Glacier Bay National Park Tribal House,
Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo, Michael S. Nolan

Alaska Native Cultural Experiences in our National Parks

Alaska Native Cultural Experiences in our National Parks

Alaska may be the 49th state, but the land and its people are certainly not new to history, as Alaska Native peoples have called these lands home for over 10,000 years. Today, Alaska Native culture, history, traditions, and ways of living continue to be an integral part of the state. All eight of our national parks are on lands that are the traditional homelands of Alaska’s Indigenous peoples. Today, these parks pay homage to their original inhabitants through cultural experiences, historic sites, and educational opportunities. If you’re looking to experience and gain insight into the rich culture of the diverse Alaska Native peoples, here are some opportunities in each of our national parks:

Katmai National Park and Preserve

Home to the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq people, Katmai National Park and Preserve has served as fishing, hunting, gathering, and living grounds for generations. With a rich biodiverse landscape, archeologists have been able to determine that ancient villages settled throughout the park, including near the Alagnak River, were built thousands of years ago. Nets, clothing, footwear, and baskets have been uncovered in recent years, illuminating the longstanding heritage that continues to exist today.

The Brooks River Archeological District National Historical Landmark protects ancient houses and camps along the Brooks River dating back to 2500 BC. Similarly, Amalik Bay Archeological District protects homes and villages on small islands at Amalik Bay, dating back 7,000 years (for context, that’s 2,000 years before Stonehenge in England, and 3,000 years before the Giza pyramids were built in Egypt!). If you’re looking to experience this history up close, make sure to visit the Brooks Camp Cultural Site Exhibit, just a short walk from Brooks Camp. This fascinating site houses a reconstructed prehistoric house, with interpretive displays and Ranger talks to provide further insight into the area’s history and people.

The exhibits at the Katmai Visitors Center in King Salmon illuminate this rich history through a wide variety of interactive and informative displays. The history of volcanic eruptions and geological, paleontological, and other discoveries are also detailed here. The Robert F. Griggs Visitor Center near the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes provides information detailing the Mt. Katmai/Novarupta eruption which forced many inhabitants of surrounding areas to relocate and resettle along other areas of the Alaska Peninsula. Ranger-led tours here not only provide great geological information but can also offer insight into the cultural significance of the valley today.

Learn more about Katmai National Park history and culture on the national park's website.

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Katmai National Park
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Photo Credit: istockphoto, christiannafzger

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Completed in 2016, one of the most incredible cultural learning opportunities in the state can be found at the Xunaa Shuká Hít -  the Huna Tribal House, at Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Here, tribal members and park visitors can share tradition, culture, history, and more on lands that have long been home to the Huna Tlingit peoples.

Celebrating the original preservationists and stewards of the land, the Huna Tlingit people dedicated the house to their ancestral history, creating a sanctuary long overdue for those who have called this land home for centuries. The recent dedication of the 2,500 square foot cedar Tribal House was a dream realized for the Huna Tlingit people, who were displaced by an advancing glacier over 250 years ago.

Ceremonies, camps, tribal meetings, and more are now celebrated here. The house boasts a large open area, perfect for gathering around a central fire pit and enjoying traditional song and dance performances. You’ll be able to marvel at the incredible work of master Tlingit craftsmen who have designed and carved the cedar panels featured at the front of the house. Here, the four Huna Tlingit clans are depicted, complemented by the Raven and Eagle totems and the healing totem pole just outside of the house. These incredible traditional works bring together cultural knowledge across generations, with opportunities for you to enjoy workshops on Alaska Native art, weaving, song and dance, woodworking, and more.

Learn more about Glacier Bay National Park history and culture on the national park's website.

Glacier Bay National Park Tribal House
Xunaa Shuká Hít -  the Huna Tribal House in Glacier Bay National Park. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo, Michael S. Nolan

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve

Before becoming a national park, the land in this area was occupied by the Dena'ina Athabascan people. What is known as Lake Clark National Park and Preserve today was called Qizhjeh Vena, meaning a place where people gather - lake in the Dena’ina language. Today, Lake Clark National Park is surrounded by villages and homes of the Dena’ina Athabascan people. With over four million acres of rich environment, this ecological marvel gives life to edible plants, berries, caribou, bears, salmon, wolves, moose, and more, making it a bountiful place to call home.

Boasting one of the largest sockeye salmon fisheries in the world, this cultural and ecologically rich area is an incredible landscape to learn about Athabascan history. Archeological evidence points to thousands of years of Dena'ina subsistence living in the area. The park's Visitor Center in Port Alsworth has displays detailing the history of the land, including photos, birch baskets, historical exhibits, and the Wassillie Trefon Dena'ina Fish Cache. There are many culturally significant sites located throughout the park such as the Kijik National Historical Landmark and Archeological District – protecting over a dozen archeological sites – and the Ancestral Telaquana Trail – a historic Athabascan trade and transportation route.

Learn more about Lake Clark National Park's history and culture on the national park's website.

Hiking in Lake Clark National Park
Hiking in Lake Clark National Park.

Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest national park in the United States, located on the traditional homeland of four Alaska Native groups. The area was primarily inhabited by the Ahtna Athabascan people in the interior of today’s parks lands, with the Tanana Athabascan people living in more northern regions of the park, and the Tlingit and Eyak people in the southern regions.

The cultural heritage of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and the Copper River Valley spans thousands of years. Trade and travel routes throughout the park are a reminder of the collaboration of these distinct groups, as Ahtna people traveled north to hunt caribou and the Upper Tanana people harvested salmon from the bountiful rivers of the Copper River. The traditional name of the Copper River is Atna’tuu, meaning river of the Ahtnas. Today, federal subsistence hunting regulations allow cultural and traditional practices to continue, even within the park.

The best place to learn about the park's cultural heritage is the Ahtna Cultural Center, located next to the park’s main Visitor Center in Copper Center. Also known as C'ek'aedi Hwnax, or Legacy House, the cultural center focuses on the rich cultural heritage of the Ahtna Athabascan people who have called this area home for thousands of years. Inside and outside of the Ahtna Cultural Center are exhibits for visitors to enjoy, including historical displays, artwork, regalia, a hand-built fish wheel, food cash, and museum. The experience has been carefully curated to illuminate the cultural and traditional practices of the Ahtna peoples both past and present. The center is staffed by Ahtna shareholders who can share their stories, answer questions, and sometimes lead demonstrations of traditional practices like beadwork.

Learn more about Wrangell-St. Elias National Park history and culture on the national park's website

Copper River, Alaska
Copper River on the boundary of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

Denali National Park and Preserve

Standing as an ancestral legend of great significance is Denali - The Great One - named by the Athabascan people. The land of Denali National Park and Preserve is located at the intersection of the traditional homeland of the Ahtna, Dena'ina, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, and Tanana Athabascan peoples. The park has a rich and ancient history, with archeological findings drawing connection to an ancestral heritage that dates back 12,600 years. Further evidence throughout the park’s landscape suggests that ice age hunters frequented the area for thousands of years, even during the time of mammoths!

You can learn more about this incredible history at the Denali Visitor Center near the park entrance, home to cultural exhibits for visitors to learn about the cultural and traditional practices of the Athabascan people. Park Rangers are on site to lead talks, hikes, and answer your questions. The use of sled dogs at the park stems from Alaska Native tradition, so be sure to check out the Denali kennels near the park entrance to learn more about the history of mushing and dog sledding and their use for trapping, traveling, trading, hunting, and more.

The park also houses the Denali Museum Collection, an archive of over 370,000 artifacts dating back to the ice age. While most of this collection is currently not on display for the public, the park service takes great care to preserve these artifacts to continue to learn about and protect this cultural heritage for years to come.

Learn more about Denali National Park history and culture on the national park's website.

Views of Denali from Talkeetna
Denali, The Great One. Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, Traveling Newlyweds

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve’s history is centered around the heritage of the Iñupiaq, Nunamiut Iñupiaq, and Koyukon Athabascan people. This remote and extreme area has been traveled and inhabited by Alaska Native peoples for over 13,000 years. Specifically, the Nunamiut Iñupiaq people, sometimes referred to as the Caribou People, have a vital 11,000 year history that is intertwined with the caribou that migrate through this landscape. From broth and meat to hides and fur these nomadic hunters have relied on caribou for generations.

The Nunamiut Iñupiat village of Anaktuvuk Pass is a small, remote village located inside Gates of the Artic National Park. The people who inhabit this village continue to hunt and rely on subsistence activities as a way of life in the present day. If you’re interested in visiting this rural community, tour operators out of Fairbanks lead full-day Arctic Circle tours where visitors fly to the village on a small plane and spend an hour on a guided tour. The Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in Anaktuvuk Pass offers exhibits of Nunamiut history, culture, and life, detailing those who have mastered living in one of the most extreme climates on earth. A nearby gift shop showcases Alaska Native crafts.

Another great way to experience learn about the park’s Indigenous history is at the Ranger Station and Visitor Center in Bettles and the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot, offering exhibits, films, trip planning tools, and interpretive programs for everyone to enjoy. Not as close to the park but easier to access, the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Fairbanks is an inspiring place to stop to learn about Gates of the Arctic National Park and other public lands. Here, detailed exhibits, films, and more are available to those looking for more information on cultural experiences in the area.

Of course, if you’re traveling far (and we mean far) north to Utqiaġvik, you’ll want to stop by the Iñupiat Heritage Center where you can learn more about the Iñupiat people. You’ll be able to learn about hunting practices, including bowhead, or Agviq, whale hunting, traditional crafts, artifact collections, a library, and gift shop. You can even try your hand at making traditional crafts in the local Elders-in-Residence and Artists-in-Residence programs within the Heritage Center!

Learn more about Gates of the Arctic National Park history and culture on the national park's website.

Anaktuvuk Pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park
Anaktuvuk Pass. Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, Michael DeYoung

Kobuk Valley National Park

The Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue, just 80 miles southwest of Kobuk Valley National Park, is a fantastic and unique place to learn more about the Iñupiat people of this land. Here, park information is complemented by a museum that educates visitors on the Arctic ecosystem and Iñupiat culture. Exhibits and displays illuminate culture and tradition, highlighting everything from caribou hunting to whaling, smoking salmon, the use of sled dogs, run-ins with polar bears, hunting of bison, Dall sheep, and more.

Villages around the park are home to Iñupiat people. The KuvuNmiut have lived on these lands for 9,000 years, hunting wild game in the tundra, and fishing in the Kobuk River. The area is one of the most remote in the state, with half a million caribou migrating through it each year. At Onion Portage, the harvesting of caribou as they swim the Kobuk River is one of the many subsistence practices that continues today. Other traditions continue, as the Iñupiat people practice subsistence living in the Kobuk River and tundra.

Learn more about Kobuk Valley National Park culture and history on the national park's website.

Kobuk Valley National Park
Kobuk Valley National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park has been home to the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq peoples for thousands of years. The rich waters and glacial lands of this area have provided hunting, gathering, and fishing opportunities with the abundance of marine and land mammals, fish, birds, and minerals. Archeological evidence suggests that the Sugpiaq people resided, hunted, traveled, and gathered in the outer Kenai coast for more than 1,000 years. Minerals, artwork, tools, and more have been found in the area, confirming that a highly resourceful and successful way of living was practiced long before Russian fur traders and Europeans set foot on its shores.

Open in the summer, the Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center at the Seward harbor and the Exit Glacier Nature Center outside of town feature displays that tell the stories of the area’s history, geography, and wildlife. Both centers house Alaska Geographic bookstores, where more information on the cultural history of the area can be found, along with Rangers who are readily available to answer your questions.

Learn more about Kenai Fjords National Park history and culture on the national park's website.

Sea stacks in Kenai Fjords National Park
Sea stacks in Kenai Fjords National Park

Respecting Cultural Heritage

When visiting these areas, be sure to practice good stewardship. These inspiring lands are sacred and should be treated with reverence and appreciation. Take some time to learn about the original inhabitants of the lands that you visit so you can honor their cultural significance to Alaska Native peoples, both past and present. If you’re looking to learn more about Alaska Native history and traditions, the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage is an incredible place to immerse yourself in the diverse cultures that live throughout Alaska.

Learn more about practicing Alaska Native values when visiting Alaska.


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