Eklutna, a Dena'ina Athabascan village and one of the largest villages in Southcentral Alaska, sits about 25 miles northeast of Anchorage and is rich with history and a colorful culture.
The village of Eklutna is believed to have been first settled more than 800-years ago, and is considered the oldest inhabited area near Anchorage, a source of pride for the community.
For generations, the Dena'ina's life has been structured around a seasonal subsistence cycle, hunting moose, rabbit and salmon among other things to survive.
Eklutna is the last remaining village of the Dena’ina that existed in the region less than 100 years ago, a community that was once part of the Iditarod trail. According to storytellers, Eklutna gets its namesake from an angry fish.
“Up at Eklutna Lake, there were two little girls out there fishing and they saw a little fish and they were laughing, making fun of it, funny little fish,” said Lee Stephan, President Traditional Tribal Council. “The momma fish saw that, so she swam around the lake to make a big wave and swamp the kids and drowned them."
It was in her anger that two rocks were washed out and fell near the mouth of the river, and that's how Eklutna got its name.
While the culture and identity have remained the same over the years, the village that was once home to hundreds and these days, only 35 people live there a year round.
“If you look around this village, we've got a highway there, natural gas there, railroad over there, militaries going on, all kinds of things happened to us, we didn't have a lot of say in it, it just become,” Stephan said.
While rapid growth has brought change to this small village just outside of Anchorage, it’s the brightly colored spirit houses that are believed to date back to the 1600’s that attract an estimated 10-to-20 thousand visitors from all over the world to Eklutna annually.
“The spirit houses were a (Dena’ina) Athabascan tradition, before they received orthodox Christianity they felt the spirit, when someone died the spirit hovered above the grave and they gave it a place to dwell," said Father Mikel Bock, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church.
Villagers believe that the spirit stays on this earth for 40-days and 40-nights following their loved ones death, and according to Stephan, rather than have a dead relative live with them while the human spirit is still on this earth, they decided to build them spirit houses.
It’s a place to not only house their loved ones spirit, but also their cherished possessions.
"Their gun, their knife, their books, whatever they had of value we would put in them houses so they could have a place of their own,” said Stephan.
Spirit houses painted a variety of colors that represent the different clans in the village.
"You'll find houses inside of houses, that's a mother and child that passed away,” Stephan said. “You'll find houses with fences around them, that's someone that don't live here and the more elaborate the house is made has to do with the grieving of the person who built the house."
Today, more than 60 spirit houses fill the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church Cemetery today, but Bock says there are many more people buried in the cemetery.
Originally, Bock says spirit houses were meant to deteriorate, and over the years without proper upkeep, that’s exactly what has happened.
Contact Blake Essig