A Story of Endurance
The story of the Chenega (cheh-nee’-gah) people is one of tenacity and endurance in the face of astounding hardship. The People of the Chenega Tribe have lived in the area of Prince William Sound for some 10,000 years, fishing the Sound’s waters and harvesting the abundance of their land. They are part of the Alutiiq (ah-loo’-tik) tribal family. The native language of the Chenega people is a dialect of Alutiiq, called Suqcestun (sooks’-.toon).
For centuries, a village on the southern tip of Chenega Island was home to the Chenega people. The word Chenega means “beneath the mountain”. This area, in Prince William Sound, was the hub of the early history of the Chenega people. The rich waters of Prince William Sound provided well for the people, and also brought many changes. In the 1700’s, Russian trappers and explorers found their way into Prince William Sound, to the Village of Chenega. It was they who first introduced their Orthodox Christian religious practices which were eventually adopted by the Chenega people.
On Good Friday, March 27th 1964, the island Village of Chenega was destroyed by a tsunami created by a massive 9.2 magnitude earthquake. The loss of life was catastrophic. In this single event, centuries of history were washed away. Twenty-three, of the Chenega people, over 1/3 of them, lost their lives that day. With the village gone, the Chenega people were relocated to Tatitlek, Cordova and Anchorage. Chenega suffered the highest percentage of loss of life of any community in the earthquake.
In 1971, the US Congress enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). This Act granted the original residents of Chenega title to over 70,000 acres of land in Prince William Sound, paving the way for the Chenega Corporation, which was established three years later in 1974. The tides of Prince William Sound came and went for twenty years following the tsunami without seeing a new home for the Chenega people. Then, in 1984, a group of former villagers established the village of Chenega Bay on Evan’s Island, in Prince William Sound. But tragedy was about to strike again.
In 1989, twenty-five years to the day, after the tragic tsunami and the devastation of the village, the EXXON Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling millions of gallons of oil into the ocean. The tides carried the slick black water to the beaches of the newly established Chenega Village, wiping out the Chenega People’s sole means of livelihood; commercial fishing. Damage to the natural environment and wildlife also crippled the subsistence life of the Chenega People.
The Chenega Corporation chose to participate in the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council Habitat Restoration Program, which protected large blocks of land harmed by the spill. In 1997, Chenega Corporation sold a portion of its native land to the United States Forest Service and the State of Alaska “Habitat Transaction” for $34,000,000. With this capital, the corporation developed a strategic plan, which included a substantial business development investment in Federal government services contracting as part of the United States Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Program. Beginning in 1998, the Corporation began to diversify its portfolio with investments in various commercial properties which today, include the Clarion Suites Convention Center hotel, the Quality Suites Downtown and the Voyager Hotel, Rodeway Inn, all in Anchorage.
Over time, the Village of Chenega Bay has also steadily developed. It has a fully operating medical clinic, a beautiful Orthodox Christian Church, a school and community hall, a subsistence center, airport and small harbor. A system of generators and fuel tanks keeps the residents in constant supply of power. There is also a ferry dock used by the State of Alaska ferry system as part of the Alaska Marine Highway System, and notably, the community also has a sophisticated response system for oil spills operated by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.
After taking a great leap of faith at considerable risk, Chenega Corporation today ranks among the top 5 most successful Alaskan owned businesses in the state, and continues to exemplify strength in its core values centered on faith, fortitude and sustainability for the Chenega Shareholder family.