Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

A Journey Through Alaskan Natives’ Past, Present and Future

In May, the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum opened the doors to one of the most comprehensive exhibits of Alaskan Native artifacts ever displayed. The exhibit, Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska, features more than 600 objects representing Alaska’s diverse Native cultures.

During potlatch and spirit-possession ceremonies, a high-ranking Haida woman or man would wear a magnificent headdress with a carved wooden frontlet, a crown of sea lion whiskers, and a floor-length train of white ermine pelts. The frontlets resembled masks but stood above the forehead. Some depicted crest beings, and others were portraits of individual persons. Before a dance the whisker crown was filled with swan or eagle down, which drifted out during the performance and fell onto the spectators like snow. Image credit: Donald E. Hurlbert, National Museum of Natural History Imaging, Smithsonian Institution

The objects on display represent the master works of Alaskan Native art, technology and design, ranging from traditional clothing and hunting tools to ceremonials objects like beaded dresses, elaborately decorated masks and feast bowls. Living Our Cultures is a labor of love that was a long time in the making. Museum officials, Native elders, translators, artists and scholars spent nearly a decade selecting and interpreting the objects.

These child-sized Sugpiaq boots have uppers made of caribou leg skin and are encircled at the top with seal fur. Embroidered bands are narrow strips of sea lion esophagus, both natural color and dyed, which has been cross-stitched with caribou hair. Image: Donald E. Hurlbert, National Museum of Natural History Imaging

Aron Crowell, a Smithsonian anthropologist and director of the Arctic Studies Center, points out that the Smithsonian Institution has a long history of collecting important Alaskan Native objects going back to the 1800s. After nearly 200 years, there are more than 30,000 pieces archived at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

“The Smithsonian and the Anchorage Museum created a partnership back in 1994. The idea right from the very beginning was that a selection of these pieces in Washington D.C. should come back to Alaska and be accessible to Native communities and to the general public so they can really learn about the cultures of Alaska,” Crowell said.

An overview of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, taken from the center’s southeast corner. This image shows the center’s 10 floor-to-ceiling artifact cases and a video installation, which plays on seven large-screen, floor-mounted TVs. The graphics in the cases depict contemporary Alaska Native life. Image: Chuck Choi/Anchorage

A specially designed 120-foot gallery was created to house the objects and provide visitors a truly unique experience. There are seven massive community cases that display Alaskan cultures from north to south in real space, giving visitors the feeling that they are encountering these different groups as they make their way from the southern shores of Alaska to the most northern Arctic coast.

Master Works on Display

As guests walk the media-rich, interactive gallery, they come in contact with all 20 of Alaska’s Native linguistic groups, witnessing rare objects and historical photographs and hearing oral traditions.

One thing that might stand out to visitors is the wealth of indigenous technology that enabled people to thrive in northern climates and become successful hunters. Take Inuit clothing as an example. Initially one might admire the aesthetic beauty of the garments, but a closer inspection reveals tight stitching, specialized designs and careful selection of materials all intended to insulate the wearer from fierce winds, water and the blistering cold.

“One of the most important tools for hunting in the Arctic and for being able to move into those northern environments is the needle.” Crowell points out. “They had to have that knowledge to create the clothing that is needed for survival.”

Also on display are the masterfully crafted hunting weapons and watercraft. Historically, many Native cultures, particularly those living along Alaska’s vast coastline, depended heavily on the fish and marine mammals harvested from the ocean. The exhibit contains darts, harpoons, floats and lines and nets all intended to help with the very difficult task of capturing marine species like whales and seals. A selection of kayak and boat models illustrates the skillfully produced equipment used for open-water hunting and travel.

“The ways that people devised to survive, travel and gather food in the north represents many thousands of years of research and development. It’s quite amazing. You can also see how the designs that were developed have been adapted—you can find may Inuit technologies over at REI!” Crowell said.

Artistry and Craftsmanship

This Inupiaq feast bowl was collected in 1934 in Wales, Alaska. The ivory carvings on this bowl represent adult bowhead whales, a beluga whale and other animals. Blue beads on the whale figures mark the location of the animal's life force and the place where the harpooner aims. Image: National Museum of the American Indian Photo Services

Ceremonial objects and regalia give visitors a sense of the artistry and craftsmanship of these cultures. One of the more unique ceremonial objects is an Inupiaq winter feast bowl (ca. 1934) collected in Wales, Alaska, along the Bering Strait. The top of the bowl features whale and walrus figures carved from walrus ivory. Crowell explained that the carvings represent one hunter’s life experiences—the animals that he had seen and hunted year after year. Each carving is inset with a single blue bead where the head and spine of the animal join, the spot where it’s believed the animal’s soul resides.

The exhibit also features decorated headdresses worn during special ceremonies, like those used during the spirit possession ceremonies conducted by the Haida of southeast Alaska. For these special events, high-ranking Haida men or women sported intricately carved wooden headdresses embellished with sea lion whiskers and a train made of white ermine fur.

In addition to the ceremonial wares and centuries of hunting technology on display, the words and songs of today’s Native Alaskans are prominently featured throughout the exhibit’s listening booths and videos.

Alaskan Natives: Past, Present and Future

Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska is an evolving effort that depends on the input and knowledge of Alaska’s Native citizens. Crowell and others at the Anchorage Museum are working on an ongoing basis to arrange a series of workshops and special programs with community groups to learn more about the pieces on display.

“We have a pretty high-end studio with video and recording capabilities right in the gallery. So we’re able to open the cases and bring pieces in and sit down and talk about them with community members,” Crowell explained.

Through the use of recently recorded video and photography, the curators and others involved with the exhibit’s creation hope that visitors understand that Alaska’s Native communities are alive and well today, and not cultures of the past.

“I hope people will walk away from this exhibit with a better understanding of the cultural diversity of Alaska and that people from all the Native groups are living their lives today, they’re going forward, they’re living in the present and in the future. These are pieces of their heritage that have meaning for them today.” Crowell said.

Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska is on display through 2017, with plans to become a permanent fixture. If your travel plans don’t include a trip to Anchorage, you can see everything on exhibit (artifacts, pictures, essays, maps, recorded conversations with elders and more), plus some materials not currently on display at the exhibit’s revamped web site, Sharing Knowledge.  —Alicia Clarke

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