Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Alaska Native Heritage Center

We spent the morning at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. It’s a wonderful place to learn about the history and culture of Alaska’s first people. The motto over the door is “Changing lives, Living values.”


There are 11 cultural groups from various regions of the state, many of whom still live by traditional subsistence methods, off the land and water. This way of living and eating is both healthy – they get exercise by hunting and fishing, and the food is fresh and without steroids or other additives – and less expensive – food shipped in is very high priced, such as $9-10 for a gallon of milk. The center depicts these cultures with representative homes and environments.

We started our tour by watching a dance performance in the Gathering Place.


Notice the color-coded regions identifying the cultural groups.


Then we took a 1 1/4 hour tour with Joy, who is Yup’ik and learned English as a second language. She had wonderful stories to tell of her ancestry and the culture she inherited.


The tour included interiors of various homes, with a description of the life led by each cultural group and some of the items they made from animals killed for food, warmth and decoration. Every part of each animal is used, including the fur, brain, stomach, sinew, intestines and bones.


Food was stored in a cache, built too high for bears to reach, and the ladder (below) was hidden by the owner.


Ingenious methods of capturing heat and diverting cold air were employed in log homes, frequently built underground.


Dance fans were used by men, and each feather had a special meaning.


Entries to underground homes were typically small, to discourage/prevent unwanted creatures from coming in.


The entry above went through a sloping tunnel that ended in the opening in the photo below. (Most of us took an alternate, walk-through door.) The speaker is holding a very large piece of baleen, a filtering device in a whale’s mouth. The hair can be used in baskets, jewelry and other decorative and useful items. The bone can be polished for decoration, and is frequently used for the skids on dog sleds.


Here’s the back view of the center. The Gathering Place is inside this large glass wall. An outdoor café is on the right, serving fresh fish and game.


There’s a small waterfall on the grounds that flows into the small lake around which all the exhibits are positioned.


Whale jawbones were used to mark the site of a village to help fishermen find their way home.


This skeleton is from a whale that beached itself in Cook Inlet, caught when the tide went out.


This underground home would have been accessed by the very steep ‘stairway.’ We entered through a modern door.


This guide gave a full explanation of the wooden visor used by fishermen. The unique design provided disguise, protection and even acted as a scope for shooting whales and otters. When trying to silently approach a target, it could also be used as an oar.


The traditional beaded headdress would have signified the standing of the woman in the clan. This particular group was matriarchal, with the oldest woman as the head of the clan.


A representative totem pole.


An example of a clan house, this large structure would actually have been much larger. The tall center post would have been a carved totem, and other decorations indicating the culture would have been on the exterior walls. Since this heritage center represents 11 cultural groups, they were left plain. Entry through the small opening would have been back first for non-members of the clan.


Inside, 4 totems represented Respect for Culture, Respect, for Self, Respect for Family and Respect for the Environment.




This evening the Forbes joined us for happy hour with the Hills sponsoring them into Fort Richardson. They have a new refrigerator on order and bought a small one to use in the meantime. Shadow took off chasing a squirrel and got severely scolded by both Don and me. He later tried to make it up to me by cuddling close.



  1. Fantastic! I love traveling with you!! Thanks for all the informative photos! I feel like I just attended a seminar on native culture! Hugs, C

  2. Thanks again for another great tour! You are saving me the trouble of driving all the way to Alaska.

  3. We didn't get to the native heritage center on our last trip to Alaska, but your blog has convinced me that it will be a must see when we get back to Anchorage.


Please tell me what you think, either here, on Facebook, or by email. I *love* comments!