By Tana Finnesand, Cultural Resource Technician, AI Land Department
Nowadays, Tazlina Lake is a little off the beaten path. Once upon a time, though, it was a hub for the area. It had two salmon-spawning streams, a rarity in western Ahtna country. Anyone with rights to fish there congregated in summer to harvest salmon. Adam Sanford, who lived for a time at Tazlina Lake, said “We fish there all the time, all year round.” In the fall, hunters and their families came to hunt and put away sheep and caribou. Tazlina Lake lay along an important travel and trade corridor to Cook Inlet, and enterprising Ahtna denaes, such as Chief Tyone, traded with the Dena’ina, and later with the Russians and Americans.
There were several important settlements on Tazlina Lake, and some of today’s families have strong ancestral ties to them. Bendilden, ‘Where Stream Flows Into Lake’, was an old and very large village, possibly the most important village in western Ahtna country. It was home to the chief called Bendil Denen, ‘Person of Where Stream Flows into Lake’. Mrs. Morrie Secondchief lived there as a child. She recalled it was visited by families living at Tyone Lake, Old Man Lake, Susitna Lake, Lake Louise and Nicolai Lake. “People come way, all the way up. Come down, past Tyone Lake and past Lake Louise, past Old Man Lake and up here. You can see four trail about this steep yet. You can walk down, you never get lost…From Tyone, all come down.” She said Bendilden was abandoned because of disease early in the twentieth century. The survivors moved to the mouth of the Tazlina River but returned seasonally to hunt and trap.
Across the lake, the settlement of K’aay Na’, ‘Sharp Ridge Creek,’ was where the chief called K’aay Denen resided. According to Jim McKinley, Bendilden and K’aay Na’ were the first places to be inhabited “when people came into the region.” Mrs. Secondchief said the area near K’aay Na’ was used “for a long, long time, many years before my time” by her people for the spring and fall sheep harvest. Later, she said, during the 1920s, the Joe brothers used a cabin there as part of their trapline circuit.
A third settlement was at Tazlina Lake’s outlet, called Tezdlen Na’ Uyidadiniłen de – ‘Where It Flows Into Swift Current River’, or K’estsiik’e, ‘Outlet’. The village is at least 150 years old, but oral history suggests much longer. This is possibly the settlement visited by Russians, who in 1848 witnessed the spearing of four swimming caribou by Ahtna people living on the lake, and quickly traded beads for meat for their starving party. K’estsiik’e was occupied until around 1940.
In 1987 Secondchief, along with Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) staff, returned for a visit. She recalled with nostalgia her days fishing on Tazlina Lake, and the old-time house she remembered: “Back and forth we camp here I remember. We don’t stay one place. It’s so beautiful, they keep it clean that and up with the fish camp too. They keep it clean right there too. I remember they had spruce bark house. You know, they skin the spruce, big spruce…And make frame and they had little building in the middle, it’s home in there and can build a fire and smoke can go through, way up. It was there long time, it must have been hundred fifty years ago…And when I was kid, it’s still there. But it rotten down…where that fish camp they had.”
Adam Sanford via FDL unpublished notes; Jim McKinley via Holly Reckord Where Raven Stood; Morrie Secondchief, transcript of interview by BIA 8/30/1987, T14H1-0010-01MSecondchief; Ahtna Place Names Lists, version 3.3 by James Kari.