Pete, Shem (K’etech’ayuilen)
About 1900 – 1989 | Dena’ina Athabascan Elder, Historian, and Storyteller
When Athabaskan elder Shem Pete (K’etech’ayutilen) died in 1989, he left a rich legacy of knowledge about the Upper Cook Inlet Dena'ina. Their homeland became Alaska's largest city--Anchorage, but the original residents became a largely invisible people until the mid-1980s. The area was, and still is, the homeland of Dena'ina Indians. Pete traveled nearly 13,500 miles in this region during his lifetime.
Shem Pete and other elders passed on their cultural knowledge about the ethnohistory, people, and geography of the region and cooperated with cultural anthropologists to preserve hundreds of narratives. Part of their knowledge is presented in the book, Shem Pete's Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena'ina, Revised Second 2016 Edition (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press with the Alaska Native Language Center, 2016). The revised second 2016 edition is a significant expansion of the original 1987 edition and the 2003 edition. This latest edition includes 1,002 numbered place name entries of the Upper Cook Inlet country compiled from oral history interviews and research with Native elders, principally Shem Pete. In the forward, William Bright gives this overview:
"I don't know of any other book like this one. It is organized as an ethnogeography: an account, in both Dena'ina and in English, of all the places that Shem Pete had visited in his native land, the Upper Cook Inlet country. We learn the history of each place, who lived there, and what the fishing was like. But this book is even more than an encyclopedia of Dena'ina geography, integrated with that information, we are also given stories, songs, maps, pictures, personal reminiscences, and all the richness of traditional Dena'ina life."
Shem Pete (K’etech’ayutilen) was a member of the Nulchina clan of the Susitnuht'ana band, one of three groupings of Dena'ina who formed the Upper Inlet Dena'ina Athabascan Indians. His birth date is not known, but his recollections indicate that he was born before 1900, probably between 1896 and 1898. Pete's Dena'ina name, K’etech’ayutilen, was a hunting name meaning "One Who is Bringing It (Gun) Among Game." His baptismal name, Derentry (or Terentij), is Russian. He pronounced it Delindin. In Shem Pete's Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena'ina (2016), his full Russian name is given as Delindin Delendii.).
Pete's father, who died when Pete was about two years old, was a qeshqa, a "rich man" and important leader, often referred to as a chief. Shem Pete knew his father's name as Pete but did not know his Dena'ina name. His mother, K'eludghilna (Mother of One Who Passes Around Food), raised him initially at Red Shirt Lake, which Pete recollected as being rich in fish, and later at the now abandoned Native village and Alaska Commercial Company trading post at Susitna Station (Tsat'ukeg), where he remembers working for a restaurant while still a young boy. He later attended school at Susitna Station (Tsat’ukegh).
Shem Pete participated in the traditional subsistence activities of the Dena'ina, including hunting caribou, sheep and moose over a wide area in Southcentral Alaska, accompanying his older step-brothers and other Dena'ina. He recollected that "sometimes they get one or two hundred caribou . . . we bring lots of caribou skin, and plenty caribou meat . . . to Susitna Station" where at least once it was used in a potlatch. He remembered that after his mother bought him a gun he went by sled in late spring to the Talkeetna region where he killed fourteen black bears. He then took the skins in a dory down the Susitna River to the newly established railroad construction camp at Anchorage where he sold the skins. With the money he bought clothes and then worked for several weeks at a restaurant. "They give me four dollars a day." He paid to ride in a car ("Oh gee, that's something") and several years later, in an airplane. He remembered Anchorage as being " . . . lots of tents. And they burn and cut the trees. It's full of smoke, fire, nighttime. They like to work the nighttime too . . . and they play cards. Lots of gambling in the tent."
Although the Dena'ina had been in contact with white men, their goods, religion and diseases since the early 19th century, Shem Pete's youth was still a time of great change. Prior to the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic, he saw waves of whooping cough and measles. He estimated that six hundred of seven hundred Dena'ina of the Susitna Valley were "wiped out" in these epidemics, including his mother. "We're only a few people left."
During the construction of the Alaska Railroad, Shem Pete worked as a mail carrier and later on the railroad itself. He remembers the first train that he saw as being "just like a snake." He charged the other construction workers fifty cents to cut their hair. "A lot of things we don't see [before] we see them days" in Anchorage.
Shem Pete married Inga (Tulalen - The One Who Will Be) of the K'kalayi clan at Talkeetna in 1920. They had a son, Billy, and a daughter, Mary. Inga died in 1925 and is buried in the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. Daughter Mary died in 1940. In 1926 Shem held a potlatch for Inga at Eklutna. In 1934, three families, including Shem's, moved from Susitna Station to Tyonek. In 1936, Shem “. . . made big money as the boss for the animals for a movie they were making in Anchorage. They had hundreds of rabbits and porcupines, some bears, and an eagle. I told them what to feed them animals and how much." Shem found living in Tyonek hard. "No trout. No fur." He left in 1939 and stayed in Anchorage to 1943. From 1944-1978 he lived at Nancy Lake. "I get by pretty good over there. Lots of fur, lots of fish." He then lived in Willow from 1978-1987, and during his last years, 1987-1989, in Anchorage.
Elder, Historian, and Storyteller
Shem Pete became a respected elder among the Dena'ina. He was known for his knowledge of traditional songs and dances, which he performed well into his old age. He had traveled widely over the region, and knew " . . . lots of creeks and lakes, all over the hills and mountains . . . I know quite a few names in that part of the country." In later years Shem Pete worked with anthropologists to record songs and stories of the Dena'ina, and in Shem Pete's Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena'ina, he and other Dena'ina elders provided some nine hundred place names spread over more than 25,000 square miles of Southcentral Alaska, many of which he had traveled through or hunted and fished at. Shem Pete provided more than 650 of the place names. Some of these names reflect the traditional Dena'ina usage of the Anchorage bowl for fish camps at Point Woronzof, Chester Creek, and Cairn Point.
In 1983, Russian speaker and historian Dr. Lydia Black was introduced to Shem Pete at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Master storyteller Shem Pete and his son, Bill Shem ("Billy") Pete, visited there in 1983. She recalled their first meeting:
“Shortly after I arrived in Fairbanks, in January 1983, Dr. James Kari asked me to come up to his office. He liked me to meet someone. I climbed up a flight of stairs and entered. Two men were visiting. I barely took a step or two when the older of the two gentlemen rose and asked, no, stated, in perfect Russian: Madam, vy russkaia (Madam, you are a Russian). I admitted to the fact. Delendii (it was he) bowed over my hand, and we proceeded to converse about this and that. I thought that if I have encountered Delendii in Moscow, neither his manners nor his speech would ever betray him as an Alaska Native. I also remember that his son, who accompanied him on this visit, pulled on his coat and whispered (for all to hear) ‘They are not supposed to know’ – referring to Delendii’s command of the Russian language. This is one of the fondest memories I have of this grand man, the renowned elder of the Dena’ina nation.”
In Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, Kari and Fall state: “In retrospect, it seems that we underestimated Shem’s ability in the Russian language. He did not make an effort to speak Russian when he was with Russian speakers in the Orthodox community or when visiting with Fedosia Sacaloff in Kenai who was fluent in Russian. It is quite interesting if in fact Shem Pete was concealing his knowledge of Russian.”
While living in the village of Tyonek from 1979 to 1987, Shem Pete taught songs and dances to the entire village. He knew the old songs and taught them to the younger generation:
“I tell lots of stories. I know a lot of songs. I sing a song. Every Tuesday I teach the whole village (Tyonek). The younger generation—about ten years, twelve years old—they dance with me. And I sing. I know the old songs. Way back. One hundred or more songs. I sing to them, the younger generation, the small kids. They talk native. Before that they never talk native. They learn the English. Now they tell me ‘Chada [Grandpa] come! Hey Chada, come! They all jump on me when I come down Tyonek. I like to dance for you people, all you ladies and gentlemen. And I dance like hell too. I pretty good.”
“Well, I know lots more to say, but I think I talk too much. Cause I can’t talk pretty good English neither. I like to talk my own language. Well, that’s enough for a while, Q’u dutdgheshchel. [“Well, I’m going to shut up now.’].”
He and other Dena’ina elders saw their culture slip away like sand between their fingers and wanted younger people to relish what was left “through stories, biographies, songs, and place names.”
On October 18, 1985, Shem Pete and his son and interpreter, Billy Pete, were celebrated on “Shem Pete Day” with a special program at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art (now the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center), co-sponsored by Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (CIRI) and the Cook Inlet Historical Society. The pending publication of the first edition of Shem Pete’s Alaska was celebrated, recognition given to him and other Dena’ina for their efforts to revive the customs, language, and the values of Dena’ina people. In addition to Shem and Billy Pete, many key contributors to the book attended, including Tommy Allowan, Fedora Constantine, Katherine-Nicole, Peter Kalifornsky, and Sava Stephan.
Shem and Billy Pete in 1987 moved from Tyonek to Anchorage to be closer to health care facilities. Beginning in 1974, Shem worked with the Alaska Native Language Center and, in particular, with James and Priscilla Fall, to review, translate, and annotate recorded narratives and stories associated with Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina language and culture. In 1978, he also collaborated with James A. Fall of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in recording Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina ethnohistory and culture. In June 1989, Shem Pete was chosen as CIRI’s first Shareholder of the Year.
On July 2, 1989, Shem Pete died at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. His obituary, “A Region Loses Rare Storyteller Shem Pete Passed on History, Tradition,” by David Hulen, appeared on the front page of the Anchorage Daily News on July 4, 1989. He was called a gifted storyteller and “perhaps the last of the Tanaina Indians with vivid memories of Anchorage before the first tents were pitched by white settlers.” He was one of only about two hundred people who still spoke the Tanaina language, a form of Athabascan also known as Dena’ina, and one of only twenty who still spoke the dialect of the Upper Cook Inlet. In later years, he became an indispensable source of information for anthropologists and shared his knowledge of Dena’ina history, lore, and geography in dozens of recorded interviews. He treasured his past and passed it on, just like his elders had shared their stories with him, and previous elders had done, for more than a thousand years. Hulen stated: “With a memory like a tape recorder, he absorbed hundreds of stories and legends from his parents and elders. He accumulated stories of his own; he witnessed the near destruction of the Tanaina people by epidemics of European diseases after the turn of the century, how trains and cars arrived and the new, white settled towns grew up.”
On October 7, 1989, the village of Tyonek and Cook Region, Inc. (CIRI) sponsored a memorial potlatch for Shem Pete. A biography of Shem Pete by Lydia Hayes, vice president of CIRI, was included in the potlatch program. This event was featured in We Alaskans, the Sunday supplement of the Anchorage Daily News, under the title, “Death of a Storyteller: Goodbye, Shem Pete.”
In Memorium, Shem Pete
In January 1990, the Alaska State Legislature drafted a statement, “In Memorium, Shem Pete,” in celebration of Shem Pete’s life and lasting contributions. The statement concludes:
“He is noted for his determination to pass on what he knew to the younger generation. It was important to tell stories over and over. Lasting are his words, ‘Who’s going to tell the stories when I’m dead? . . . His voice quiet now, but Shem would want the story of his people to go on. Goodbye Chada.”
The first edition of Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina was published in 1987, but went out of print the following year. In addition to Shem and Billy Pete, others who especially contributed to the first edition were Katherine Nicole, Johnny Shaginoff, and Mike Alex. It is recognized as the basic reference work and field guide on the Dena’ina people and territory of the Upper Cook Inlet. The expanded second edition of Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina was published by the University of Alaska Press in 2003 with the assistance of the CIRI Foundation, and is the product of more than fifty Dena’ina, Ahtna, and Upper Kuskokwim people who contributed their knowledge of the geography of the Upper Cook Inlet. The 1987 and 2003 editions of Shem Pete's Alaska influenced Dena'ina scholarship and cultural identity, and led to visible recognition of Dena'ina identity and place names in Anchorage and the Cook Inlet region. As previously noted, in 2016, a second revised edition was published by the University of Alaska Press with the Alaska Native Language Center. Shem Pete was also interviewed in 1985 for the CIRI Foundation publication, A.J. McClanahan, Our Stories, Our Lives: A Collection of Twenty-Three Interviews with Elders of the Cook Inlet Region (Anchorage: CIRI Foundation, 1986; reprint ed., 2002). For a more detailed biographical sketch of Shem Pete, please see the "Introduction" [Shem Pete Elan Shit'i, "I am Shem Pete"], in James Kari and James A. Fall, editors, Principal Contributor, Shem Pete, Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, Revised Second 2016 Edition, 1-5.
 See, William Bright, "Forward," in Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, James Kari and James A. Fall, editors, Principal Contributor, Shem Pete, Revised Second 2016 Edition (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press with the Alaska Native Language Center, 2016), xi.
 James Kari and James A. Fall, editors, Principal Contributor, Shem Pete, Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, Revised Second 2016 Edition, 1 and 380. See footnote nos. 1-2 for a detailed explanation of the origin of Shem Pete's Dena'ina, English, and baptismal names.
 Shem Pete and Sava Stephan, “Early Days in Anchorage,” in Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, Revised Second 2016 Edition, 335.
 Ibid., 335.
 Ibid., 335.
 James Kari and James A. Fall, editors, Principal Contributor, Shem Pete, Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, Revised Second 2016 Edition, 2-3.
 Shem Pete and Sava Stephan, “Early Days in Anchorage,” in Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, Revised Second 2016 Edition, 335.
 Ibid., 336.
 James Kari and James A. Fall, editors, Principal Contributor, Shem Pete, Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, Revised Second 2016 Edition, 3.
 James Kari and James A. Fall, “The Russian Presence in Upper Cook Inlet,” in Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, Revised Second 2016 Edition, 21.
 James Kari and James A. Fall, editors, Principal Contributor, Shem Pete, Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, Revised Second 2016 Edition, 3-4.
 Maria Shaa Tla´a Williams, editor, The Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 70.
 David Hulen, “A Region Loses Rare Storyteller Shem Pete Passed on History, Tradition,” Anchorage Daily News, July 4, 1989, A-1.
 James Kari and James A. Fall, editors, Principal Contributor, Shem Pete, Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, Revised Second 2016 Edition, 4.
 David Hulen, "Shem Pete, Farewell to a Storyteller," Anchorage Daily News, We Alaskans, October 22, 1989, O6.
 James Kari and James A. Fall, editors, Principal Contributor, Shem Pete, Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, Revised Second 2016 Edition, 5.
No entry for Shem Pete was included in John P. Bagoy’s Legends and Legacies: Anchorage 1910-1935, 2001 (Anchorage: Publications Consultants, 2001). This biographical sketch was added to this website by Cook Inlet Historical Society staff and board members. Edited by Mina Jacobs, 2012. Note: edited, revised, and expanded by Bruce Parham, August 27, 2016.
Preferred citation: Bruce Parham, ed., “Pete, Shem (K’etech’ayuilen),” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, http://www.alaskahistory.org.
Major support for Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, provided by: Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Atwood Foundation, Cook Inlet Historical Society, and the Rasmuson Foundation. This educational resource is provided by the Cook Inlet Historical Society, a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt association. Contact us at the Cook Inlet Historical Society, by mail at Cook Inlet Historical Society, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, 625 C Street, Anchorage, AK 99501 or through the Cook Inlet Historical Society website, www.cookinlethistory.org.