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Alaska native culture

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Did You Know … ?

  • The name Alaska has its roots in a Unangan Aleut word, Alaxsxax, which means mainland.
  • Almost a quarter of Alaska’s indigenous people live in Anchorage.
  • For about a year during World War II, Japan occupied Attu and Kiska, Aleutian island homes to indigenous Aleuts.
  • The word kayak derives from Inuit, one of the language groups represented in Alaska.
  • Nearly 60% of Alaska’s natives live in communities accessible only by boat, plane or snowmobile.

The blanket toss

About one in five Alaskans (19.3%) are Native American or have native ancestry, and they encompass 11 distinct cultures, Hence, there is much variety in the traditions and activities that visitors may experience during a holiday in the 49th state.

Some native communities are easily accessed from urban centers, but some are as far north as or above the Arctic Circle; others are on St. Lawrence Island, the Pribilofs and the Aleutians stretching well into the Pacific. For the venturesome who seek these latter destinations, travel may be by ferry, but often air is the only practical option.

Culture centers and museums found in towns and cities provide helpful introductions to various groups as well as dance programs, gift shops and other features that bring traditions to life. If Anchorage is on the itinerary, the Alaska Native Heritage Center is a good starting point because it treats with all the state’s indigenous cultures.

On tour, visitors can watch dancers in full regalia, carvers as they create totem poles, hunters flying in the air at a blanket toss or athletes in traditional competitions. To have these experiences, tourists join village visits organized by tour companies, or they may attend special events, such as an arts fair, a whaling celebration or the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.

Another travel motivator, shopping, takes on serious dimensions for those interested in fine examples of native arts — and for those who buy garments made with qiviut, the under wool of the Arctic musk ox.

For the active traveler, kayaking and riding on a dog sled are apt choices because of their relevance to Alaska’s native cultures.

In 1971, the U.S. government and Alaska’s first inhabitants settled all pending land claims; the government paid $962.5 million to compensate for land the indigenous groups did not retain. With that money, Alaska natives created economic development corporations, and travel businesses appear in the corporate portfolios.

For example, one corporation operates three lodges, a fleet of wildlife and glacier cruise vessels, a tour company and a reservations service. These businesses sell travel to show off all Alaska’s attributes, not just those aspects related to Native Americans.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Choose a fly-in excursion to Fort Yukon on the Arctic Circle for a picture of life on the Yukon River in Alaska’s largest Athabascan village. The collection at the local Dinjii Zhuu Enjit Museum includes taped firsthand accounts of Athabascans remembering their first encounters with white explorers.
  • On Kodiak Island, make a journey to one or more outlying villages, described as “windows to the past and models of modern subsistence.” Two are accessible over water, the rest by air. Also, see the famed bears on the Katmai Coast.
  • Ride a dog sled, traveling in a centuries-old fashion. If your timing is right, also watch part of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which follows a trail based in part on historic trails of Alaska’s indigenous peoples.
  • Travel to Barrow for the Nalukataq, or Spring Whaling Celebration, a tradition of the Inupiat people. You will see the blanket toss and traditional dancing, plus share the gift of the whale. An alternative here, in winter, is the biennial Messenger Feast.
  • Rent paddle and kayak for sightseeing at water level in Homer’s Kachemak Bay. Guides and instructors are available to advise on conditions and assist in improving your skills at this traditional mode of transportation.
  • Join a mail run by air from Fairbanks to any of a dozen remote villages, some of which are Alaska native sites — Anaktuvuk Pass, Beaver, Chalkyitsik, Fort Yukon, Minto and Stevens Village. Of necessity, as mail drops, these visits are short.

Things to do for Centrics

  • In Fairbanks, travel by steamboat on the Chena for a guided tour in an Athabascan village plus beading demonstrations and discussions of hunting and trapping. Or, from Anchorage, visit the Eklutna Historical Park to tour the Athabascan village there and see colorful spirit houses.
  • In Anchorage, head to the Oomingmak Cooperative Qiviut Hand Knit Shop, and buy one (or more) of the incredibly warm, soft and lightweight garments knitted from the under wool of the musk ox.
  • Watch Tlingit carvers work on new totem poles and other carvings at the visitors center at the Sitka National Historical Park. Ask questions about their craft.
  • Attend the Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel, for song and dance presented by the Bethel area Yupik people and by other natives far beyond. The springtime event draws participants from across North America.
  • In the north, use heritage centers as your schoolrooms: the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow and the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue.
  • Book tickets for events at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, held in summer in Fairbanks. See competitions you may have never heard of, such as the knuckle hop, ear weight, ear pull and Indian stick pull.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Lay the groundwork for an exploration of Alaska’s heritage at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, which has exhibits and programs on all Alaska indigenous cultures.
  • Shop for Athabascan beadwork and embroidery. Or, look for dance masks, baskets and other craft items that please you.
  • Admire one or more collections of totem poles. Go to Chief Shakes Island in Wrangell to see the poles and Shakes Community House. Or, in Ketchikan, see the collection at Saxman Native Village or another at Totem Bight State Park.
  • Come to the late-winter Festival of Native Arts in Fairbanks for assured exposure to a broad selection of traditional arts and crafts, song and dance.
  • Visit Alaska’s only reservation, the Metlakatla Indian Community, 15 miles southwest of Ketchikan. Tours and song-and-dance programs are available, as well as shopping for local arts.
  • In Anchorage, visit the Ulu Factory for an ulu knife demonstration. Buy one or more of these traditional knives to take home.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Alaska Travel Industry Association at www.travelalaska.com