Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation on The Humans Outside Podcast.
Amy Bushatz: No matter who you are or where you go heading outside, even for just a few minutes is well worth it. Welcome to Humans Outside where we’re using the Humans Outside 365 challenge to build a life habit around spending time in nature while learning from fascinating outdoor mind guests I’m Amy Bushatz I’ve let curiosity be my guide as a journalist for 19 years, but life, including my husband’s injuries from military service, had us looking for a better way to live. So we moved sight unseen to Alaska to see if an outdoor focused life was the answer. Since September, 2017, I’ve spent at least 20 consecutive minutes outside every single day, no matter what to explore, how nature can change my life.
Ready to hear from experts and outdoor lovers who make heading into nature just a part of who they are while we work to do the same? Let’s go.
Have you ever stopped to think about the people who loved, used or lived on your favorite outdoor spaces? This was something I thought a lot about as a kid growing up on the central coast of California, I spent hours and hours outside wandering the beach mostly alone and often wondered what it would’ve been like to be one of the Olone people who once called it home. Today, I spent even more time outside than I did then living and recreating in Alaska, where there is a rich and not very distant cultural history of indigenous land ownership.
And as people who are not personally connected to, or members of indigenous nations get outside and use the land, it feels important to not just honor its past uses and heritage, but to also understand how to recreate on it and use it in such a way that does that too. So how do you learn that? Where do you start ?Today I’m excited to welcome Aaron Leggett, a member of the Deni, a tribe and president of the Native Village of Eklunta to help us with this subject. This subject is a passion point for him and has been part of what has driven a project he’s done with the city of Anchorage to install Native place name signage on popular recreation spots in the city. He’s also the senior curator of Alaska history and indigenous culture at the Anchorage Museum and am really honored that he’s taking the time to guide us today. Aaron, welcome to Humans Outside.
Aaron Leggett: Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here.
Amy Bushatz: Well, I just really appreciate your time and your, your expertise, both personal expertise and professional expertise in this. And I just am so glad that you’re willing to share that with us today and, and help us and guide us on this particular subject. So, so thank you.
Uh, We start our episodes imagining ourselves in our guest’s favorite outdoor space, like we’re hanging out with them somewhere, they love having this conversation.
So if we were gonna hang out and talk with you somewhere outside, where would we be with you today?
Aaron Leggett: Probably my favorite spot today is at Idlu Bena or Eklutna lake. It’s located about seven miles from the Village and although there’s, some, a few cabins and recreational trails to me, it’s the one spot in Anchorage that really feels like ancient or it’s where I feel most connected to my ancestors. Looking out on the lake and seeing it, and it’s beautiful. Uh, It always surprises me how many people from Anchorage have never been there. Although I will say in the last couple years with COVID, there does just seem to be quite an in increase in people recreating, not just in, in Eklutna but throughout the Anchorage parks, but certainly I’ve noticed quite a bit of an uptick there in the last couple years.
Amy Bushatz: Yeah. And if listeners ever look at my Instagram feed, you might have seen pictures of this spot. It’s about, you said seven miles from the Village, and that is a seven windy narrow road miles back into this valley. The lake is this gorgeous sort of blue ice blue color depends on how the sky looks.
And there is no cell reception back there. So it’s a great place to go and just really unplug from the modern world, whether you really wanted to or not, because there is no cell service. Um, and uh, y’all might have seen pictures of me being out there, running in the summertime, probably saw pictures of me being out there in the wintertime. It’s one of the places you mentioned, Aaron, the cabins there, we stay in the cabins a couple times a year. So, if podcast listeners are familiar with my Instagram feed, you’re familiar with Eklutna so that’s great. You can imagine yourself there too.
So people outside Alaska, speaking of connectivity may imagine it to be very rural.
Alright.. And um, you know, we know like a lot of it’s rural, right. But not true of everywhere, certainly not true of Anchorage proper. So you grew up in the Anchorage area and the Village where you’re president as we just mentioned sits seven miles from that lake, but it’s also off the state’s most heavily used highway.
Aaron Leggett: Yeah, that’s correct. It’s about 26 miles from downtown Anchorage. The Native Village of Eklunta is the only federally recognized tribe in the municipality of Anchorage. And basically when you get just a little bit past Eklunta you leave the municipality of Anchorage and you enter the Matanuska Susitna Borough.
Uh, So we’re, we sort of sit at the northern edge of of the city, so to speak. Certainly by Anchorage standards, Eklutna is pretty rural when you get past Eagle river, really, I would say it becomes these small little pocket communities and Eklutna is the smallest of those. But yeah.
Amy Bushatz: But it’s not in the middle of nowhere. It’s not, you know, people imagine I, I get asked all the time if I live, near a grocery store and I live in the subdivision. Right. So the, this sort of imagined picture of Alaska is not where you and I live today.
Aaron Leggett: No, certainly not. But you know, thinking about how much it’s changed in a couple generations, I like to tell people: when my grandmother who was born just south of the Village in Birchwood was born in 1933. Anchorage had a population of about 5,000. And when my mom was born in Peters Creek, which is about two miles, two or three miles south of Eklutna Anchorage had a population of about 90,000. When I was born in Anchorage in 1981, Anchorage had a population of about 180,000 and today I think I just saw the official census numbers were just under 300,000. We were above 300,000 a couple of years ago, but were like at 295, I think. So within a couple of generations, you’ve seen this massive increase. And so the experiences that I’ve had growing up in Anchorage are different than the experiences my mom had and certainly what my grandma or my great-grandmother had.
But, you know, you talk about grocery stores and I can think about, you know, when I was a kid, even the closest, proper grocery store was about maybe 15 miles from my grandmother’s house. Now there’s one in Birchwood about five miles away.
Amy Bushatz: Right right. So, speaking of growing up in sort of a more cityesque setting, can you give us some background on your own journey, how you became to be someone who likes to head outside and who’s who has that favorite spot as being by at Eklutna lake?
Aaron Leggett: Sure. So I, the way I like to describe it is I grew up in Anchorage I lived a very idyllic, I guess looking back on it, middle class, 1980s, 1990s childhood. Anybody that’s watched sort of Stranger Things, I mean, minus all the weird paranormal stuff that, jumping well, jumping on the bikes and going with my friends and exploring some of the parks near us, I grew up in east Anchorage close to the Chugach foothills.
And so there was a park, like right off our cul-de-sac. And then if you went maybe about six blocks towards the mountain there’s all sorts of trails. Technically they’re owned by the military, but in those days as far as I know, they were only used maybe once every five or six years.
Uh, I’m told now that they’re getting a lot more use. But basically we had these woods that we could go play in and run around in, in a group of us. I mean, it’s kind of amazing. Certainly there were bears and things back there, but we never thought about that um, when we were kids, but what really changed was after I graduated high school I had a background in tourism.
I was a tourguide on the Alaska railroad, my junior year of high school, and I took tourism at the King Career center, but in 1999 a year before I graduated, the Alaska Native Heritage Center had opened up and I can remember them building it. But in 2001, I applied for a job at the Heritage Center because of my background, primarily in tourism.
And it was a good paying job. So I thought, you know, I’ll, I’ll go here. I’ve got a background in tourism. I’ll learn a little bit more about my heritage and that’ll be that. I thought I’d be doing more kind of typical tourism sort of stuff, introducing dance groups, videos, guiding people around. But I was surprised when they put me outside at the, one of the Athabaskan recreated Village site, because I felt like I wasn’t from a rural setting. And what would I have to say?
So I learned from other people and I started reading and within about a week, or uh, maybe about a month, I found that I was actually more interested in knowing more of my people and our background and all Alaska Natives in general than I was in sort of the standard Alaska tourism as it’s normally thought about.
And so, the other thing was I met other young, Alaskan Native people and they asked me where I came from and I said, I’m from here. And they said, no, where’s your Village. And I said, we’re from here. And they said, what do you mean? I said, I’m from Eklutna, we’re Dena’ina. And they said, what’s that? And so I realized that when other young, Alaskan Native people young, I say, twenties and, maybe even early thirties at that time had no idea that who we were or that we still existed.
Um, I decided I wanted to change that narrative. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was gonna do that, but I knew it was the right thing to do, and I knew nobody was really pushing for that. So, I changed majors in college and got a degree in anthropology and started working on some projects at the first, at the university. And then they transitioned into my career.
Amy Bushatz: Would you mind giving us some background on the Dena’ina? Where, uh, you know, you mentioned Anchorage and that nobody really knew that you existed. Yeah. So talk about traditional lands and then also about land own and managed by your people today.
Aaron Leggett: So, the Dena’ina are the indigenous population of what is today typically referred to as south central Alaska. Today about 60% of the state’s population lives within our traditional homeland. If you were to get out a map our traditional boundaries extend down south of Anchorage to the Kenai peninsula and into Katchimak Bay around Saldovia, across Cook Inlet, towards the west side of Cook Inlet .They extend into uh, Iliamna lake, the sort of Northeastern tip of Iliamna lake, all of Lake Clark, the upper Stony river area, and then north of Anchorage, north east of Anchorage, our sort of boundaries are towards just past Palmer towards the Village of Chikaloon which is kind of a mixture between Dena’ina and Ahtna Athabascan people.
And then north of Anchorage, they extend about 200 or about 120 miles, 130 miles north to the Talkeetna mountain area and just south of what today is now known as Denali state park. So it’s a massive geographic area about 44,000 acres or 44,000 square miles, excuse me. And there’s four mutually int intelligible dialects of Dena’ina, but we’re one people.
The thing that separates the Dena’ina from other Northern Athabascans or Dene people of which there’s 11 in Alaska is that we are the only Northern Dene, or Athabascans who lived on saltwater. So, when, if anybody knows anything about Athabascan people, they typically think of them as hunter, and fisher and trappers of a boreal forest.
And certainly we have all those things, but we also utilized some of the marine resources and some of the technologies like we had kayaks and , large skin boats and hunted beluga whales and some seals -Cook Inlets not a particularly rich sealing environment or same thing with sea otters. But there are some.
So we we had all those things and also historically Cook Inlet was a very productive ecosystem for salmon production. So, that’s a little bit, I guess, about who the Dena’ina are.
Amy Bushatz: Yeah. So how were your traditional lands and well, you didn’t maybe back up for a second. What, so those are the traditional lands. What is your current land?
Aaron Leggett: Sure. Yeah. Okay.
Amy Bushatz: And I know we’re gonna get a little bit technical here, probably talking about Native corporations. So if you don’t mind yeah just explaining in our, in our nutshell that we’ve, I know we’ve talked about before what a Native Corporation is for people who are not familiar with that term.
Aaron Leggett: Right. So, uh, in Alaska unlike the rest of the United States, there aren’t really uh, reservations. There’s one reservation at the very Southeastern tip of Alaska, but that’s sort of a historical anomaly anyways.
The United States in 1867 purchased Russia’s interests in Alaska. So basically it purchased the assets of the Russian America company and a little bit of the land that had been developed around those locations, primarily a couple of places out in the Aleutians in particular, the Pribilof Islands Kodiak, Kenai, Sitka, St. Michael were the big ones.
So, you know, from 1867 until really the 1890s the issues around land in Alaska were pretty murky. There had to finally become sort of civil jurisdiction of Alaska. And the district of Alaska was created largely to settle uh, mining claims and fish cannery owners that, that wanted title to their property.
But Alaska Native property issues were largely ignored. And this continued into the 20th century. Um, Although certainly the federal government through the Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs did manage some aspects of Native lives, just like they would in the lower 48. But what really changed is in 1959, Alaska went from being a territory to the 49th state and in the statehood act, the state of Alaska was able to select, I think about 105 or a 106 million acres of land, which is roughly about a third of the state of Alaska. And so all of a sudden lands that the, the new state government is selecting are usually locations where indigenous peoples of Alaska had always considered to be part of their lands.
And they became worried. uh, There were also a number of initiatives that were quite uh, frightening to Native people, large projects. Two of them one was called the Rampart dam, which would’ve created at the time, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. And what it would’ve done is it essentially would’ve blocked in the middle of the Yukon river, it would’ve created a massive lake and would’ve flooded 10 interior Villages to create hydroelectric power. So that was one and another one was near the Village of Point Hope, about 20 miles from the Village of Point Hope, there were plans to detonate seven atomic bombs underwater to create the northernmost ice free port and the, the engineering and the science at the time believed that this would’ve no impact on the people or the animals around it. So Alaska Natives started to become concerned and
Amy Bushatz: I’d say
Aaron Leggett: And started to form local uh, or regional associations to start lobbying to get some sort of land settlement, or at least halt some of these projects. And uh, starting in about 1966 with the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives, for about five years until 1971 to be exact December 18th, 1971, Richard Nixon signed into law the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. This act allowed Alaska Natives to retain about 44 million acres of land and to receive just under a billion dollars in compensation for lands that had been taken uh, to create 12 regional corporations and approximately just under 200 smaller Village corporations to divide up those lands and money.
And so, in, in a nutshell in Alaska, we don’t have reservations. We have corporations. And any Alaska Native with at least one quarter Native blood born on or before December 18th, 1971 became a shareholder in one of these regional corporations and could also enroll into one of the smaller Village corporations.
So, In our region the Dena’ina of people are actually split between three regional corporations. The biggest one or the, that has the largest number of Villages is the Cook Inlet Region Incorporated that has the Dena’ina Villages Dena’ina and some other Native kind of mixed Villages at Seldovia, Ninilchik, Kenai, Salamatof, Point Possession, Eklutna.
Knik, Talkeetna and Tyonek and then there’s also towards Bristol Bay the Villages of Pedro Bay and Nondalton were enrolled into uh, the Bristol bay Native corporation and for sort of a historical anomaly the Dena’ina Village at Lime Village, the most rural isolated Village for the Dena’ina and all, probably one of the most isolated Villages in Alaska came enrolled into Calista and it’s one of, it’s the only kind of strictly Dena’ina Village. And there’s a couple, two, two others that are a bit mixed between Dena’ina and upper Kuskokwim, Athabascan and a little bit of Yup’ik in there, but most of the Calista Villages are Yup’ik Eskimo uh, people. So, but what we’re talking about right here in Anchorage my Village corporation is Eklutna Inc.
It had originally I think 129 uh, original shareholders today were up around 180. And today Eklutna Inc is the largest private landholder in the municipality of Anchorage. We also have some significant holdings in the Matanuska Susitna Borough because we were not able to um, by the 1970s, there were not enough lands to be able to be selected in our Homeland or right in our proper Homeland, I guess, although we did always extend in that area too, but,
Amy Bushatz: So so what we’re saying is that most of the Village corporation land is in fact in or around the city, which is both means both development and cityesque-uses.
I know you and I talked about the fact that you guys own the uh, landfill, right? For example so city-esque uses, but also adjacent to the city in places that people recreate.
Aaron Leggett: Correct.
Amy Bushatz: Or want to recreate right. With maybe out with maybe they don’t realize that where they are is not public property, because the really key thing here to know from what I’m hearing from you is that from all, for all practical purposes, the unlike the lower 48, where Native peoples have reservations, you have private land.
That’s just, it is for all practical purposes, it is privately owned property.
Aaron Leggett: Correct.
Amy Bushatz: And. There, isn’t a great way to tell when you are somebody out for a hike where one starts and the other one stops which is one of the reasons we’re talking today.
Aaron Leggett: Yeah, it’s tough. I mean, if you’re really paying attention, especially if you go up towards Eklutna Lake, there are some signs. We do put up quite a few, no trespassing signs, although a lot of them get ripped down.
But just for a frame of reference, most of the land on the, if you’re facing the lake on the right hand side of the lake, the side that doesn’t have a trail, that’s all Eklutna land that’s being managed currently by Chugach state parks. And there’s a number of places where we have easements.
But then there’s also, other locations that we’ve developed into, subdivisions and housing. Um, So it’s finding that balance. And that was one of the challenges. Initially when the incorporators of the Village corporation were selecting lands, they were both trying to find lands that would be obviously of the highest and best economic use, but they also wanted to protect lands that were exceedingly important culturally and spiritually. And so also obviously a lot of the land as closest to the Village would’ve been selected uh, so that, a subdivision didn’t pop up right next to the Village.
They wanted to maintain as much as they could the more rural characteristic. Today about 50 of our, our members live in the Eklutna Village proper. But uh, there’s about 300 tribal members that are again, spread out throughout the city and the state and even the lower 48.
Amy Bushatz: So, I guess the other thing to know is that as you mentioned, there were traditional land. So not land currently held by the corporation is humongous. I am talking to you on Dena’ina, traditional Dena’ina land right now. And we are not geographically close together per se. I mean, you’re probably about 40 miles from me right now, right by road. So your traditional lands are very vast, which means that even if people are not recreating or using land that is currently owned by the Dena’ina, it was previously used by the Dena’ina. Which is why we are talking today to talk about the respectful and um, and, and use of these traditional lands and what people need to know and think about while they’re using it to really keep that in mind and be respectful of that.
Aaron Leggett: Right. Yeah. Pretty much all the land sort of north of Anchorage. When you go south of Anchorage when you get past what today is now called ironically Indian, Alaska before the railroad and the roads came in the only way to access those lands were by boat. Because the mountains literally came right down to the ocean and the areas like around, I I’ll get a phone call maybe once every couple of years from somebody and they’ll ask what was the Dena’ina use around Girdwood for example, a popular ski resort in sort of mountain town. And I have to tell ’em that we had very limited use of that area for a couple of reasons. Number one, it wasn’t a very subsistence rich area for us.
There was much more desirable lands. It was also very hard to get to. And it was kind of also a borderland, a no man’s land between us and the uh, Chugach uh, Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound over the mountains at what today’s Whittier. So there were a couple of locations that we didn’t visit that much, but generally speaking, most of the lands, unless you’re up in some of the most sort of inhospitable, highest peaks, you’re really into mountain climbing or something wouldn’t have been used, although they certainly had those many of those mountains had Dena’ina names.
Amy Bushatz: Right. So. Speaking of Dena’ina names. I mentioned earlier that you’re working on a Native place name project, and this is gonna come into what we’ll talk about here in just a little bit, but just give us an overview of what that project is.
Aaron Leggett: Sure. Well this all really started to kick off in 2006, shortly after I graduated from college um, the city of Anchorage was looking for the name for its new $110 million convention center. And it was proposed I being, one of them had proposed that it be named after, instead of one individual that it be named after the indigenous people of south central Alaska.
It should be pointed out that we had tried unsuccessfully a couple years earlier to get both Eagle River high school and South Anchorage high school to be some sort of reference to the Dena’ina. But although they were considered, I would say they were not seriously considered, but anyways uh, make a long story short, we were successful with the Dena’ina center and so this kind of opened up most people’s eyes wanting to know, okay, who are the Dena’ina? I had no idea through my whole life. And so out of that became a number of projects, many of which we had formally identified in a class that I helped co-teach at the university of Alaska Anchorage in both locations that were important to the Dena’ina, but were also highly visible.
It’s not really a surprise that many of the places that are the most popular today for recreation by people are the same locations that the Dena’ina used, especially along the coast and the coastal trails. So, starting at Dgheyaytnu or Stickleback Creek or Ship Creek heading south all along the coast to.
Uh, Nuch’ishtunt, Point Woronzoff, Ułchena bada Huch’iłyut, Point Campbell Kincaid area um, G but new uh, rabbit Creek uh, Hkaditali, Potter Marsh. So, there had been a number of kind of standard what I would call park, interpretive panels. We’re all familiar with what they are.
Amy Bushatz: Yeah. Like, uh, you know, like you see on a trail that gives you some information about some sort of history and the
Aaron Leggett: Correct yeah, exactly. Or birds or whatever. And so we had done a number of those in a lot of those locations and that was great. But one of the things that I started to notice is that like anything. You have to stay on top of them and they have a 10 year shelf life
Amy Bushatz: mm-hmm yeah. They start peeling, the laminate gets weird. Yeah.
Aaron Leggett: I mean, even if they’re not sort of defaced with graffiti and that kinda thing.
Amy Bushatz: Right, right, right.
Aaron Leggett: Um,
Amy Bushatz: And let’s be honest our weather’s not great for keeping things in high quality situation. no, um, it’s rough out there. Right.
Aaron Leggett: And so, there were those, but what had occurred to me was I started to get a lot of inquiries for the same areas from different organizations. And so it being the, sort of the local resource, which I’m happy to be. I wanted more of a coordinated effort instead of just sort of, oh, we have this little pot of money, wouldn’t it be great to put it here and so forth.
And so because these organizations were interested, I think starting in 2016 2016 or 2017 I formed a group to come around this particular issue and really try to make it more of a larger place named movement that had a an agreed upon sort of aesthetic and design that made more of a sort of, I hate to use the word monument but more of a a visual statement, I guess.
Amy Bushatz: Right, right. Like noticeable. Right. Because that’s what you want. You don’t want somebody, let’s be honest. It’s easy. It’s easy to ignore the tiny signs. Right? Like you want something that people are gonna see and notice.
Aaron Leggett: Yeah. I do like the idea sometimes of people discovering, little pockets of things.
I mean, there’s even been a few things I’ve discovered that I didn’t know existed. There aren’t too many, but there’s a couple where there might be a passing reference to the Dena’ina but yes, but more substantial. And so, uh, I formed a group with uh, the Anchorage museum, the Alaska Native Heritage Center, the Anchorage Parks Foundation, South Central Foundation, the Alaska Federation of Natives, First Alaskans Institute, Housing Authority, Alaska Pacific University, and oh, the Bristol Bay Education Foundation to come together.
And we sort of talked through this whole process. We documented it sort of identified what are best practices with the goal of identifying approximately 30 locations throughout the Anchorage bowl, where we would like to see these interpretive markers installed. We knew going in that these are that it’ll be a major investment and that it is, it could take, a couple of decades to get them all in place.
So we sort of also categorized them into sort of three levels of priority. The first 10 being the sort of most visible highest yield, kind of most eyeballs, the most popular places that, that people recreate, but also were exceedingly important locations and started working on and, you know, installing them while fundraising I should say, and then eventually installing them.
So currently we have two on Chanshtnu or Chester Creek, one at the mouth of Chanshtnu at Westchester lagoon. I think, on a slow day gets a couple hundred people going by it. On busy day, couple thousand in the summer. And then there’s another one further up, not too far from actually where I uh, grew up in Northeast Anchorage at Chanshtnu Muldoon Park.
But also what’s great about that is that’s part of this whole redevelopment of that area. And so eventually it’s also our hope that we’ll develop a curriculum, a website, the virtual app
Amy Bushatz: And, these just so that people who aren’t familiar with these locations are picturing them. What you’re describing, these where these place names are, are really very much city parks. They are not, again, they are not in rural areas. They’re off of city streets. The Westchester Lagoon one is down the street from downtown Anchorage. Like maybe, I don’t know, a couple miles tops. It, these are very much city locations, right? And so when I’m imagining, when you place these there and pick these spots for those things, what you’re doing, isn’t just saying, this is what this used to be called.
It’s saying, this is a touchstone to how this land used to be seen and used before this development and these streets and these cars. And even these recreators who are out here, you know, enjoying this space now we’re here. This is the touchstone to the past.
Aaron Leggett: Certainly I, yeah, I would say certainly for the first 10 in particular the, then the next 10, I would say are still visited, but you could kind of see where it, it has much more of a rural feel to it.
Um, you know, Maybe they’re not right in Downtown Anchorage, they might be out right Eagle River up in the mountains. And then the last 10, I would say are broadly much more kind of isolated rural locations, or even closer to the Village that certainly people do recreate on, but maybe don’t think of them necessarily as a park, I guess, in the classic sense of the definition.
So, so yeah, they really do kind of run the gamut. Because again, I do like the idea of people uncovering some of these things that aren’t. So once they, especially once they become accustomed to it, I mean, and essentially discovering it at Westchester Lagoon, but if you have any sense of place and history, and you’ve been living here for any amount of time, you would’ve picked up at least some of this by now, you know, it’s been 15 years of these kinds of efforts.
Amy Bushatz: Right, right.
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So in addition to understanding that connection, it just by, if only that touchstone of the traditional name, can you walk us through best practices for recreating and using traditional lands. I’m thinking about the spots that aren’t private property now, but are part of the Chugach state park or even just where I live. My next door neighbor is a high school and of course that’s still traditional Dena’ina land. And there is a trail system on the back side of the high school that I use, you know, so it’s just things like that.
What are best practices for using these traditional land lands from that frame of reference? And how can we honor that tradition while recreating responsibly. I will add that we’re used to things like leave no trace and that kind of principle, but I’m wondering about maybe a step more.
Aaron Leggett: Right. Well, yeah, I mean that, that is a, that’s the biggest one, I would say obviously um, you know, also if you do come across uh, something that says, private property, no trespassing, owned by Eklutna Inc. be respectful of that. But um, so those are the obvious ones, but it’s also, I think what’s important about what you said about leave no trace is an ethic that the Dena’ina practiced incredibly diligently. And so this sort of, in some ways came back around to to bite us in a sense that because you’re not seeing you know, massive areas that had been cleared out or, or something like that that you think nobody was here which is not true.
It was quite the opposite. Our belief was that you leave a place better than you found it. So, things like even if you’re not the one creating the trash, if you come across trash, pick it up, if you can, you know, those kinds of things. I mean, that all goes into it. I mean, I think that’s pretty standard stuff.
Amy Bushatz: But maybe a little bit of that is something really important you just said, which is this tradition of leaving it better than you found it. And when we leave no trace of our own and then take that effort extra step I’m, I kind of wonder if there isn’t a respect being paid in doing it because that is your tradition. Yeah. That now I’m taking that step because it’s inspired by the previous or traditional land owners.
Aaron Leggett: Right. Well it’s, and it’s also related to the idea that, you know, it’s sort of in in a lot of, and I don’t wanna paint a completely broad brush, but in a lot of ways, sort of the idea of Western thinking is that we are above nature and that we are sort of conquering it or tackling it or that we survived it.
You know what I mean? You think about first ascents or you think about people that like to pioneer new routes, all these things. It, to us, that’s not the way we think about it. We’re one with, in fact, the signs Ye’uh Qa Ts’Dalts’iyi, which means we live upon and with the outdoors.
So, when you’re picking up those things, it’s not just being respectful to to us, it’s also being respectful to the land itself, to the animals, to the plants, to the bugs. I mean, not to get too real, kind of, philosophical here but it all plays a part. And I know, it’s tough in some places, but you know, if you really, if you see something pretty egregious then and you can do something about it, you really should.
Um, You know, I, I think it’s also, yeah, again I know there is this belief of, when it goes back, I mean, the environmental movement of um, you know, in the classic way, we think of environmentalism going back to, you know, Henry David Thoreau or John Muir. But it’s largely built upon this sort of 19th century thinking that removes indigenous populations from their lands.
And that thinks that this is pristine untouched wilderness, and that does not exist. Again with very few exceptions, of areas that were just inhospitable and maybe because of climate change have become, more hospitable um, you know, indigenous populations were there. And so, I think, you know, just let the land sort of, speak to you.
And but also think that the Dena’ina were a part of it and that we’re still here. I think, you know, another thing thought is that unlike most of the United States where certainly on the east coast where indigenous populations were removed from their lands and sometimes in thousands of miles away we’re, we’re still here.
Uh, We’re still living largely on our traditional homeland. Now. It looks very different. You know, I like to say, despite all the hotels, offices and shopping malls that exist today, I know that I’m still walking on my, and my ancestors’ traditional homeland. Now it might be on a sidewalk, but the mountains are still the same.
The ocean’s still the same. I mean, obviously there are some, some changes, but just that sense of connection to place. I think that’s really, I guess what I’m trying to say is how can you not just extract from these locations, but how can you give back to them and feel connected to this place.
Amy Bushatz: So how can you give back to a place? When you’re outside?
Aaron Leggett: Uh, you know, being respectful of the land thinking about the Dena’ina people, making an effort to try to learn a little bit about the history of the area, you know, maybe you’ve got a favorite place.
There are some wonderful resources that exist, the best being a book called Shem Pete’s Alaska. It’s an ethno geography of Upper Cook Inlet that has documented most of these locations with they’re Dena’ina names, and a little bit of the history of these areas. Again, it varies, some of them might just be a place name that’s noted but in others uh, there’s, you know, rich oral tradition of these places.
Yeah, I think that just thinking about, in an trying to learn more and learning some of the resources and being an advocate for these places and supporting movements, like what we’re trying to do.
Amy Bushatz: You know, when you say, just thinking about it, I’m reminded of a, another interview for this season of Humans Outside that we’ll have aired when people hear our conversation with a gentleman named Ira Edwards, and he and I talked about disability access on the trails. And one of the things that came up was this idea that as somebody who does not have a disability, so myself versus Ira, who in a wheelchair is not this, this discussion is not unlike what you and I are talking about because you come from this indigenous population and I don’t right.
So for me to step in and be an advocate and for our listeners who are not from indigenous populations, or aren’t a member of the disabled community, it is an exercise in thinking. And when you think things suddenly they are in your awareness, and now you’re talking about them and, and asking about them and interested in them.
And now it everyone’s more aware because you are bringing it up and now this is something that factors into decisions that are made, right. Because we all suddenly care about it. And I think that people really underestimate the power that just that awareness has. You know, we say, just think about it.
Well, okay. That sounds like nothing, except that thinking about something becomes something over time, because it starts to drive you when it’s in your awareness like that. And that’s what, being a partner on something is all about. It’s just consistently making it a part of your priorities about the things that you bring up.
So it’s when I talk about trail access, I’m talking in Ira’s case, I’m also saying, well, have you, you know, when we’re building this trail, did you think about how far apart these poles are for getting on the trail? Because people can’t fit a wheelchair through here so how’s that gonna go? Or it’s saying, in that same conversation, when you put this trail in, did you, what was the connection with the tribes?
Did we talk to them? How does this honor the previous landholders? What is, you know, what, leave no trace principles. Are you practicing and putting this in? And I that’s just one example, but all of that stems from just a, just what you said, literally just awareness, right?
Aaron Leggett: One, I think you’re spot on it. And again, it should be inimportant, and it reminds me that this is not something that I really grew up with. This is something that I had to discover largely on my own on not completely but for the most part. So, I, as a kid, I did not think of this. I don’t wanna say at all. I knew that once upon a time, certainly we had fish camps at Ship Creek.
And that, you know, we practiced subsistence on the Eklutna river and the area around the Village, but that was about it. I did not, was not communicated to me any of this. But what I found was all of a sudden, especially after I started a concerted effort to learn my language, how much of that information became a part of my thinking whenever I would traverse through any of our lands.
So, so in, in a way it’s never too late to start and you don’t need to feel guilty uh, that, you know, it didn’t exist, but you know, what can you do to try to pick it up and I loved your, your analogy of the the accessibility issue for disabled and I guess, what you’re talking about too, is how can we do things in a more inclusive and smarter way.
Because it really, it’s a little bit more effort, but it’s not usually that much more of an investment.
Amy Bushatz: Right. Well, and it’s just, it really just goes back to asking the question.
Aaron Leggett: Right.
Amy Bushatz: So, so, okay. So let’s say we ask the question how did you include. indigenous tradition in this, or what was your connection with tribe when building this? Or how are we thinking about that while working on this project? So there are now two choices. The people who are doing the project can say we didn’t, and we’re not. Okay. And then you have the opportunity to say, but why? Or maybe they just didn’t think about it. Right? Right. So now they have the opportunity to take that next step.
And what Ira was talking about was it’s not ever that people don’t want to include disabled access. It’s that they didn’t bother to have somebody who is actually in a wheelchair come and be a part of the project. And so they didn’t think of all this stuff. It was, they, you know, rode to hell is paved with great attention.
Aaron Leggett: Yeah. One of the ignorance bliss?
Amy Bushatz: Ignorance is bliss, right? So many cliches, there are all sorts of them are possible here. And the reason there are so many is cuz they happen all the time. Right. So, uh, and so I would imagine the same discussion is uh, true here as well. Especially in Alaska, we have a lot of members of indigenous populations around. But for people who are in the lower 48, the population of Native Americans, compared to the non-Native American population is much smaller by percentage. And so it probably is actually a much bigger effort to ask that question and have that connection.
But it does not mean it’s not worth it. Right. It does not mean that it’s not important. And really at the end of the day, so much of this stuff comes back to the extra effort of thinking about interests outside of your own general realm of experience. It’s as simple as that.
Aaron Leggett: Yeah, no I, I think you’re, you’re spot on and it is also, it’s interesting, and part of it also comes from, the work that I do nine to five at the Anchorage museum where we actually have- historically museums haven’t had these discussions, but in the last 30 years, we’ve had very much these discussions around uh, ADA compliance and you know, when, how high you put labels up and how can people access things in multiple ways and all those things. So, we were actually sort of tasked with thinking about some of these things that the public doesn’t ever think about, but certainly somebody in a wheelchair would appreciate when they’re able to, go through an exhibition and not get stopped because the cases are too close together or, whatnot, or they can’t read the labels cuz they’re, you know, 48 inches instead of 36.
Amy Bushatz: Right. Right, right. And um, you know, it’s, it’s just, it’s that extra step and it, it can be hard to do, but I think that conversations like these really help with raising, not just awareness, like we were talking about earlier, but giving all the reasons why this is important thing to do. Because I, you know, something else you said earlier about the um, pristine untouched land, right.
That’s not true, but we’re taught to honor the space that we’re used as if that were true. True. It’s just, it’s the cultural, it’s the cultural fact, you know, this is pristine untouched wilderness, except that it’s, it’s not really, so how you know, and each person needs to answer this for themselves, but how does knowing that this is both it can be both pristine wilderness and previously touched at the same time. And you can honor it in both ways. And how does that change, how you are using it and how should it change it? And that’s something I kind of think maybe people have to ask for question themselves on, but even having the question planted is such a huge step, right?
So, thank you so much for joining us to talk about this.
The very last thing we’re gonna talk about today to wrap this up in a little bow is maybe you’re just your favorite outdoor memory. You know, We talked about how you started spending more time outside, so as a final thing in our show, I always ask our guests to walk us out with their favorite outdoor memory. Just something that they just love to think about, of spending time outside. And we’ve talked a lot about your homeland and ways to treat it.
So maybe you have a memory that you can share with us that’s related to that.
Aaron Leggett: So probably my, the one that pops into my brain is in 2007. I had an opportunity to actually go to Lyme Village again on the Upper Stony River Um, it there’s about 30 people that live in the Village and there’s a small an air force kind of radar station about 30 miles from the Village.
But outside of that, there’s not another human settlement for about 150 mile radius. And this is an incredibly important Dena’ina location. And we went from Lyme Village up the Stony river to another Dena’ina Village that’s called Qeghnilen or Canyon, that was said to be a not just a, a phenomenal location for, in the summer for fish but spiritually, a very important place.
A lot of stories have been talked about this and a lot of elders in Nondalton have connections back to this place. So to go to there, go to Qeghnilen and there’s this rock that’s that was described in many stor in several stories of it’s sort of a natural manmade dip netting platform. And the elders that I was with, she had worked with her grandson to make a dip net.
And then, I mean, we, they used modern mesh. They didn’t use sinew but the form was the same and he’s standing on the rock and I’ve got my video camera just sort of documenting this and sure enough, as soon as he sticks that dip net down about cuz it’s, it sort of drops off. I think it’s about 30 feet deep in that one spot.
I mean, he gets that net into the water and boom, as soon as it goes in about seven or eight feet, he’s got a fish. I mean, I can’t even hit record. He pulls it up. And he turns around and he dumps it into this depression in the rock that also sort of creates this natural pool for the fish. And so I start filming that and it’s sort of like I’d read about it, but to see it and to see it still exist today was pretty mind blowing.
Also that part, the Upper Stony river is the only river that I’ve ever been on that there’s no commercial or sports fishing that occurs. And so, um, It’s just wild country is the only way I can describe it, but to see that, and then to hike up the hill again, as it had been described and see the Village site and still see bits of house remains. Cause I think it was last occupied, probably in the twenties or thirties. You could just see, I mean, not a lot but it was palpable is the only way I can describe it. And to be there, to be in this place that I could only read about and thought really didn’t or couldn’t exist, I guess, especially in the way that I think about our lands here in Anchorage and the stories or the sites, the few that we have, none of which are you able to do essentially the activity that we were doing in that moment is goes back thousands of years and is largely uninterrupted.
Amy Bushatz: Aaron, thank you so much for sharing your perspective and advice today on Humans Outside.
Really appreciate your time.
Aaron Leggett: You’re welcome.
Amy Bushatz: Thanks so much for listening to this week’s episode of Humans Outside. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, take a second to leave a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts, that makes it easier for others to find the podcast too. Your positive review makes a huge difference. Now go get outside until next time.
We’ll see you out there.