Chuda's Dena'ina Country
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Who is Chuda?

Chuda is the Dena'ina word for grandmother. I use the

word "Chuda" to represent all of our native grandmothers.

Chuda made her from animal skins. She sewed her long

tunic (a shirt that reached to her knees) from the hide of

the caribou. Her summer boots were short and she wore

no undergarments. In the winter the women dressed in

a shirt with the fur side turned towards their bodies for

insulation against the cold. Chuda's boots had leather

soles with the fur side turned in. The boots were long

and extended over her knees. Sometimes she wore trousers

for an undergarment to protect her from the elements.

Chuda was talented and decorated her clothing with

porcupine quills dyed in various colors and sewed onto

a band. Sometimes beads were mixed with denlalium

shells and if the trading was good hyqua shells. If Chuda's

husband was wealthy, he made belts out of the hyqua shells.

Chuda also used red ochre to paint on the clothing. Summer

clothing was usually the most decorative. During the

rainy season she wore a parka made of intestines and

wading boots sewn from the sea lion esophagus. Her hat

was woven from spruce roots. Her mother had complete

control over family affairs, arranged Chuda's marriage.

Negotiations and marriage contracts were made between

the two families. During the negotiations gifts were made

to the family of the bride. If the groom was found acceptable

to the future bride they were joined in marriage. Usually the

bride and groom lived with the bride's family for two years

while he worked off part of the bride's price. After completing

his years of service to the bride's family, he was free to take his

wife to his parent's home. When the couple were ready to return

to the grooms family, the bride's father gave the groom a number

of gifts to finalize the union. If the groom was wealthy, he avoided

the whole procedure and paid for the bride. She went directly to

her own home. The wealthy groom might have several wives,

each one with her own home. Chuda's dwelling was called the

nichil or later the Barabara by the Russians. (The remains of

the nichil are in evidence today on many of our lands. They

can be spotted by the indentations left in the ground.) Chuda's

nichil was approximately 30 by 40 feet and sunk into the ground

about two feet. The sides were made of logs and secured by

corner poles placed on both the interior and exterior of the building.

Split logs were vertically placed against the braces and the roof

beams. Posts were set in the middle of the building to support the

inner roof beams. Split logs formed the roof. Sod, mud, thatch and

moss were used for insulation and to water proof the roof. The roofs

were peaked to avoid excess snow accumulation. Grass covered

the floors and could be freshened regularly. Sand was hauled in

and spread around the cooking area. The sand absorbed spills and

grease. The doors were made of grass mats. Chuda's bed was on a

platform erected around the interior walls. Some of the platforms

contained compartments for married couples and unmarried daughters.

The remaining platforms were used for lounging and workbenches

during the day. At night the rest of the family slept on the open

platforms. The bathhouse was an attached addition to the home.

Hot rocks easily heated the bathing room. The steam bath was

called the neli. A grass mat covered the entrance between the

neli and the living quarters. The ceiling was low and sloping. The

walls were covered with mud. There was usually one window

made of bear gut. The rocks were either heated outdoors on an

open fire or in the living quarters on the cook fire. When rocks

were hot they were carted into the neli on a wooden shovel.

Water was poured on the rocks to create steam. The elderly people

seemed to enjoy the neli and used it more frequently than the rest

of the family. The neli was a great place for visiting and many

stories were told in the bathhouse. When Chuda's time of delivery

came, she was taken into one of the sleeping compartments or into

a special structure that was built for her birthing. She was attended

by some of the experienced midwives. The mother and the baby

were kept in seclusion for five days. During this period of time, the

mother and the baby were washed twice. Throughout the birthing

process the men disappeared from the home. The infant was kept

in a skin bag lined with moss. Sometimes the baby was kept in a

birch bark cradle. Both the cradle and the bag had carrying straps

so the baby could accompany the mother while she did her chores

. The baby was dusted with charcoal to prevent rashes and chafing.

The baby often did not receive a name for a year or more. Many times

the baby was given the name of a deceased person by its grandfather.

This was done so the deceased person could continue living in the

body of a child. Many families would name the baby after a deceased

child and records show two and three children born to a family all

with the same name. Chuda's life was full of work. She had animals

to skin and clean, fish to smoke and dry, skins to tan, berries and

roots to gather, grasses to gather and weave, fires to tend, large

broods of children to cook and clean for, oil to render and many

other chores necessary for her primitive life style. Chuda had to

be ready to move to summer camps to gather food and trade.

Chuda did have entertainment. If Chuda's husband was wealthy

(owned a lot of objects especially denlalium beads from the

northwest coast), she would prepare food for potlatches (a form

of ceremony and feasting where massive wealth was bestowed

on others). "Big Potlatches" were important to Chuda's people.

A wealthy man could raise his status by giving the potlatch and

dispensing goods. Massive land transfers often took place at the

"Big Potlatches". Potlatches were held to honor the dead or to

honor a "slotsin" (a partnership between two men of different

villages). A man who gave numerous potlatches became a strong

candidate for chief. There were many "Little Potlatches" for

weddings, births reunions and other aspects of day to day life.

Potlatches usually began with a speech in honor of the person the

celebration glorified. Next, the drumming began accompanied by

song. Gifts were presented with the poorest man receiving the

largest amount. Although the potlatch was hosted in the wife's

name, the husband received prestige from the process. After the

feasting was over, Chuda and the other women usually removed

themselves from the festivities. Chuda enjoyed dancing in the dance

house. The structure was similar to Chuda's home in size. The dance

house did not contain sleeping compartments. Male guest usually

slept in the dance house. Chuda seldom went on long journeys away

from home. Most of her travel was on foot and the celebrations

contributed to her social life. Dena'ina men did not hunt whale.

It is said that Chuda's people lacked the magic for whale hunting.

Chuda's husband traded with the Koniag and other Eskimos for

whale meat. Chuda's family considered whale and lynx delicacies.

The family lived near the coast and fish was the essential food

ource. This fundamental food could be preserved by smoking or

dried on special fish racks. Seal and other forms of meat was the

second elementary dietary staple. Blueberries, salmon berries

(cloudberries), blackberries (crowberries), currants, and cranberries

were the third basic food product. Berries were easy to obtain and

store. Secondary staples such as beachpea, spruce inner bark, fern

and wild rice made a pleasant addition to the diet. Shellfish was an

agreeable diversion. Chuda's deep freeze was a deep hole (at least

6 feet) in the perma frost. Dried grass was placed in the hole. The

bloodline and eggs were removed from the silver salmon in the

late fall. A layer of salmon, a layer of eggs and a layer of grass

were alternated until the hole was full. Her pantry was a cache.

The cache was a structure built on poles approximately six feet

off the ground. The floor of the cache had gaps in it. Spruce

boughs were placed on the floor to allow the air to circulate.

One source says Chuda may have hung food with a pulley like

system on a tall pole. The pole was higher than the cache and

apparently higher than the flies fly. With the influx of missionaries,

cannery workers, fur traders and other industries the Tanaina

was introduced to diseases of the civilized world. In 1805,

Chuda's world consisted of approximately 3,000 native i

nhabitants in the Cook Inlet region. There were approximately

14 Tanaina settlements. In 1818, there was an estimated 1,471

native people due to the people moving away from the area. By

1821, there were probably 1,299 members of Chuda's people.

The remaining people were unprepared for a disaster that reigned

for two years--smallpox. The people were terrified and abandoned

the ailing and dying tribal members residing near the coast.

Dena'ina fled to the forest with hopes of avoiding the plague

that struck them. In 1840, the Cook Inlet region had only one

half of the population surviving. In 1884, influenza took its

toll on nearly all of the children under two and a large number

of the older population. In 1932 Chuda's people were reduced

to about 650 people. Chuda's people are survivors and today,

they are again learning the drum and songs of the early Tanaina.

They sponsor potlatches and teach the children the old traditions

and language. Peter Kalifornsky, and others like him, left Chuda's

people many traditional stories and worked to preserve the language.

Many of the elders are teaching ancient crafts such as basket weaving,

beading, carving and boat building to the youth. Other elders are

storytellers and language teachers. Chuda's descendants are doing

research, family trees, native artwork, writing stories and poetry in

order to preserve the past for future generations. The Kenaitze Indian

Tribe sponsors an educational fishery project, Interpretive Site, Drum

Circles, dancing, Elder Projects, Language classes and summer camps

for the children. Large potlatches are held where some of the traditional

foods are served. The preservation of old recipes, eating and

preparation of traditional foods and the drum circle at the potlatch

will preserve Chuda's people in the hearts of our children today.

Evidence of barabaras are present on my property in Ninilchik.

My mother talked of a Baby Basket left by the Indians hanging in

a tree near Ninilchik. No one was allowed to touch or remove it.

It disappeared before my time. The giving an infant the name of a

deceased person was very common. More evidence is found in the

graveyards because many of Chuda's children continued the custom

after the Russian influence. Spirit houses existed in both the Kenai

and Ninilchik graveyards until some time in the 1950's.

Read some of Chuda's recipes.

Learn more of Chuda's language.

A special thanks to these two lovely ladies for assisting me with the lake applets
Foxylady's Page
Deb's Page


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