This month’s Village Spotlight features the three Chignik communities, located approximately 400 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Pacific Ocean side of the Alaska Peninsula, about 200 miles past Kodiak Island before reaching the Aleutian Islands. The villages of Chignik, Chignik Lagoon, and Chignik Lake are closely intertwined, not only in proximity to each other (being only roughly 15 miles apart) but also in families, rich cultural traditions and the incredible natural beauty of the area. Although they are each separate communities, they have many things in common.
The Chigniks are small, remote communities with roots in Aleut, Russian and Scandinavian heritage. The commercial salmon industry brought an influx of people in the late nineteenth century and added Scandinavian hardiness and pride to their already rich cultural background.
Historically, residents have harvested the seas and ocean surrounding their villages, depending on otter, sea lion, porpoise and whale, in addition to fish, for their sustenance and livelihoods. They survived and even thrived to the present day, in large part due to the fisheries and canneries that flourished in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, the local economy is still closely tied to the salmon that stimulated its growth in earlier times. From May through August, the salmon migrate through the area. The populations of the area’s communities rise as everyone seeks to harvest a share of the nutritious fish. Other fisheries present in the area include Pacific Cod and Halibut. After the fishing season passes, the quiet returns as the population declines for the winter.
Chignik is the eastern-most village of the three Chignik communities. Its name is derived from Cirniq, the Aleut word for “big wind.” Chignik is a small, tight-knit village made up of Alaska Natives, cannery personnel and crew members of fishing vessels during the summer fishing season. Chignik is home to a health clinic, post office and a small variety store. Residents have learned to adapt to the unpredictable weather, which can change quickly and without much warning. People living here adjust their activities to the turbulent climate of their home, finding ways to endure and even enjoy both the sunny and mild weather, as well as stormy days. A note of interest about Chignik: Benny Benson, the designer of the Alaska State Flag, was born here.
The village of Chignik Lagoon is the middle of the three Chignik communities. Its Alutiiq name is “Nanwarnaq.” Chignik Lagoon has a year-round population of about 70 people. Although the cannery no longer exists here, commercial fishing is still a major source of income for its residents. With its tranquil yet dramatic scenery, Chignik Lagoon enjoys a maritime climate of cool summers and relatively warm winters. In 2010, a meteorological tower was put up to collect weather data used to conduct a wind resource assessment. It is also the location of a the Packers Creek Hydroelectric Project.
Chignik Lake is located next to the body of water that bears the same name. It is the western-most of the Chignik communities, about 13 miles from Chignik and 16 miles west of Chignik Lagoon. It is called “Igyaraq” in Alutiiq. Like the other remote communities of the area, it is primarily accessible by air. Chignik Lake’s population consists of about 113 residents. The residents here have strong ties with their Alutiiq heritage and can trace their roots from the Aleuts who lived on the west side of the Alaska Peninsula, near Ilnik and the old village of Kanatag. The village was originally the winter home of a single family who fished near Chignik Lagoon. After a school was constructed, other families moved there in the 1950s from some of the surrounding villages. The mainstay of their economy, just as it is for the other nearby villages, is commercial fishing. The residents also practice a subsistence lifestyle. Many residents of Chignik Lake leave during the summer months to fish commercially, work as crew members on fishing vessels or work at the fish processors in Chignik.
With a combined population of approximately 300 residents, the Chignik communities are small, but those fortunate enough to call this area home are blessed with the abundance of natural beauty, abundant natural resources and strength of values.