CULTURAL AWARENESS IN Alaska’s communities is deepest when we all participate, I've learned. Usually when our family travels around Alaska, we shuttle to and from local cultural centers housing artifacts and exhibits representing the area’s local Native group. Running the gamut of museum-quality to simple and unadorned, I’ll be the first to admit such centers are usually how we, and most visitors like us, capture a first glimpse of Alaska Native traditions. We peruse local art, inspect clothing, and learn about ways of life in an hour or less, along with several hundred of our closest cruise ship compatriots. It’s not a bad way to see the rich diversity of Alaska, mind you, it’s just not always the most meaningful one, especially with kids.
A vital component of both the tourism industry and individual communities, cultural centers do indeed provide visitors a critical means for broad understanding of Alaska Native heritage, but sometimes I get the feeling I’m missing something. After all, Alaska Native people have been living upon this land for more than 10,000 years, and the enormity of learning everything there is to know about each of the 11 main Native groups can be positively overwhelming.
Pamyua performs at the Alaska Native Heritage Center
So I’m digging deeper, looking for specific ways parents and kids can engage in activities that mean more than an interpretive display on a wall. The best and brightest come from the Native communities themselves, with year-round events welcoming anyone and everyone to participate, a beautiful aspect of the culture, and one into which our own family has been embraced. Truly hands-on in a most literal sense, the Native communities of Alaska are steeped in tradition meant to be shared with youth of all ages, so try these interesting activities next time you’re out and about the state:
• Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage: While not open for regular visits during the fall and winter months, the center does offer free community events each month from October-May. Saturday, November 13 is ANHC’s annual Intertribal Gathering, bringing culturally-significant music groups from around the world and right here at home, including the incredible sounds of Pamyua, a Yupik band whose mission is to change the world, one beat at a time. Find a complete schedule of monthly events on the center’s website.
image via alutiiqmuseum.org
"Wamwik - Place to Play"
• Alutiiq Museum, Kodiak: One of the most fascinating museums in Alaska, the Alutiiq Museum, has captured the essence of Native ways upon enormous Kodiak Island and the surrounding archipelago. Kids 14 and older may enjoy the Community Archeology program, digging for fossils and artifacts in the company of working archeologists, with surprisingly successful results. Younger children will love the “Wamwik-Place to Play” space inside the museum itself, where dress-up and pretend play bring traditions to a truly wonderful level. Open all year, but hours do vary during the winter months.
image via morristhompsoncenter.org
• Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center, Fairbanks: With an ever-evolving slate of interesting displays and events, this Tanana Valley centerpoint for visitors and Native Alaskans is truly one of my favorite places in Alaska. The center offers periodic two-day workshops for teens and adults to create their own Native Alaska masterpiece, utilizing provided beads, fur, or horns (classes are very diverse, and not cheap, but very special). If your older kids love to work with their hands and want a truly memorable experience, this is the place to be. My son, 8, loves to visit on Saturdays when the Young Native Fiddlers are practicing; these kids are learning the wonderful sounds of Athabascan fiddle music and entertaining the rest of us, too. Catch these talented youth from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. every Saturday between October and April. The center itself is open daily from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Don’t forget to ask your kids about similarities and differences relevant to their own lives while engaging in these activities. What tools were used by subsistence fishermen then, as opposed to now? How did people dress? What role did music play in shaping the daily lives of the families who lived so long ago? History and culture come alive so much easier when everyone’s senses are in tune, together. Have fun!
Erin Kirkland writes on the regular at AkontheGO.com
For more on experiencing Alaska Native traditions, check out Culture & Competition of the Alaska Native Youth Olympics, Alaska's Rich Cultural Tapestry and be sure to listen to our new radio reporting series, "Being Young in Rural Alaska" each Monday on Alaska News Nightly!