The native Koyukon Athabascan people call the mountain Denali, which is usually translated as ‘The Great One.’ However, linguist James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, wrote in the book ‘Shem Pete’s Alaska’ that the name is based on a verb theme meaning ‘high’ or ‘tall.’
Mt. Susitna and the Susitna River are at the head of Cook Inlet, further north and east than the country of Kustatan (pronounced, roughly, Kusk-a-tan}, Tyonek, and Polly Creek, where Peter’s stories came from. His fragment of the Susitna story, he thought, might not be quite the same as the one known to Shem Pete, a well-known storyteller of the Susitna Dena’ina people. It is a noteworthy point, as it shows both priority and deference given to the recognized owners of different stories. It places his own story, as well, as particular to his own elders.
In the Susitna River country there was a large settlement, even into the earlier part of this century. Peter said, “You know how that Susitna River looks, going in and out. Up on the higher land is where the village was, into the beginning of that pass. They say that was a big settlement, the biggest settlement of all the Dena’ina villages.”
In the 1940s, Susitna people were nearly wiped out by disease. The survivors were taken down to Tyonek, where Peter’s uncle Simeon Chickalusion was chief. Their descendants intermarried with Tyonek people and survive there now.
“According to my story, about the people moving in and out, that was not explained,” Peter said. “The only thing she said at that time was, ‘The people will love that place and it will be useful to them; but they will pass away.’ Not that they would ‘die out’: there would be no one left there.
“What Shem Pete’s father expressed there: he could have taken it from the Mountain story. But it did happen. There was a big settlement there, and then in the ’40s, they got sick.
“This story was not completely told to me. Somebody like Shem Pete may have a very different story than what I heard.”
He was deferring to Shem Pete, who was born at Tsat’ukegh, or Susitna Station, about 1898; he died in 1989. His father was a chief and is said to have been a medicine man. Shem Pete often recounted the story of the great sickness and how his father warned the people that it was coming.
“And he told them Susitna Station people, ‘And pretty soon all you people gonna die and not even one going to be alive around here.’ I never seen him. ‘You people all gonna die,’ he said. They pret’ near clubbed him.”
There were more than six hundred people in that country then. He warned them that measles would come, “‘And this your skin gonna be stretched allover your body, see. . . . And after that pretty soon you people gonna hear about a fight down in the states someplace. And that sickness come from down south. And that gonna kill lots of people. You people used to walk about on the trail, are just gonna lay down and you people don’t know how to die. You people gonna die though.’”
The great flu of 1918 was the beginning of the deaths.
Shem Pete’s father warned the people not to eat white man’s food, but to put up Native food. He warned them of the airplane and the train and of motors after that. He warned them to use what money they had to buy matches and ammunition.
“‘There’s gonna be whiteman just like this sand,’ he picked it up in his hand, the sand. ‘You fellows gonna be no living one place. Few here, few there, all over scattered along like little berries between them white people.’”
But people did not want to believe such a prophecy.
“Well, it’s true. What now, not even one Indian of all the young people in Susitna. There’s nothing. There’s nobody left. So just few ones that were left, in 1930’s Chief Chickalusion of Tyonek pick us up, about dozen of us altogether. He put them in dories and take ‘em down to Tyonek.”
About two decades before that difficult time, the boy Peter had been told about the Mountain People by his mother’s relatives, the Chickalusions. I wonder if Shem Pete had told anyone listening his own story about the Mountain People. Could “tall” or “high” have referred to the giants who lay down to become the Alaska Range? Is there a Koyukon story about Denali? Peter Kalifornsky said the name, the word, meant nothing in the language he spoke. The name for this mountain in his Dena’ina is Yuneq’di.