Indigenous People of the Lake and Peninsula Borough

Archeological evidence confirms that Alaska Native peoples have inhabited Bristol Bay for thousands of years and suggests that over time indigenous cultures arose and disappeared or moved through the region leaving evidence of their occupation. A site on the Ugashik River that has been dated to 9000 years is the oldest known site of human occupancy in the Lake & Peninsula Borough. Oral history as well as the archeological record suggests that conflict was not uncommon between the differing indigenous groups and within the same groups. At the time of first contact with Russian explorers and traders in the late 18th and early 19th centuries there were three distinct indigenous cultures within the area now encompassed by the Lake & Peninsula Borough each with fairly defined territories that, through cultural traditions and place names, are still recognizable today. These indigenous cultures are the Sugpiaq (Alutiiq), the Central Yup’ik and the Athabascan (Dena’ina).

The Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) homeland spans Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island, and the Alaska Peninsula. Within the Lake & Peninsula Borough the regions south of the Naknek River from Egegik to the Chikniks were generally Sugpiaq lands. The historical record suggests their influence may have extended further up into Kvichak Bay until supplanted by the Aglurmiut, a Yup’ik cultural group that likely moved into the region in the early 1800’s. The language of the Surpiaq people is similar to that of the Yup’ik people.

The Sugpiaq were an ocean people and relied upon the skin-covered qayaq (kayak) and angyaq (large open boat), for hunting marine mammals, but they also adapted to hunting on land for caribou and bear. Most Sugpiaq villages were on the coast or along rivers where people could easily access their most important food source – salmon.

The seafaring capability of the Sugpiaq was of particular value to Russian traders when they arrived in Kodiak. Sugpiaq men were forced to hunt sea otter from kayaks, sometimes paddling hundreds of miles and being gone from their homes for months at a time. Others had to provision the Russians with whales, fish and game. Women prepared plant foods, dried fish and clothing for the traders. During these years people suffered from disease and malnutrition. It was a dark, traumatic period. Thousands died.

However, by the time Russians became influential on the Alaska Peninsula reform in the management of the Russian-American Company had generally ended the policy of forced labor. Alaska Natives became employees instead of slaves. Atrocities ended, and some health care and education systems were put in place. Missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church were influential pressuring for better conditions. The Surpaiq people embraced Russian Orthodoxy and it persists in many of their communities to this day.

Parts of this description are taken from an essay by Gordon Pullar from the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska. To learn more about the Sugpaiq people visit:

The Central Yup’ik homeland in southwest Alaska extends from Bristol Bay to Norton Sound. In the Lake & Peninsula Borough the culture centers around the Naknek River and up the Kvichak River into the lower half of Lake Iliamna. Yup’ik people from the Nushagak River region also ventured into country up the Mulchatna River that is now within the boundaries of the borough. The first recorded observations of a Native culture in Bristol Bay were the Yup’ik people encountered by Russian explorers who ventured into the region in 1818.

The Yup’ik people who established settlements in the region where versatile hunters on both land and sea. Skin covered kayaks, boats and harpoons were employed for hunting sea mammals. Dog teams, spears and bow and arrows were essential tools for hunting inland for caribou. Salmon, however, were the staple of the Yup’ik diet. Yup’ik communities were close to the coast or along rivers or lakeshores with easy access to salmon. The traditional values of the Yup’ik people stressed—cooperation, sharing, diligence, humility and respect for others. The culture and lifestyle of the Yup’ik people from ancient times to today centers around a seasonal cycle of hunting in the spring and fall, catching and processing salmon in the summer and gathering in the larger community for the long winter.

Oral history and reports and observations of Russian explorers suggest the Yup’ik people were the most recent indigenous culture to establish roots within the Lake & Penninsula Borough, perhaps as late as 1800. The Yup’ik who came into the region were known as the Aglurmiut and were being pushed further west and south as a result of turmoil and conflict (known as the “The Time of Warring” or “War of the Eye”) with their cultural kin from the Kuskokwim River area - the Kusquqvagmiut. They in turn may have aggressively displaced the Sugpiag from the Naknek River area to the southern part of the Alaska Peninsula. 

As the Russian American Company expanded its reach into Bristol Bay in the 1820’s they brokered or enforced a peace among the warring factions of Yup’ik people in order to facilitate trade. The Russian Orthodox religion quickly followed and also became a unifying influence for peace among the indigenous groups of Bristol Bay.

Parts of this description are taken from an essay by Alice Aluskak Rearden from the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska. To learn more about the Yup’ik people visit:

Athabascan is an ancient culture that spread out across the land from the Arctic Circle to Cook Inlet in Alaska and across the western interior of Canada and down to the Navaho Nation in the southwest United States.  Athabascan peoples gradually separated into distinct, but similar, traditions -  Koyukon, Gwich’in, Han, Holikachuk, Deg Hit’an, Upper Kuskokwim, Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Tanana, Dena’ina, and Ahtna communities occupy different areas of interior and southern coastal Alaska. Their languages share the same complex grammar yet have developed different vocabularies. The people have varying subsistence practices, customs, ceremonies, and clan structures.

The Athabascan cultural tradition that took root within the boundaries of the Lake & Peninsula Borough is the Dena’ina. The Dena’ina occupied the coastal areas of Cook Inlet and ventured into the drainages of the Upper Kuskokwim and Mulchatna Rivers, Lake Clark and the Upper half of Lake Iliamna. They are the only Athapascan people to develop a tradition of maritime hunting. In Cook Inlet that tradition centered around the beluga whale and in Bristol Bay it was the unique population of freshwater harbor seals in Lake Iliamna.

Common to all Athabascan traditions is a belief that everything has life. The land and trees, animals, fish and birds all have spirits, and are treated with respect. Dena’ina communities in the Lake and Peninsula Borough today are on Lake Iliamna and the Newhalen River, but evidence of Dena’ina settlements can be found on the Mulchatna River and on Lake Clark where Kijik, the largest Dena’ina community in historic times, was located. An extensive traditional trail system connected the Dena’ina of Bristol Bay to their families on the Kuskokwim River and Cook Inlet

Parts of this description are taken from an essay by Eliza Jones from the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska. To learn more about the Athabascan people visit: