Alaskan Native Culture
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In the Siberian Eskimo village of Gambell on Alaska's St. Lawrence Island, where black walrus meat dries on racks outside homes and ancient, ivory is so plentiful pieces lie on gravel roads, Native culture thrives.
Some of Alaska's best carvers live in the village of 677, honing images of birds, whales and seals from bone and ivory. The work is so valuable it can sell for thousands of dollars at East Coast auction houses like Sotheby's and has captured the interest of art experts at the Smithsonian Institute.
For those who cannot venture to the village 200 miles across the sea from Nome, they can easily experience the strength and beauty of that and other Alaska Native cultures in a growing network of cultural centers and museums in both the state's well-traveled cities and in more rural communities.
No other state in America holds such a broad range of Native cultures as Alaska. From the Inupiat (In-OOPY-at) Eskimos of Barrow, just above the Arctic Circle, to the Tlingit (CLINK-it) Indians of Ketchikan on the tip of Southeast Alaska, Native cultural diversity is a hallmark of the state.
Alaska Native and American Indian population totals at 120,452, roughly 17 percent of the state’s population. The majority are Eskimo, Indian and Aleut and live in villages scattered along the coastline and rivers of Alaska, where they still practice traditional hunting and fishing lifestyles.
In larger communities such as Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, Native dress, language, and social customs blend with modern city life. The blend is part of why Alaska is well-known for its cultural and historic attractions throughout the state.
For thousands of years, Alaska Natives have preserved their rich traditions, and passed this cultural heritage from generation to generation. While the languages and philosophies vary from region to region, many common goals, values and spiritual beliefs weave these Native societies together in the past as well as today.
The variety of these groups can be traced back to Alaska's first Native descendants, who came by way of a northern land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska. As the Ice Age ended and the seas claimed the land, the nomads moved to higher ground. As the continents drifted apart, that land would become Alaska.
Some groups settled in the Arctic. Others crossed mountain passes to various regions of the state, or migrated through Alaska, continuing on to distant lands, in some cases as far as South America.
Alaska Native cultural centers and museums across Alaska are a good way to get an overview of Native culture. Live demonstrations, performances, arts, crafts and one-of-a-kind collectible pieces are commonly found at the cultural centers.
The 26-acre Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, showcases all 11 of the state's major Native groups. Local residents and visitors alike are able to learn about Alaska Native traditions from the past and present through the interactive displays, exhibits, events, films and even six authentic Native housing sites situated around a scenic lake.
For the traveler who wants to explore Alaska Native villages independently, contact a regional or statewide tourism organization to find out which communities are the easiest to get to from the state's population centers.
In the larger communities, several collections of artifacts and fine art owned by businesses and Native corporations are displayed in their buildings and are open to the public. Combined with visits to the top-drawer museums and performance centers in hubs like Anchorage, Fairbanks or Juneau, slipping inside Alaska's Native culture is available on any size budget.
The Southcentral and Interior regions of Alaska are home to the state's largest populations of Athabascan Indians, known for their innovative survival instincts in one of the earth's harshest environments. Natives who have made this region home thrive on moose, caribou, plants, berries and river fish. Athabascan art features superb skin sewing skills using pelts from big game in the region. Athabascan beadwork and embroidery is recognized as being among the finest in the world.
- Eklutna Historical Park, 30 minutes north of Anchorage, provides a glimpse into Native Athabascan culture and the influences of Russian Orthodox missionaries. The park includes a sacred burial ground of the Dena'ina Athabascans, with over 80 spirit houses, the historic St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, and the Village Heritage House. Open daily May-September. Phone: (907) 688-6026.
- The Alaska Heritage Library and Museum, located in the Wells Fargo lobby in Anchorage, has displays of Native baskets and artifacts, plus photos, rare books, and paintings by world-renown artists Sydney Laurence, Fred Machetanz, Eustace Ziegler. Free admission. Open year-round, M-F, noon-4 p.m. (907) 265-2834.
- Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center’s permanent collection depicts 10,000 years of Alaska history. The Alaska Gallery includes displays that highlight 20th century historical events such as the 1964 Earthquake and extensive collection of ethnographic and archaeological materials, artifacts, and fine arts and crafts Open daily May-Sept; Tues-Sun, Oct-April. Phone: (907) 929-9200.
- The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center showcases over 600 rare Alaska Native artifacts from the Smithsonian Institute. The 10,000 square-foot center allows access for hands-on study by Alaska Natives, scholars and artists. The collection includes an 1893 Tlingit war helmet from Taku, a southeast Alaska village. Call (907) 929-2900.
- The Alaska Native Heritage Center is a 26-acre center just 12 minutes from downtown Anchorage. The facility will has five main galleries. The Culture Hall houses 3-D wall displays that introduce each culture and its region. The Gathering Place Hall hosts Native dancing and drumming, special performances, classes and special events. Cultural events similar to traditional celebrations in Alaskan villages also take place at the center. Phone: (907) 333-8000.
Southeast Alaska's history was shaped by the Northwest Coast Indians: Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshians. They were fishermen, hunters, artists and carvers whose intricate totem poles, some 90-feet tall, amazed Europeans when they first landed on these shores. Today, the craftsmen of the region are also known for their handmade dance masks, decorative paddles, button blankets, and finely-woven cedar bark and spruce root baskets.
- The Stikine River is as much a part of Southeast Alaska's history as the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshians who have been a part of this land for thousands of years. In Wrangell, a walking tour includes the ancient Native carvings of Petroglyph Beach, Totem Park, and the Tlingit House on Chief Shakes Island. From there, a jet boat heads into the wilderness of the Tongass National Forest, passing an old homestead where Natives gathered for potlatches, a tent city from the Klondike gold rush, an icefield and glaciers. Daily tours available April-October.
- Juneau is Alaska's capital city and has been home to Tlingit and Haida tribes for thousands of years. Tours and attractions focus on Juneau's history as seen through the eyes of an Alaska Native, and include stories of how the Raven made the first people, the first white settlers' meeting with the Auke Kwaan and Taku tribes, the traditions of Indian villages along the way, and a stop at Mendenhall Glacier, the famous ice river reported in John Muir's 1879 journal entry. Daily tours May-September. The Alaska State Museum, accessible from most downtown hotels has a spectacular collection of Alaska artifacts.
- Saxman Native Village, located two miles south of Ketchikan, has more than two- dozen cedar totem poles, comprising one of the world's largest collections of totemic art in the world. This award-winning tour includes a look inside the carving center with live demonstrations by master carvers. Other highlights: a brief introduction to the Tlingit language, Native culture of Alaska and Southeast, life-ways of a clan house, a play presented in the Native storytelling fashion, arts and crafts demonstrations, and a performance by the Cape Fox Dance Group. Daily tours May-September.
- Icy Straight Point, located in Hoonah, Alaska, 35 miles from Juneau, offers visitors a chance to experience true Alaska Native culture and the natural beauty of Alaska. Originally built as a salmon cannery, the buildings have been restored and is a port for major cruise lines and also available to independent travelers. Visitors get a chance to dive into Tlingit history through storytelling, song and dance. At the Heritage Center Theater, visitors can view a tribal dance performance and immerse themselves in some of the cultural legends of the Tlingit. Other activities and excursions, from fishing and kayaking, shopping and the world’s longest ZipRider zipline are also available.
The Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands were the first Alaskans to be contacted by Europeans who had been hired to explore for the Czars of Russia. These maritime people depend on fish, sea otters, seals, and whales for subsistence. The largest single population of Aleuts lives on the Pribilof Islands - St. Paul and St. George - in the Bering Sea. Others remain in the Aleutian Islands, on Kodiak Island, and throughout the Alaska Peninsula.
- The Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak provides a general overview on pre-historic Alutiiq life and includes an exhibit gallery, traveling displays, repository and museum store. Call (907) 486-7004 for museum information.
- The Kodiak Native Tourism Association is a cooperative marketing organization that provides information on a network of Alaska Native attractions, including Native-owned hunting and fishing lodges, bed and breakfasts, cultural tours, archaeological digs. Call (907) 486-9800 or (800) 478-5721.
- The Kodiak Island Convention & Visitors Bureau provides information on member businesses including the six Native villages on the island, and bear viewing activities on the Katmai Coast. Call (907) 486-4782 or (800) 789-4782.
- St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs is 300 miles from Alaska's mainland located in the middle of the Bering Sea. This Aleut community is known for having the largest fur seal and bird rookeries in the world. The Aleut Natives here are descendants of Aleutian Islanders who came here with Russian merchants and explorers in the late 1700s to harvest fur seals. Eventually the Russians left, but the Aleuts stayed and today continue their traditional subsistence lifestyle, as well as commercial enterprises such as tourism and fishing. Tours range from 3 days/2 nights to 8 days/7 nights and are available May-August.
- Unalaska, in the Aleutian Chain, was attacked by Japanese bombers and fighter planes on June 3, 1942, forcing most Aleuts into relocation camps over 1,000 miles away in Southeast Alaska. Only half of them ever returned to Unalaska. Tour highlights might include the Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Cathedral, World War II history and landmarks, and a visit to Dutch Harbor, the adjacent deep-water port that has some of the richest fishing waters in the world.
For information on the Southwest region, call the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference at (907) 562-7380 or visit http://www.southwestalaska.com.
Stretching north of the Arctic Circle to the Bering Sea Coast, the Arctic region of Alaska is the state’s most remote and romanticized. Though population centers are spread out across the region, small towns like Barrow and a smattering of even smaller villages are home to strong communities of people. Many rely on marine mammals including walrus and whale for food, and carving the bone and tusks of the mammals is an exacting art form here.
Some Athabascans and both Gwitch'in and Kutch'in also live here, using the caribou herds of the region for food and cultural expression.
- Barrow, "The Top of the World," is located on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, and lies 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Attractions include a traditional Eskimo culture program with Eskimo dances by men and women in traditional parkas. These story dances relate tales of hunts and adventures on tundra and ice. Tours also include demonstrations on mask making, skin sewing, fur parkas and games. Native artists show their craftsmanship in ivory, baleen and skins. Daily tours May-September. Call the Barrow city offices at (907) 852-5211.
- Barrow's Inupiat Heritage Center offers an environment where the knowledge and expertise of the Inupiat elders is recognized and valued. The library has historical, research, and language materials, as well as rare books. The cultural arts exhibit room has exhibits that show the development of the Inupiat from 20,000 years ago to present. Open daily. Call (907) 852-4594.
- Gambell Village on Saint Lawrence Island is just within sight of Russia. Mountains 40 miles to the west lie in Russian Siberia, not North America. The Native Alaskans of Gambell are Siberian Yupik and are more closely related to the Native peoples of Siberia than to those of North America. Known for its abundant seabird populations, Gambell has become a well-known spot for bird-watchers with tour operators offering multi-day excursions for the ultimate bird watching experience. At the local ivory co-op, pieces of ivory are transformed into intricate artwork available for purchase. From Kotzebue or Nome, Gambell is an easy one-day, add-on tour. Call City of Gambell at (907) 985-5927.
- Kotzebue is one of Alaska's largest and oldest Inupiat Eskimo villages. Devoted to Inupiat culture, the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center offers an exhibit hall of traditional tools and animals from the region, a gift shop and three audio “storytelling stations” where visitors can listen to different recordings from the area. The center also includes the National Park Service offices. Open daily. Call 907-442-3760.
The low, rolling country between the southern slope of the Alaska Range and the northern face of the Brooks Range is Alaska's version of the outback. Wide-open and wild, the region has few roads. Rather, communities are tucked in along rivers, which Alaska Natives for centuries have used as thoroughfares both in summer and winter. Of the estimated 112,170 people who live here, about 12.5 percent are Eskimo or Athabascan Indian. Fishing the rivers and hunting for caribou remain a way of life.
- The University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, the state's primary repository of natural and cultural history, is internationally recognized for its comprehensive northern collections. The main gallery exhibits provide an overview of Alaska's people, natural resources, and events that have guided the development of the state. Five galleries representing the major ecological regions of Alaska highlight each region's distinct natural and cultural history. Dynamic Aurora is a multi-media presentation at the museum that tells about the mysterious aurora borealis, or northern lights, through lectures, slides and videos, including Native stories and mythology that attempted to explain this incredible natural phenomenon. Open daily year round. Call (907) 474-7505.
For information on the Interior contact the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, 101 Dunkel Street #111 Fairbanks, AK 99701, call 800-327-5774.
For Alaska Visitor Information contact: 800 862-5275 or visit our website http://www.travelalaska.com
State of Alaska Tourism
Media Line: (800) 327-9372