Tuesday, August 13, 2013

While we were in Anchorage we visited the Alaska Native Heritage Center. When we were here in 2010 we missed this place. There’s a lot to see and learn since Alaska has 11 different native cultures, speaking 21 different languages. Although Alaskan Natives have lived here for at least 15,000 years they do not have a written history. Theirs is an oral history, passed from generation to generation through stories. How to hunt whales, do a particular dance, erect a lodge, pick medicinal plants, make mukluks are all learned through story telling.

The center houses beautiful and imaginative exhibits where you can learn all about Native life. We strolled through six authentic Native dwellings situated in a wooded area around Lake Tiulana and were introduced to the Athabascan,  Inupiaq/St Lawrence Island Yupik, Yup’ik/Cup’ik, Aleut, Alutiiq, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples. Each village has a traditional structure along with artifacts used in daily life.

I think the most interesting thing for me were the games. For centuries Alaska’s Natives have gathered in small villages to participate in games of strength, endurance, balance, and agility. Along with these athletic games, dancing, storytelling, and other audience participation games took place. This provided an opportunity for friendly competition, entertainment and laughter. The games display their preparedness for survival. They require skill as well as strength, agility, endurance and balance.


Today they have the World Eskimo Olympics. The High Kick requires the athlete sit on the floor with one hand grasping the opposite foot. The free hand is planted on the floor and the athlete springs up and attempts to kick the target with the free foot. Last year’s winner was Nick Hanson of Unalakleet who kicked 94 inches! The One Foot High Kick requires the athlete to jump off the floor with both feet and kick a suspended object with one foot landing on that same foot to demonstrate balance. Last year’s women’s winner was Autumn Ridley of Anchorage who kicked 81 inches high!

Lastly, I can’t talk about Alaskan Native culture without covering song and dance. Like the dancers in Inuvik these dancers are telling stories of hunting for walrus, bears, etc. Love the traditional dances.
The Alaskan Native Heritage Center is a must see for anyone visiting Anchorage.

We also visited the tiny town of Elutna. It is the last of eight villages that existed before construction of the Alaska Railroad brought an influx of American colonists around 1915. First settled more than 800 years ago, it is the oldest inhabited location in the Anchorage area. This was home to the Athabaskan Native Peoples.

Athabaskan traditions dictated that when a tribal member died and was buried a Spirit House was built over the grave. These colorful spirit houses are a uniquely Athabaskan tradition; according to cultural beliefs.  Spirit houses were built by the family after the person’s death.  A wonderful and unique mix of this native tradition with the practices and beliefs of Orthodox Christianity can be seen in the cemetery. This is the grave of an Athabaskan Chief. The cemetery and it's Spirit Houses are still in use today.

The cemetery is next to the old and new St. Nicholas Churches, which are Russian Orthodox. The Athabaskan people converted to Russian Orthodox while Russia claimed Alaska as its territory. The older church was built around 1830 and was moved to Eklutna in 1900. This is a charming bit of Native history and should not be missed when traveling in the Anchorage area!

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