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Tiny Rocks And Big Questions: MOTA Interim Collections Manager Dr. Kale Bruner Explores Nateekin Bay

courtesy of Kale Bruner

Unalaska's Museum of the Aleutians has been publishing a series of Instagram posts about historically and locally significant places on the island since late June.

Many of their posts have been about trails, mountains, or local swimming spots, and are often inspired by personal connection or memories of the area. For Interim Collections Manager Dr. Kale Bruner, many places on the island are inspiring and spark joy, but there is one place in particular that has galvanized some very big questions in their research and stands out to them.

Bruner is an archeologist and has been working with the museum regularly since about 2015.

During that time, they also did field work for their dissertation on the island. They study how people collected and then used stones to make tools. For that reason, they focus on the geology of the island to learn about where those stones were coming from, and then works to find out what kind of tools were being created.

"What I learned in my dissertation is that there's actually very little good stone for making tools available in Unalaska Bay," said Bruner. "The rocks just simply aren't here. So what I know now, that we didn't know before, is that almost all the stone utilized in these sites — and we're talking about millions of pieces when you consider 9,000 years of known history here, which could go back even further — they're almost all brought in."

Credit Maggie Nelson/KUCB
Nateekin Bay.

Bruner said, historically, people were picking up things like beach cobblestones on Unalaska's beaches, and using them for rudimentary tools, for things like chopping, hammers, and anvils. But when people were making finer tools like projectile points, scrapers, or drills, they were using stone that was brought from somewhere else.

Bruner said that while their dissertation work has been exciting, it's also brought up more questions than answers.

"I think there was a lot more intention [involved] than just happening to find a rock," said Bruner. "I think people set out to get what they needed, probably on a pretty predictable schedule. I just haven't been able to discern what that schedule is yet."

Along with their dissertation work in the Unalaska Bay area, Bruner has helped out with projects in the Islands of the Four Mountains, the ROSSIA (Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska) Bishop's House and Russian Orthodox Church restoration, and has also worked as a research affiliate for MOTA.

During these projects, Bruner said they've spent a lot of time just walking along beaches counting rocks. And of all the beaches they've explored, they said Nateekin Bay is their favorite.

Bruner said someone gave them a unique rock from Nateekin that drew them to the bay. The rock was unlike any other they'd seen before on the beaches in the area. So, in April of 2018, Bruner spent an entire day pacing the beach at Nateekin Bay, doing a systematic study of the rocks there.

"I literally walked the beach from one end to the other, stopping about every 100 paces, and drawing a square in the ground — just in the sand because this is a sand beach, for the most part," said Bruner. "There's a few cobbles, but not a lot. And then I counted the cobbles inside that square to get a sense of how abundant different types of rocks were on that beach."

What they found was that while the type of rock that they was gifted was common in Nateekin Bay, it was very uncommon in the surrounding areas. The resulting question, said Bruner, was a natural one, especially in light of their recent dissertation work: Where are these rocks coming from?

They discovered that they were emerging through erosion — out of the Nateekin River or the bay floor  — and coming from the mountains in the surrounding area.

Before they came to that conclusion, they, and other archeologists, hadn't considered that people were going inland to find the stones they needed.

"So Nateekin beach sort of opened my eyes to that likelihood," said Bruner. "And I look forward to having an opportunity to hike up there maybe next summer and see what I can find."

Bruner will be leaving the island soon to head back home to Lawrence, Kansas where they work for the University of Kansas. And while they don't have a permanent home or most of their personal belongings in Unalaska, they said they enjoy taking their time to learn about the island, and looks forward to returning.

"The thing that I've always loved about archaeology is that it always — as a student, even before I was committed to it as a career, when I was just kind of going through the motions of going to school — really spoke to me, because I got to travel," said Bruner. "It was because of the places I got to go to, and kind of spend some time literally putting my hands in the dirt, not just traveling through, but spending months at a time really getting to know a place down to the smell of the dirt there."

And without that experience — of getting to know a place intimately — Bruner said they wouldn't have continued studying archeology.

For more information on how to contribute your own local place to possibly be featured on the museum's Instagram, email  

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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