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Friday, November 06, 2009



Although the clouds blanketed the Chugash Mountains, we were prepared for the rain. Taking the free shuttle out to the Alaska Native Heritage Center, we found one of the best museums of this kind we’ve ever seen. Staffed by young people, some still in high school and others in college, the museum is alive with history and culture, and we learned of an Alaska no one ever showed us in school.

The building was an eye opener. There are eleven or twelve recognized tribes, but because of geographical isolation, about twenty languages are spoken, and the differences often make it impossible for the tribes to communicate with one another. Because Alaska is so huge and so varied, the tribes survive in different ways. Some live solely by the sea, others are farmers, others are hunters and fishermen. This is definitely NOT a one size fits all state.

Outside the main building is Lake Tiulana, around which there are replicas of the different living quarters of the five predominant cultures. While we are in a museum, much of what we see still exists as tribes maintain their ways of life, particularly in some of the remote and challenging regions of the state. It’s also true that modern conveniences have been incorporated; some dog sleds have been replaced by snow machines, and modern communication systems are used when possible. However, values, and proven methods of existence continue unchanged. Guides answer our questions about the way each tribe lives, and it’s particularly interesting to see how the native Alaskans hunker down for the long winter—not only in their preparation for physical survival but also for social survival through music, dance, story telling, etc. Picture a long winter in tight quarters….

The young dancers in the videos explained that because space in the winter quarters is limited, too much foot movement is difficult, so tribes developed “hand dancing.” Hand movements had meaning, and we learned some movements so we could follow the story of the dance. These dances are still created, often about more modern themes.

Today there are native games—competition in the athletics of the tribes and limited to those who are native Alaskans. You’ll see the skill, strength and balance required by these young athletes in the video. Notice in the photo that she is balanced on one hand while she reaches overhead to the ball. You can also imagine the practical aspects of maintaining strength and agility as a necessity for survival.
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Rob and I had lunch at the center. First a wonderful chowder brimming with salmon, lobster, potatoes and other vegetables. Then we had caribou stew—a rich, dark, tender stew with meat leaner than beef. Excellent. We’re not going to get that kind of food in the lower 48.

There is a concerted effort to make native Alaskan culture accessible to all. There is a move, as well, to inculcate the culture into the young people. They study and learn here, and they are able to learn at the universities. There is an effort to develop a written language to preserve the cultures, but it is an exceedingly challenging effort. The Native Heritage Center, therefore, plays an important part in preserving as well as in educating everyone who enters. For us it was a thoroughly enriching experience.

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