Alaska’s Sleeping Lady – Mt. Susitna


Sleeping Lady. The Dena’ina name is “Dghelishla” — ‘Little Mountain’ to distinguish it from “Dghelay Ka’a,” ‘Big Mountain.’ (Denali, formerly Mt. McKinley). A mirror image of the mountain appears in the water./ Photo by Bob Jones /

Ancient glacial ice crashed into mountain bedrock to form one of Anchorage’s most iconic and panoramic views. Locals lovingly call it “Sleeping Lady.”

Roughly five million years ago, a massive, ancient glacier began to melt. The ice that broke away was so powerful it crushed and carved solid rock.  The melting, compressed ice began to move — and everything that stood in its path was either pounded or pulverized  —  transforming boulders into pebbles and  smashing granite into dust.

A Mountain Carved by Ice

Compressed glacial ice and debris crashes into and over mountain bedrock

Compressed glacial ice and debris crashes into and over mountain bedrock. Source:

The spectacular, brute force of these earth movements sculpted a 4,360 ft. mountain, 13 miles long from north to south that looks like a woman in serene repose.

The U.S. Geological Survey named the mountain Mt. Susitna in 1900; using a word derived from a Tanaina name for the nearby river they called “sandy river.” Mt. Susitna is located on the west bank of the lower Susitna River, about 33 miles northwest of Anchorage.

When Camels Left Alaska

Artist’s depiction of large camels that lived in the high Arctic 3.5 million years ago. Credit © Julius Csotonyi


It was the end of the last Ice Age — an age of movement and migration. The glacial ice that entombed Mt. Susitna and the Cook Inlet Region was not the only thing disappearing — the camels and horses that roamed Alaska and the high Arctic were beginning to become extinct after migrating across the Bering Land Bridge from Alaska to Russia.

Horses and Camels First Lived in North America

Camels and horses originated and evolved in North America about 45 million years ago, then moved west through Russia and Eurasia. We think of camels as being exceptionally equipped for life in the desert but scientists believe they first evolved to successfully live in ice and snow.

“So perhaps some specializations seen in modern camels, such as their wide flat feet, large eyes and humps for fat may be adaptations derived from living in a polar environment.” Natalia Rybczynski


Humans were migrating as well — The first Alaska natives to live in the Cook Inlet Region  were the Dena’ina who are thought to have arrived in the region between 1,000 and 1,500 years ago. They called themselves “The People.”


Traditional or pre-contact clan descent was matrilineal: through women and their offspring – so a woman, her sisters and brothers and her children  would belong to the same clan.

Anthropologist Linda Ellanna noted that in Dena’ina society, a woman’s brothers and her mother’s brother are more  significant to her and her children’s lives than her husband or father. At the same time, “. . . a woman’s offspring are the most significant children to her brothers and her mother’s brothers”  In a matrilineal system, sibling links may be stronger than ties of marriage.   Nanutset ch’u Q’udi Gu (Before Our Time and Now)

The Fabric of Life

“Animated spirits of animals, mountains, plants, and insects populated the Native universe, and people were to maintain constant contact with these “other human beings.” This idea made people act as an inseparable part of the natural system. The Dena’ina believed that spirits controlled all living things, the land, and all natural objects.

Each river, hill, and lake was endowed with its master-spirits….It was believed that stones, mountains, trees and grass were able to talk with people, and animals were viewed as simply a different kind of people. ” Andrei Znamenski

There are stories about why Dghelishla (Little Mountain) or Mt. Susitna is called “Sleeping Lady,” but these stories as well as the name “Sleeping Lady”  are modern inventions and didn’t come from the Dena’ina, who never called the mountain Sleeping Lady.  Like many native peoples, the Dena’ina kept no written records and passed down information as well as cultural history through an oral tradition of storytelling. People learned through listening.

According to linguist James Kari  —  in 1986,  there were only about 25 speakers of the Dena’ina language. Almost all of them were over 60 years old.


Sharing the Dena’ina Language

The Alaska Office of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center hosted the Dena’ina Language Institute from October 4-8, 2010 at the Living Our Cultures exhibit gallery located in the Anchorage Museum. Elders Helen Dick and Gladys Evanoff shared their knowledge about Dena’ina heritage objects in the Smithsonian collections, using the objects as tools to teach the Dena’ina Athabascan language

The Expert Elder

Shem Pete (1896-1989) in Eklutna/

Shem Pete (1896-1989) in Eklutna/

Shem Pete was a beloved and exceptional  Dena’ina elder who was the most accomplished of the learners and rememberers of traditional stories, songs, dances and topographical information.  He is responsible for documenting hundreds of place names in his collaborative book, Shem Pete’s Alaska, a masterful work by James Kari and James Fall.

The Dena’ina names for places and people are richly descriptive and often explain how the people lived and how they were known. Shem Pete’s mother is a good example.  Her Dena’ina name was K’eludghilna (Mother of One Who Passes Around Food).

Dena’ina Mountain Stories

Mountain stories were told in the spring and summer while the people searched the mountains for game and participated in other subsistence activities.  The traditional stories (sukdu ) came from an ancient time and were intended to bring the Dena’ina wisdom, knowledge, good luck and good weather on the mountain.

Listen to Two Examples of Mountain Stories

The Anchorage Museum has made these and other traditional stories available for listening in both Dena’ina and English along with written text.

In 1979, Shem Pete of Susitna Station, whose Dena’ina name was K’etech’ayutilen, (One Who Brings Gun Among Game) recorded The Wolverine Story in the Dena’ina language.

The Wolverine Story as told by Shem Pete

Antone Evan of Nondalton, recorded the mountain story “Sunshine Man ” in the Dena’ina language in 1974.

Sunshine Man as told by Antone Evan

The Ridge Where They Cried


Ch’chihi Ken – “Ridge Where We Cry” (sloping ridge on left is outlined in black) / Photo Credit Bob Jones


 “Where are the friends who might come to us with cheer?

Where are our loved ones who might come to us with kindness?

Our relatives have come back to us,

have come back to us.

Our friends with cheer, too, have come back to us,

have come back to us.

Our loved ones with kindness, too,

have come back to us,

have come back to us.”

Peter Kalifornsky, Potlatch Song of a Lonely Man, in A Dena’ina Legacy

“Dghelishla” – Mt. Susitna was a sacred mountain whose south ridge was a place of remembrance for the Dena’ina.

The equilibrium of “The People’s” inner and outer worlds rested securely within the intimate connectedness of their relationships.

Death did not separate them because their relationships continued. Relationships with ancestors, nature, animals and the elements were ongoing and alive.


Shem Pete — the man who remembered many things — remembered the ridge where they cried:

“That big ridge going downriver from Dghelishla (Mt. Susitna) all the way to Beluga, they call Ch’chihi Ken (Ridge Where We Cry)..

They would sit down there. Everything is in view. They can see their whole country.

Everything is just right under them.

They think about their brothers and their fathers and mothers.

They remember that, and they just sit down there and cry.

That’s the place we cry all the time, ’cause everything just show up so plain.

That’s why they call it Ch’chihi Ken.

                                                                                 Shem Pete, Shem Pete’s Alaska

Knowing Where You Are

A basic rule of navigation is to know where you are.

The Dena’ina used “Sleeping Lady” for navigational orientation just as boat and airplane pilots do today. Hunters and travelers on the ground relied on the mountain to mark their position so they would not be lost.

The Dena’ina climbed the sloping ridge to reflect and remember the loved ones they missed.  They also looked up to the mountain after they returned to the ground in order to safely find their way to where they needed to go. Dghelishla (Little Mountain) helped to guide them to the past as well as to the present.

Navigation is generally something we need to practice — just as we consciously need to practice the small and large things that make up our life.

Like the Dena’ina people, we too have our mountain markers, that help orient us in our lives.  From one vantage point we can re-experience the past by remembering our loved ones who are gone.

But in order to navigate our lives well, we must raise our sights and look up in order to mark our position in the “now” of our present, so that we may walk with grace and good footing toward our future.

We are all connected and we are never alone — and though at times we may feel lost; our mountain markers guarantee that we will never be lost for very long.


© Carol Horos, April 4, 2014