We had the opportunity to attend a banquet at the Alaska Native Heritage Center while we were in Alaska, as part of Frank’s EIPBN Conference. It is a very special place, with living exhibits of Native life in each of the five cultural groupings that are indigenous to Alaska. There are actually eleven distinct groups, but the Native Heritage Center has them grouped into five, based on linguistic similarities and geographic location. Within the five groups, there are many distinct languages and cultures.
At the Center, the main building housing exhibits is situated on a lovely, small lake. You take a path around the lake to see examples of different types of dwellings used by the five distinct groups of indigenous people represented in Alaska. I didn’t get to see the exhibits, but I did take a walk around the lake to see the dwellings.
I think I went the wrong direction, because I arrived late and went left to go clockwise around the lake. The rest of the tour groups were going counter-clockwise. I’m not sure it mattered that much. The first building I came to was a gorgeous Eyak Log House with a totem pole next to it. The Eyak people live in the southern part of Alaska.
There was a large set of whale bones in front of the Eyak lodge. The information provided by the Center stated that the Eyak people rely on the sea for much of their sustenance.
The Ulax Long Hut shown above is typical of the Unangax people who live in the southwest islands of Alaska. It is partially subterranean, to protect people through harsh winter months. It reminded me of the dwellings of native people we saw in Greenland, and kind of like a hobbit house. There was a storyteller or guide inside each of the dwellings, explaining to the group the different parts of the structure or telling tales from the native people. When I got to this one, there was a big crowd inside, so I couldn’t hear anything.
The Athabascan people live in Alaska’s interior. The log house shown is a men’s dwelling. By the time I got to this one, the crowd had moved on, but the guide was answering questions of one of the group. I got to peak inside, and there was an amazing amount of light being let into the small anteroom on the side. It looked roomier inside than it appeared on the outside.
I enjoyed my walk around the lake and seeing the native dwellings. I was impressed that each of them blended into the environment, and were a part of it, rather than fighting against it.
At the end of my tour around the lake, I stopped to look at a part of the lake that went into the wood. It was a lovely, tranquil scene. Even though there were about three hundred people at the event, I found myself completely alone for the first time all week. Something about the forest scene and the reflection of the trees on the water touched me in a profound way.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.
~George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
The Alaska Native Heritage Center & Museum is located in Northwest Anchorage, and is open during the summer months from 9-5. See the website for details.