Tyonek, Cook Inlet

Tyonek, Cook Inlet

by | Jul 24, 2021

Tyonek is a historical Dena’ina Athabascan community situated on a bluff on the northwest shore of Cook Inlet, about 43 miles (69 km) west-southwest of Anchorage and 35 miles (56 km) north of Kenai, Alaska. The village name is derived from the word Tyone meaning “chief”, and Tyonek means “little chief”. The Tyonek people are called Tebughna, which means the “beach people”. The current community represents a consolidation of various historical settlements between Beshta Bay and the Chuitna River, primarily the village of Old Tyonek which was about 6 miles (10 km) southwest near the mouth of Tyonek Creek, and the village of Ladd which was at the mouth of the Chuitna River. Tyonek is not accessible by road. The two main ways to travel to the village are by plane or by boat, the latter option is only available during the summer and fall seasons since this part of the Cook Inlet Basin north of the Forelands becomes choked with broken ice between November and March.

The village was first documented in May 1778 by Captain James Cook who anchored HMS Discovery and HMS Resolution off the West Foreland. Cook’s journal describes the upper Cook Inlet Athabascans who already possessed iron knives and glass beads that were probably acquired from the Russian trading post operated by the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company. A trading post was also described in the village in May 1794 by Lieutenant Joseph Whidbey who led a detachment of the Vancouver Expedition to explore upper Cook Inlet. A smallpox epidemic between 1836 and 1840 killed about half of the village Athabascans. Following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the Alaska Commercial Company had a trading post at Ladd. When gold was discovered at Resurrection Creek in Turnagain Arm in the 1880s, Tyonek and Seldovia became major staging areas for people and supplies. A post office named “Tyoonok” and a saltery were established in 1896 at the mouth of the Chuitna River, probably at the Ladd trading post. In 1898, Ladd was the base camp used by Captain Edwin F. Glenn, of the U.S. Army for exploring Cook Inlet in order to discover the most direct and practicable route from the coast through the Alaska range to the interior. In the early 1900s, a series of expeditions attempting to summit Mount McKinley started at Tyonek. These include the 1903 team of Dr. Frederick Cook, the 1906 team of Cook, Herschel Parker, and Belmore Browne, and the 1910 team of Parker and Browne. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order withdrawing 25,000 acres (10,117 ha) of federal land surrounding the village for the Moquawkie Reservation, inexplicably named since there is no Dena’ina equivalent or meaning. The reservation was set aside for the purpose of “aiding the natives to practice self-support and industry” and preventing them from being “hemmed in by white intrusion”. The “Spanish” influenza epidemic of 1918-19 decimated the remaining village Athabascans leaving few survivors. In the early 1930s, residents of the village at the mouth of Tyonek Creek began moving to a new site situated on higher ground because of repeated flooding. The original site became known as “Old Tyonek”. In 1934, following a severe tuberculosis outbreak, Chief Chickalusion of the Susitna Athabascans gathered up families and individuals from villages and settlements on the lower Susitna River such as Deshka, Susitna Station, Kroto Creek, as well as from villages in lower Cook Inlet such as Kuskatan and Polly Creek, and resettled them on the reservation at Tyonek.

After the purchase and transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States, the principal business that developed in Cook Inlet was commercial fishing. Large national companies constructed fish traps and individuals occupied set net salmon sites along the beaches. Little was done to protect Alaska Native fishing rights and soon the most favorable fishing locations were taken over by large fishing companies. Many Alaska Natives from communities on the east side of Cook Inlet such as Kenai and Nikiski, relocated to Tyonek to escape this pressure and the increasingly dangerous frontier atmosphere. By 1960, some village residents began getting experience in construction and later adapted those skills to the oil and gas drilling industry. However, most of these opportunities were limited by season and heavy competition from drilling crews from Texas and Oklahoma. In the early 1960s, oil companies arrived in Cook Inlet and purchased leases on Tyonek lands. In 1965, the federal district court in Alaska ruled that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had no right to lease Tyonek land for oil development without tribal permission. The tribe subsequently sold rights to drill for oil and gas beneath the reservation to a group of oil companies for $12.9 million. Much of the present village, including the school and most of the public buildings, was built with funds from the lease sale. The Moquawkie Reservation status was revoked with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. The Native people of Tyonek opted to receive land conveyances under the Act and organized the Tyonek Native Corporation in 1973 for that purpose. Read more here and here. Explore more of Tyonek and upper Cook Inlet here:

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This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2019 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

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