the effects of an aging workforce. By the 1820s this retirement age workforce was a problem with increasing numbers of employees on the payroll who were no longer able to work. Many of the aging Russian-America Company workers had married Alutiiq women and did not wish to return to Russia, so alternatives were explored. Thus, the company received imperial permission to begin establishing retirement communities for them.

One Russian-American Company retirement community was established next to the Alutiiq village of Ag’waneq on Afognak Island. This new village, first called Ratkovsky and later Derevnia , would continue a separate identity of “Russian Town.” Ag’waneq became “Aleut Town.” By 1843, the first year the Russian Orthodox Church register contains population figures for individual villages, the “Aleut village” of Afognak had a population of 93 “Aleuts” and 20 Russians. The “Creole village” of Afognak had a population of 80. These side-by-side villages became known as Russian Town and Aleut Town.

Few people can speak of Afognak memories without mentioning how the village was divided into Russian Town and Aleut Town. Families usually lived on one side or the other although some considered themselves to be residents of a zone in between the two. As Ivan Lukin said, “We were in the middle of town right, let’s see there was a lake called Big Lake, we were, we’d a been on the south end, south side of that. We had, they called Russian Town on the south end of town and Aleut Town was on the north end of the town so we were basically in the middle of the town.”

While the two villages became one as “Afognak” the identification of the two sides continued. To some, there was a distinct division of the village while to others the terms were just artifacts from another time and were considered simply geographical identifications. However the two sides were perceived, issues of the division were and remain central to descriptions of the village. The differences between the sides mean different things to different people. Whether it was a positive thing or not depends largely on which side one lived on and what their personal experiences were. The late Nicholas Anderson, who was born in 1918 and lived in Aleut Town said, “They were ‘upper’ than we were ‘cause we were on the Aleut side.” Gladys (Gregorioff) Olsen, who was born in 1910 and lived in Russian Town, said, “We spoke Russian most of the time and then they spoke the Native language and they had a village of their own….they call it Aleut Town.” Lars Larsen, born in Russian Town in 1923 to a Norwegian father and an Alutiiq mother, said, “I personally did not comprehend the difference. As a child I had no comprehension of racial lines or heritage had any effect on our relationships or our family lifestyle. We accepted them, they accepted us, as far as my contacts because my dad could speak the language too, he learned the language, the Aleut language.”

During the American period the village school was first established in the Russian Town side of Afognak but later moved to Aleut Town. In both locations, classes were conducted in English and children were punished if they spoke either Russian or their Native tongue. Gladys (Gregorioff) Olsen, said, “…We couldn’t speak Russian (or) they would get after us. Couldn’t speak any language other than English.” Julia (Knagin) Pestrikoff, said, “We were told not to speak our language in Aleut in school ground and we got spanked.”

Afognak showed its mixed heritage in many ways. While even into the late 20th century some Alutiiq villages didn’t have a store, Afognak had stores since the 19th century. By the early 20th century there were three of them. Gladys (Gregorioff) Olsen said, “There were three stores in Afognak and there was about two, three hundred people. So, . . . they had three stores and they all had different, you know, they were the general stores that had everything. They weren’t just what you call those stores with just one thing? Hardware stores. And it was everything in those stores. Clothing and cloth, hardware, groceries, and we used to buy by the hundred pound like sugar, flour, things like that so it’d last a while.”

Even though Afognak had stores the residents still depended heavily on subsistence foods from both the land and the sea. Children were taught to gather food at a very young age. Dennis Knagin, who was born in Afognak in 1930, said, “I used to row up into Litnik and I take my cousins out to pick seagull eggs... This Lamb Island we used to walk clean around the island picking seagull eggs. Helen Nelson and Julia Naughton now, they used to row out with her great, great grandfather’s dory. You know, we used to borrow that and row out. You know, when everybody was fishing I was just a little, I was youngest guy around that was old enough to go out and take them out picking seagull eggs.”

Julia (Lukin) Naughton, born in Afognak in 1929 said, “The good memories are the things that our mothers did with us. In the summertime she took us berry picking even if it was scary, you know, bears. We lived right on the edge of the forest and they came right up close to our house. And she’d take us berry picking but if we heard anything we ran right back home. And then she, we fished at night for, you know, our own home use. She made smoked fish and she really made good smoked salmon.”

Afognak was a village rich in relatives and despite the two sections of the village people had relatives on both sides no matter which side they lived on. In the time before television and frequent travel, people relied on relatives and friends for their livelihood and their entertainment. Victoria Nelson-Woodward, who was born in Afognak in 1952 said, “What I remember of my childhood in Afognak, I was surrounded by two sets of grandparents, numerous uncles and aunts and cousins. And one, my dad’s parents, grandma and grandpa Nelson, Alfred and Irene Nelson, lived next door to us.”

Holidays such as Christmas and Easter were extra special occasions in Afognak. These were Russian Christmas and Easter, of course, which fall two weeks after the American holidays. Dennis Knagin said, “I looked forward to starring, you know, Russian Christmas. In fact I didn’t know the songs but I used to like it. I used to like to listen to it and I slowly learned.”

Elders’ memories of Afognak are usually filled with specific events involving the church and the respect children were taught from birth. Helen (Knagin) Nelson, who was born in Aleut Town in 1914, said, “My memories of Afognak and what it was like, I thought it was the neatest place because it was laid out so nicely. And, what I liked about it, and I can remember that growing up that the first thing we were taught to do was respect the elders. And boy we did, I mean we had to toe the mark. …I still remember some of my fondest memories are attending the Russian Orthodox and the respect, reverence that the people had. My people, still today I call them my people. They had such respect for the holidays and for the things that were going on and the people seemed to band together as, like they say the theme is ‘We are One.’”

Hard work, sharing, and helping others was expected from everyone, from small children to adults. It was an accepted way of life that virtually everyone remembering it had positive things to say about. The hard work as children enabled them to be successful, self-sufficient adults. Ivan Lukin, born in Afognak in 1953, said, “And learned how to work hard and took care of my own clothes, school clothes and took care of my sisters’ clothes and stuff for wintertime. And so he gave me, he really, you know gave me a good upbringing as far as taking care of myself and learning how to work, so I really, it was a plus, a positive thing for me.” He continued by saying, “And just village life, no running water, you just worked hard for everything you had or you did, there was just nothing come easy, you worked hard. And I learned how to respect the fact that in order to get what you got, or get to where you’re going you got to work hard, and that’s, that’s me. You know I’ve seen that, I watched the old timers work that way and I just took it.” Remembering how Afognak residents always helped each others, Ivan Lukin said, “I remember days when in the fall when dad would come home and he’d be rolling thirty barrels of fuel up the beach by himself and somebody come by and they’d see him and before long he’d have half a dozen people helping him.”

Afognak survived many traumatic events over the decades and centuries. It survived the arrival of the Russians and the resulting enslavement of the men who were forced to hunt sea otters for them. It survived the epidemics that followed after the Russians arrived and the oppressive education system imposed by the Americans. It also survived the 1912 volcanic eruption of Mt. Novarupta on the Alaska Peninsula that covered the village in ash. It remained a distinct Native community after an influx of Scandinavian men in the early 20th century and the U.S. Army during World War II. Its physical structures, however, could not withstand the tsunami that resulted from the Great Alaska Earthquake of Good Friday, March 28, 1964. “Made me understand the awesome power of our Creator, seeing something like that happen,” said Ivan Lukin.

Today Afognak lives in the memories of those who resided there prior to the 1964 tsunami. But even that is an oversimplification. There are the elders, such as Johnny Pestrikoff, who remember life in the teens, the 1920s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then there are “younger elders” like Dennis Knagin, Julia (Lukin) Naughton, Betty (Larsen) Nelson and Nicholas Derenoff, who remember the World War II years, the 1950s, and the early 1960s. Following them are people like Ivan Lukin, Victoria Nelson-Woodward and Arlene (Garner) Nelson, who are in middle age today and who grew up in the 1950s or may have been small children in 1964. While their memories of their respective time periods are different there are also commonalities.

Nearly all former residents have fond memories of Afognak. They remember times of sharing. They smile as they reminisce about the fun they had at village dances and the happy music played by village residents. They remember the traditional healers and the magical ways they were able to cure illnesses and injuries. They remember strong families and hardworking children who had respect for elders. They remember the traditional foods from the sea and the land and the food they grew themselves in lush gardens fertilized with seaweed. Mostly they remember it as a good place to live. As Nicholas Derendoff (born 1933) said, “Boy, I’ll tellya, I have a lot of good memories of living there as a kid.”

It is only after some probing that some will mention the more unpleasant things. The Russians had introduced alcohol so by the time any people who are alive today were born alcohol had been around for many decades. While it seems to have been rare, there was violence at times and even a murder. But the village was remote and people had to monitor their own community. It wasn’t until the 1950s that airplanes became a more common form of transportation. For the first few decades of the twentieth century the main mode of transportation was the wooden dory hand-powered by oars. Prior to the dories were the skin-covered qayaqs.

The components of the events of that 1999 summer day all come to bear on the history of this extraordinary place. Johnny Pestrikoff, an Alutiiq with a Russian surname, speaking in his Native tongue, a schoolhouse built in the American era, and the remains of houses providing a stark reminder of the tragic event of March 27, 1964, the tsunami that ended the life of the village that had survived for centuries. Yet, had it really ended the life of the village? I don’t think so. When Native residents cease to reside in a certain village for whatever reason, outside “experts” usually refer to the village as abandoned. The word “abandoned” implies that the people who left have no intention of returning. If that is the case Afognak is not abandoned as some people still hold out hope of returning. There are others who keep the village alive in their minds but more importantly in their hearts. Today many of the former residents live in their relocated village of Port Lions on Kodiak Island or many other places from Kodiak, to Anchorage, to Seattle and places in-between. As they pass on this sense of place from one generation to another it becomes clear that in their hearts and minds Afognak will live on forever.

Chapter 1 »   Chapter 2 »   Chapter 3 »

1. The indigenous people of Kodiak Island, Afognak Island, the southern Alaska Peninsula, the lower Kenai Peninsula, and Prince William Sound called themselves Sugpiat, meaning “genuine human beings.” The singular is Sugpiaq. The Russian promyshlenniki called the Sugpiat by the name of Aleuts, a title they brought with them from Siberia. Over the years, the Sugpiat began using the term Aleut themselves even if it had no particular meaning. However, the word Aleut in Sugtestun, the language of the Sugpiat, becomes Alutiiq. When the American period began many Sugpiat began using the term Aleut as was used by the Americans and stopped using Alutiiq. However, late in the 20th century a revival of the term Alutiiq took place, at first mostly to distinguish themselves from the Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands.

2. Naske and Slotnick 1979:27

3. Fedorova, Svetlana. The Russian Population in Alaska and California: Late 19th Century – 1867. p. 115.

4. Arndt, Katherine. “’Released to reside forever in the colonies:’ Founding of a Russian-American Company Retirement Settlement at Ninilchik, Alaska.” In: Adventures Through Time: readings in the Anthropology of Cook Inlet, Alaska. p. 237.

5. Derevnia means “village” in Russian, Harvey, Lola. Derevnia’s Daughters: Saga of an Alaskan Village. p. 21.

6. see Oleksa

7. Orthodox Church clergy registers, ROC records, containers D252-D253, reel 174.

8. Interview

9. Crowell, A., Steffian A. and Pullar, G. (eds.). Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People. p. 80.


Afognak History

Dennis Boskofsky
Dennis Boskofsky