Dene in Conflict: Rail, Roads, and Colonists

Cantwell MP 319.5 (Women’s Sec. Gang). Valdez Tyone, Alice Norton, John Nicklie, Grace Secondchief, Yetta Stickivan (behind Grace), Lingo Nicklie, (Helen Stickivan). Photo courtesy of the CVTC Permanent Collections & Archives, CVTC Anchorage Museum Collection.

In 1915, the Alaskan Engineering Commission set up a camp at Dghayitna’ (Ship Creek) to begin construction of the Alaska Railroad. Shortly after, railway access into and out of the ports at Knik and Anchorage became possible. Railway access eventually made its way to the coal mines in Ts’es Tac’ilaexden (Sutton) and Nay’dini’aa Na’ (Chickaloon). This resulted in new social and environmental impacts to traditional villages as transient workers arrived in the area seeking employment.

In the 1930’s, another population boom resulted from the Matanuska Colony Project. Prior to 1935, the largest town in the Matanuska Valley was Benteh (Wasilla). Benteh had a general store, a liquor store, a roadhouse, and a post office. There were only approximately 100 miles of graded road in the Matanuska Valley at that time. The Matanuska Colony Project introduced a new population of approximately 1,000 people comprised of colonist families and transient workers. 

Practically overnight, with the increase of people came the need for additional infrastructure. The Alaska Road Commission worked their crews three shifts each day during the summer months and two shifts after September 1st to clear and grade main trunk roads throughout the settlement area and access roads from home sites to the trunk roads. Additionally, more land was cleared to accommodate the new residents. By 1966, the Matanuska Valley population had increased with an estimated 20,000 acres having been cleared and farmed. 

In 1941, the Alaska Road Commission received a one-million-dollar appropriation from Congress, endorsed by the War Department, to construct the Glenn Highway connecting Anchorage’s Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base (now Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson) to the Matanuska Valley. For four years, as many as 600 men worked to build a twenty-foot-wide road that spanned from Anchorage into the interior of Alaska following old expedition trails and those leading to the Matanuska coal fields. The highway was completed in 1945. The completion of the Glenn Highway, and the simultaneous completion of the Tok cutoff and the Alcan (Alaska-Canadian highway), connected Anchorage to the lower United States. The end of World War II subsequently opened the road to all traffic which stimulated the development of lodges and other services along the route.

The Glenn Highway was the final key to opening the Matanuska Valley to the arrival of new settler outsiders and visitors. To this day, it serves as the main route into southcentral Alaska. For the Dene, it meant that they had been pushed further out of their ancestral homelands. They were forced to watch as their ancestral homelands became private property to colonists and other settler outsiders, divided and sold repeatedly. These new development projects and settlements were invasive to the wildlife population of the region. What was once bountiful land could barely provide enough to sustain the Dene population anymore. Today, seasonal hunting must be done much farther north than in the past.

With the imposition of new systems of political governance and hunting regulations, coal mining, and land privatization, Dene men who were traditionally hunters and providers lost their traditional roles, responsibilities and had to risk jail to carry out traditional hunting lifeways. Also, with the introduction of a monetary-based economy, many Dene had to assimilate to provide for their families, often having to leave their communities to find work. Women, who previously were leaders in Dene matriarchal society became little more than property to the men, looking for companionship, who arrived to work in the man camps of the mines or build the railroad tracks and roads. New non-indigenous names emerged among families, along with young mothers, many just adolescent girls themselves.

During this time of rapid change, the introduction of diseases, religion, boarding schools, alcohol, and social and environmental violence resulted in many Dene losing their entire family systems, Tribal identities, Ahtna language, cultural roles and responsibilities, and their relationship with the natural world. Some Tribal citizens were so grief stricken that they stopped passing down their language and oral traditions. Fortunately, Dene are a resilient and strong people, and they persevered. This history has heavily influenced the primary mission of Nay’dini’aa Na’ Kayax (Chickaloon Village Traditional Council) which is to perpetuate the Ahtna language and culture to help Nay’dini’aa Na’ Tribal Citizens thrive, regardless of adversities that come their way.

  • Bauer, Mary Cracraft. The Glenn Highway: The Story of its Past, A Guide to its Present. Sutton: Brentwood Press, 1987. Print
  • Bauer, Mary Cracraft and Victoria A. Cole. A History of Coal-Mining in the Sutton-Chickaloon Area Prior to WWII. Anchorage: Alaska Historical Commission, 1985. Print.
  • Corntassel, Jeff and Cheryl Bryce. “Practicing Sustainable Self-Determination: Indigenous Approaches to Cultural Restoration and Revitalization.” The Brown Journal of World Affairs (2012): 151-162. Print
  • Irwin, Don L. The Colorful Matanuska Valley. 1968
  • Simeone, William E. Ahtna The People and Their Land. Glennallen: Ahtna Incorporated, 2018.