As soon as we walked into the Alaska Native Heritage Center, we knew it was somewhere special. We could see the “Gathering Place” or main stage with the athletes performing, competing and preparing for the upcoming World Eskimo Indian Olympic games. The youth, all Alaskan Natives, demonstrated several of the sports, including the One Foot High Kick. It is a test of balance, power and agility. Athletes kick a suspended ball with one foot and then land on the floor using that same foot.
We watched in awe as we waited to meet our guide, Dave Farve, who had arranged our entrance and generously showed us around.
We ventured first outdoors enjoying the path through the wooded area around Lake Tiulana “travelling through Alaska” and visiting six authentic Native dwellings. At each location, we were greeted by Native people there to help us understand the Alaska’s indigenous people and their traditional life ways. The clans included Athabascan, Inupiaq/St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Yup’ik/Cup’ik, Aleut, Alutiiq, and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples.
We learned about hunting, living conditions, meeting houses, traditions and much more. The clansmen in each location were fascinating, informative and welcoming. We asked questions and learned.
One of the first things to notice is the low to the ground doors in nearly all of the dwellings. These serve many purposes: keeps the heat in; keeps the bears out, and makes it easier to defend as not more than one enemy could enter at a time. An interesting custom, peaceful strangers enter backwards to show they were defenseless.
Similarly, the Alutiiq had a staircase leading in from a small ceiling entrance.
And, in the case of the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people, there were two entrances: the large house was for the men, while the smaller doorways was for the women (our teen is standing in front of the women’s entrance).
The jawbones of a bowhead whale lead us to the Inupiaq/St. Lawrence Island Yupik dwelling:
It was the personal touch and the stories told by the members in the dwellings that added so much to the information. Also, when Dave showed us the intricate weaving in some of the baskets, he was able to add that his wife’s grandmother was the best basket maker around.
Outside the Athabascan dwelling, Dave explained to us how the salmon wheel worked to catch fish. He went on to explain that it is no longer legal to build new salmon wheels, but those that already exist are grandfathered in, and he hopes to one day have one handed down to him.
Our teen vegetarian animal lover didn’t appreciate the “seal bladder” Dave showed us in the Yup’ik dwelling. The head has been removed, and the insides inflated. It is used as buoy or storage container.
One of my favourite things about the Alaska Native Heritage Center is its on-going efforts to keep culture and history alive by training and working with young people every day. For example, in the Tlingit dwelling, our teen found a paddle which had been carved by the man who picked us up from that airport the night before. (He was the driver from the hotel, and he told us to look out for it).
Inside there were many more displays. One impressive community project is these giant murals. Not only are they beautiful, but every community member who participated in any way can sign their name to the back of the art work.
Later in the day, we would return to “the Gathering Place” to watch native song and dance or to listen to a story teller or learn about the 11 distinct cultures speaking 11 different languages of Alaska’s Indigenous people.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center is a great way to spend an afternoon. It is by far the best exposure we found to learn about the Alaskan native culture.
And if all this isn’t enough you can visit the dogs of John Baker, 2011 Iditarod winner, which are on the property. He offered sled rides pulled by the dogs for a small fee, but we just wanted to pet the three-week old puppies.
What is your favourite sight at the Alaskan Native Heritage Center?
All photos on this page ©Rhonda Albom 2013. All Rights Reserved.