NN Cannery’s Native Workforce | Caretakers of History

The resource-rich Naknek region has attracted Indigenous Alaskans to its shores since time immemorial. Just as the strong runs of salmon supported canneries, the salmon provided a stable resource for Native communities. Packers Creek, which runs beneath the NN Cannery and intersects the historic property, stands out for its archaeological potential to shed light on the Indigenous past of the region due to its proximity to the coast, confluence with the Naknek River, and as a source of reliable freshwater.

The Indigenous Alaskans who worked at the cannery were descendants of Katmai people and
culturally connected to the Brooks River Area's Archeological District and National Historic Landmark at Katmai National Park and Preserve. Villagers migrated downriver and established
South Naknek when Novarupta volcano destroyed Savonoski village and created the Valley of
10,000 Smokes in 1912. The Spanish Flu pandemic and red salmon crash of 1919 drove Native residents to seek cannery work.

Cannery buildings that still convey the Native experience and influence on cannery work include
the Laundry, where Native women not only found jobs, but controlled the work space and activities therein. Equally significant are the Native Bunkhouse and the “white” Mess Hall, both
of which reveal the ethnic and racial segregation policies that were prevalent in all Alaska salmon canneries.

The most significant <NN> Cannery building representing the Alaska Native experience, however, is the Old Hospital and its association with the Spanish influenza pandemic, which killed more Alaskans per capita than anywhere in the world, including the 200 people who died on the Naknek River alone. When the epidemic hit Bristol Bay in spring of 1919, cannery doctors treated Native residents ravaged by the disease. Ancillary to the hospital was the Radio Shack, which was the largest and most efficient wireless apparatus in Bristol Bay. It handled all communications between the cannery and the outside world, which was critical during the outbreak. A cannery doctor and a nurse attended to people inflicted with the flu, most of whom all died and left behind an orphaned generation.

These healthcare providers saved many Native children, but they would grow up disconnected from their culture. Documenting the Old Hospital, and shedding light on the historic events that occurred there, will help uncover the industry’s underlying value to local residents, as well as its costs. Listing will not only add to the National Register the first Alaska property associated with the Spanish influenza pandemic—one of the most historically significant events in the 20th century—but by bringing this story to the forefront, we will articulate the complexities between residents and the cannery and the residual impacts of cultural loss.

Still, despite a generation lost to the flu and a cultural lifeway lost to cannery life, Native people
became integral contributors to and caretakers of the cannery operation at South Naknek. As highline fishermen, they supplied salmon to the cannery. Village residents constituted the “spring/fall” crew that readied and winterized the operation. Most importantly, local families served as winter watchmen who protected the collective structures and stored boats throughout the offseason. The NN Cannery’s operational longevity is a testament to such Native vigilance.

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LaRece Egli