Dena'ina Loop Trees - Alaska


Gone But Not Forgotten
Jun 2, 2002
Odd twists, turns
Experts think Dena'ina bent limbs but don't know how or what for

After bulldozers rolled into the brush and cleared away most of the alders and other flora that thickened the woods east of the Port of Anchorage, about a dozen tall trees, some of them with oddly twisted limbs, remained.

"Man, look at that!" anthropologist Nancy Yaw Davis, a small woman with short gray hair in boots and a hard hat, said as she bounded one recent morning toward a remaining birch. "I don't think a moose did that," she said, setting her sights on a branch making a peculiar dip.

To the trained eye, the deformities represent a window, if a small one, into the past: "Loop trees" were made by the Dena'ina people who lived in Anchorage long before Russians or Europeans or Americans arrived.

The branches of some of these loop trees droop unnaturally and swerve in strange curves to form an L. Sometimes they angle further to make a U. And some curl into a full O.

But exactly how loop trees were made, what they were used for, and how many survive persist as mysteries.

Davis thinks the Dena'ina somehow twisted the trees into racks for hanging fish nets, marking trails, pinpointing hunting spots, storing food or maybe hanging baskets that contained the cremated remains of their deceased.

But nobody knows for sure, and the trees, relatively recently rediscovered, are only beginning to be looked at. Furthermore, elders from Eklutna, Knik and others on the Knik Arm don't know much about the loop trees, researchers say.

Katherine Wade, an 81-year-old elder from Chickaloon who recently wrote a book for her family on growing up Dena'ina, remembers her grandfather making them.

"I'm probably the only person left in the world," she said.

Her grandfather told her he used the loops to mark his way in the woods.

"Instead of bread crumbs like in Hansel and Gretel, they tied knots in trees," she said. The trees were important for hunting, or when other people needed to find her grandfather.

"We didn't have telephones or walkie-talkies or anything like that," she said.

When her grandfather had time, he would knot the trees. When he was in a hurry, "he would bend them," she said.

Wade thinks most of the trees are now gone.

"This is an example of what we could have lost but just in the nick of time didn't," Davis said.

Davis first saw some of Anchorage's remaining loop trees in the mid-1990s when she was studying evidence of Dena'ina fish caches and fish camp sites on Elmendorf Air Force Base.

"Then I started seeing them everywhere," she said. "Partly we haven't seen this stuff because we aren't looking."

"You could have them in your back yard and not know it," she said.

To know what is a true loop tree is difficult because some contortions occur naturally. Ice, snow and even moose browsing distort tree growth.

Davis said unlocking the mystery of the loop tree is especially important because it helps pry open a door into local history before 1914, the year construction began on the railroad from Seward to the gold claims near Fairbanks and when thousands of job seekers started arriving in Alaska. It was a period well before the Elmendorf base was established in 1940.

"We just got run over too soon and nobody ever thought to keep anything," said Alberta Stephan, a Dena'ina elder from Eklutna whose family used to fish in summer in the area. Stephan is a member of a team of Dena'ina elders who have been trying to record and protect what they know of their heritage with local experts. The elders have been looking not only for loop trees but fish pits, fish camp sites and trails used by their ancestors in and around Anchorage.

Stephan doesn't know what the loop trees were used for, but she is glad the trees, and maybe Dena'ina history in Anchorage, are getting attention.

"A history has been written, and all the Native people are being left out," she said.

The potential loop trees revealed near the port were in a thick patch of woods 110 feet wide and more than a mile long. The area, mostly Elmendorf land, was cleared to make room for the road and rail portion of the port's nearly 0 million expansion to be completed in 2011.

Davis and the Dena'ina team stopped the clearing of the loop trees until they could be studied, photographed and documented.

"We have a moral obligation to record as much as possible," Davis said.

One birch tree recently cut down on the project and thought to be a loop tree was 160 years old, according to tests. Most of the looping, anthropologists believe, was performed on young birch trees, which can live 150 to 200 years in forests, according to the state Division of Forestry. But looping was probably done on other indigenous trees; anthropologists know it was done on spruce.

Allen Richmond, chief of conservation and environmental planning at Elmendorf, works with Dena'ina elders to document what they know and preserve cultural elements on the base.

"Loop trees are sometimes the most visible remains of a potential Dena'ina site," he said.

The land north of the port expansion project area on Elmendorf was well used by the Dena'ina people for trails and hunting, according to "Shem Pete's Alaska" by Shem Pete, the late Dena'ina elder who provided researchers details of life here before the arrival of whites. Just northeast of the port expansion area, there is believed to have been a fish camp called Tak'at.

Most of the history of the Dena'ina, though, is still unknown.

"There aren't a lot of physical remains left behind in Dena'ina sites," said Jim Fall, of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's subsistence division who authored a report last year on Dena'ina Athabascan uses of sites on and near Elmendorf. "Whatever can be looked for is important."

To some people with roots in the Anchorage of the early 1900s, knowing how different things were is just a reminder of how much they have lost. Dena'ina Arthur Theodore, 56, who lives in Knik, thinks his mother, Alice Theodore, who passed away several years ago and who lived at the Tak'at fish camp when she was growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, was the last of her tribe. She was the final person, he believes, to really live the old life. He grew up listening to her stories about Tak'at. And he remembers thinking about those stories when he was a boy, looking at the land around the port before it was a mass of docks, concrete and loading containers.

Theodore hasn't been to the shore near the port in a long time. And he had no interest in seeing the loop trees, no longer hidden by the thick brush.

"Memory is probably better than to see it gone. ... I'm just glad I know as little as I do," he said.

But Davis, Richmond, Fall, a few Dena'ina team members, port officials and other experts disagreed when they recently trudged through the mud and chopped down debris to take a close, unobstructed last look at the dozen or so trees, stripped of the thick woods around them.

Most of the trees found at the port, Richmond believes, were twisted more from nature than man. One or two of the trees, though, he said, were probably loop trees.

"It's difficult to say though," he said.

Fall said, "Whether or not they are culturally modified, the trees are forcing us to look at the history of (the area around the port). As we develop and modify the landscape and development of our community, let's ask the question what was here before."

Loop trees farther into the Elmendorf base are more obvious examples, Richmond said. Those trees, one of which looks like a huge coat rack, have no protective fencing around them but are monitored on a regular basis to make sure they are preserved to the extent possible, Richmond said.

Several weeks ago, after the experts had a chance to examine them, all of the trees revealed in the port expansion were chopped down. But Davis believes more loop trees could be found throughout Anchorage.

"I would love to have a citywide search across every creek and trail," she said. I've become increasingly convinced that they will be found."

Davis doesn't want to see the trees and their branches knocked down though, and sold in pieces as novelty items, or used to make furniture at arts and crafts fairs, she said.

That's the danger with people knowing about them, she said.

"We need to respect this history and study it first, otherwise too much will be lost," she said.

Daily News reporter Megan Holland can be reached at [email protected].


Gone But Not Forgotten
Jun 2, 2002
Pete Younger said:
a small woman with short gray hair in boots and a hard hat:confused:
? I think the woman was wearing the boots and the hard hat was on the short gray hair, which was on her head.:D