Culture Rich: An Invitation to Share Our Way of Life
About the Author: Mary Goddard is Tlingit, Kaagwaantaan, Eagle/Brown Bear of Klukwan and grew up in Yakutat. She resides in Sitka with her husband and son, creating Tlingit formline designs for her original carved jewelry, public art installations, and more. She runs a film company and an Indigenous cooking blog. Mary has served as Southeast Alaska’s Regional Catalyst for Regenerative Tourism as well continuing to serve on the board of the American Indian and Alaska Native Tourism Association.
Long gone are the days that culture is just stuffed away in a museum. We no longer consider this preservation of cultures (at least, not the only way!). As an Alaska Native, I can tell you that we preserve our cultures by actively sharing, through storytelling, culinary arts, song, dance, and creating and selling artwork.
Our Alaska Native cultures are warm and welcoming. We want to be the first to welcome you to our shores, to our docks when the cruise ships pull up, to be the one serving you our local cuisine; cuisine that is full of our history. We want to encourage you to take in art, with your eyes, with your soul, and even special gifts to take home. This art shares our way of life with you.
But where can you find this? We are woven throughout our communities, we are tour operators, we are totem pole carvers, we are local food producers, we are storytellers, and we are excited to be able to share our own stories - stories that we think will provide you with rich entertainment, authentic experiences, and a hunger to learn more about the diverse and vibrant cultures of our state. We want you to discover for yourself our warmth and generosity.
Start your journey on a small ship cruise or day cruise owned and operated by a Tlingit family - the Allen family, owners of Alaskan Dream Cruises and Allen Marine Tours. Spanning three generations and over five decades of offering cruises and tours in Southeast Alaska, the Allen family graciously shares their backyard (and perhaps even more importantly, their culture) with visitors. Closely connected to villages throughout the Inside Passage, by diligent relationship building with each community (waiting to enter until an invitation has been extended), their Alaskan Dream Cruises small ship cruise line (76 guests at most, and one cruise is as small as 12 guests!) will take you on an adventure of guided totem trail walks in Kasaan by local Alaska Native guides. You will be taken through glacial waters of Glacier Bay National Park with traditional storytelling. Perhaps you will hear about Raven releasing the moon, or how Raven lost his beak. You will stop in the village of Kake and witness dancers in full regalia (the distinctive clothing and jewelry worn by the Tlingits).
Cruise along on one of their Alaskan Dream Cruises vessels, watching whales, seals, and other wildlife while you nibble on Indigenous foods such as salmon, halibut, and appetizers like smoked salmon spread and kelp pickles on crusty bread prepared by talented onboard chefs. Book the “Inside Passage Sojourn” on the Alaska Dream Cruises' vessel the Baranof Dream to get a snapshot of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian culture in a matter of a week! Or take a day cruise with Allen Marine Tours, departing from Sitka, Ketchikan, and Juneau, to experience world-class wildlife watching and dine at their lodge, Orca Point Lodge, to feast on local delicacies.
Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian are just three of the 11 cultures in Alaska. (That’s right, don’t forget that Alaska boasts over half a million square miles – about the same width as the lower 48 states – and is home to 228 of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States!) If you want your fill of culture rich vacations, Alaska is where it’s at.
Next, step into the world of Alaska's Indigenous art. David Angaiak is a traditional Yup’ik and Unangax̂ artist raised in Bristol Bay. His handmade masks and maskettes are riddled with Yup’ik stories he learned as a young adult, such as his Ptarmigan mask that teaches the moral of respecting the animals we harvest. (Fun fact: Ptarmigan is the Alaska state bird!)
Many of us Alaska Natives learned later in life our traditional stories, helping to revitalize our cultures after coming out of a generation stripped of traditional ways, stories, song, and dance because it was not accepted by Western ways. However, not all artists practice strictly traditional art. Iñupiaq and Athabascan artist Caleigha Gotthardt of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe pushes the borders of traditional design in her jewelry, while maintaining use of traditional materials, such as baleen, walrus ivory, and sealskin. Though her jewelry is not directly linked to stories like David’s work, Caleigha tells us that when visitors purchase her art, “They are buying years of history that have been passed down. Ethically harvested. My art comes with knowledge and education.” She continues, “I am always happy to share who I am and the story behind the pieces.”
Caleigha’s artwork can be found in galleries and museum gift stores, proving that museums can be wonderful places to learn, explore, and even purchase authentic and quality Alaska Native art. (Remember, as I said, museums are not the only way we like to preserve our culture.)
Speaking of museums, let’s explore the Museum of Aleutians, located in Unalaska. This unique nonprofit was established by the City of Unalaska, in conjunction with the Aleut Corporation, the Ounalashka Corporation, and the Qawalangin Tribe, with the following mission: "The Museum of the Aleutians shall collect, preserve, and share the rich cultural legacy of the Aleutian Islands Region." What’s unique about this museum is that they offer tours that take you outside the museum walls into the city. One tour will guide you up Bunker Hill, a bunker from World War II. Not only will you learn about the history of World War II in Unalaska, but you will also learn about the local flora and fauna used by the Unangax̂ people.
Unalaska, often referred to as Dutch Harbor, is about 800 miles southwest of Anchorage, on the Aleutian Chain. It sits at the intersection of the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. Many visitors arrive via cruise ship and this tour is booked with your cruise line. However, if you are an independent traveler you can fly in on Ravn, a regional airline company based out of Anchorage. Unalaska is about a three hour flight from Anchorage.
Alaska Native cultures are alive and thriving in Alaska. As a visitor, there are many ways to take part in our cultures, whether it be through small cruise lines, Indigenous art, museum tours, events, and other cultural tours and experiences. However, please keep in mind that many customs and traditions are sacred and revered for tribal members only. While some communities are set up for welcoming guests and eagerly share their culture, other communities are not prepared for visitors. By accepting guests, they would cause a strain on their community. So, I encourage you to travel where invited (where guided tours and experiences are offered), an example put forth by the Allen family. Remember to be respectful of each culture, be open to learning, and be mindful of how each Indigenous person refers to themselves. By following these simple guidelines you are sure to experience the warmth and generosity of our Alaska Native people, as well as our way of life, on your Alaska vacation!
Learn more about practicing Alaska Native values when visiting Alaska.
New! Alaska Native Culture Guide
Immerse yourself in Alaska Native heritage and learn how to experience the living culture of the state's Indigenous peoples.