Park Service, Sitka Tribe Explore Cultural Center Partnership

National Park officials were in Sitka last week to meet with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. The two governments are attempting to forge a partnership that would keep a cultural center open at Sitka National Historical Park. But the meeting shed new light on problems at the cultural center and was an opportunity for the Park Service to address some hard feelings from the Tribe.

For more than 40 years, Sitka National Historical Park has been home to the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center. Renowned Native artists, such as carver Tommy Joseph and sculptor Charlie Skultka, use the center as their studio, and also demonstrate their work for visitors to the park.

That partnership ended in June, when the park decided not to renew its agreement with the cultural center. Park officials said that the relationship was not sustainable, and confirmed that special agents from the National Park Service’s Anchorage office were investigating financial mismanagement at the center. But the sudden end to the partnership caught many off guard, including officials with Sitka’s tribal government.

“It just kind of happened without any kind of warning,” said Tribal Council member Tanya Bonorden.

Bonorden had a lot of questions for the National Park Service at their Wednesday meeting, including why the Tribe wasn’t notified of the sudden end to the partnership. The Tribe was not officially part of the partnership, but Bonorden says council members still should have been notified of the problems.

“Because this does, and has majorly impacted the people of Sitka, our culture, and artists,” she said. “And I think the artists at the National Park Service in Sitka really represents what our people are all about.”

Sue Masica is the regional director for the National Park Service for Alaska. She and a colleague flew in from Anchorage to meet with the Tribe.

“I heard some concern that in the termination and the way it was handled was an indication of lack of respect for the Tribe,” Masica said. “That was not our intention at all. We absolutely respect the Tribe and the citizens of Sitka and the Tribal members. We had to deal with the fiduciary issues associated with the agreement.”

And those issues, according to the park service, are serious. Mark Vaughn, associate regional director for the park service said the cultural center was unable to track its expenses, failed to submit invoices, didn’t work to obtain grants or outside funding, filed reports late or not at all and kept books that accountants were unable to audit, which meant the park service couldn’t account for federal money it had given to the center.

Masica, the head of the Alaska region, says the investigators have concluded their work but have yet to issue a report. And for now, the artists remain housed at the National Park, and continue their demonstrations for the public.

But at the meeting Wednesday, Masica and Tribal council members looked to the future: Namely, could the Sitka Tribe of Alaska play a role in operating the cultural center going forward? Masica says she’s optimistic.

“Both sides have a very common interest and shared interest in perpetuating the culture and the learning opportunities,” she said. “We are both interested in ways to grow that and extend its reach in the community.”

Woody Widmark is chairman of the Sitka Tribe. He made clear during the meeting that the Tribe is exploring the possibility but hasn’t yet committed to any action. Still, he says he’s optimistic, too.

“I feel comfortable in our preliminary discussions before this, and in having Tribal citizens or a sector of the community feel that the Tribe might be a potential partner on this,” Widmark said.

But there are details to iron out. Widmark said funding could be an issue, and wondered what support the National Park Service would be able to provide. He acknowledged that, in his words, funding for the National Parks is a topic of discussion at the national level.

Masica smiled and replied, “That might be the understatement of the day, Mr. Chairman.”

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Ed Ronco is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.

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