Dena’ina Exhibit Opens at Anchorage Museum

Step into a remote fish camp. Listen to a Dena’ina love song composed in 1915. Those are couple of the experiences Anchorage Museum visitors can expect when they tour the first comprehensive exhibit bringing together the language, history and artifacts of the original inhabitants of Southcentral Alaska – the Dena’ina Athabascans. It opens Sunday at the Anchorage Museum.

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One important theme of the exhibit is, ‘We’re still here.’

“Most people who live in Anchorage have no idea that there is an indigenous population that has been here and continues to be here,” Aaron Leggett, one of the co-curators for the exhibit, said.

That’s a perception that he wants to change.

Chief Nikaly and his family, Knik, Alaska, 1918. Image credit: H. G. Kaiser, University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. Courtesy of the Anchorage Museum.
Chief Nikaly and his family, Knik, Alaska, 1918. Image credit: H. G. Kaiser, University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. Courtesy of the Anchorage Museum.

“My grandmother was a full-blooded Dena’ina Athabascan from the Native village of Eklutna,” Leggett said. “Eklutna is the only federally recognized tribe within the Municipality of Anchorage.”

“So really, for my people, our traditional homeland is the Anchorage area.”

Leggett has spent more than a half dozen years searching out the objects that appear in the exhibit, traveling mostly to museums across Europe.

Most of the objects on display were collected in the 17 and 1800’s by explorers and museum collectors. Objects like an eight-foot long Beluga harpoon was borrowed from Germany for the exhibit and a bowl made of Dall sheep horn collected during the third voyage of Captain Cook in 1778 is on loan from the British Museum.

Jim Fall is a cultural anthropologist who now manages subsistence programs for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He’s also a co-curator for the exhibit.

“The name of the exhibition is, ‘Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi, The Dena’ina Way of Living,’” Fall said.

Fall says pieces of Dena’ina history can be found right in the city.

Point Woronzof was a major fish camp in the early 20th century. Chester Creek, was also an important fishing area. And there were several seasonal camps right in downtown Anchorage up until the 1930s.

The Dena’ina were displaced leading up to World War II to make way for the growing city and military presence.

The exhibit brings them back to life. It contains many interactive features – maps on iPads that allow visitors explore traditional Dena’ina places around the city with their Native names. A life-sized recreation of a fish camp transports visitors to the southwestern frontier of Dena’ina territory near Nondalton.

 Chief Stephan wearing dentalium bandolier, headdress and ground squirrel parka, Knik, Alaska, c. 1907. Image credit: Anchorage Museum.
Chief Stephan wearing dentalium bandolier, headdress and ground squirrel parka, Knik, Alaska, c. 1907. Image credit: Anchorage Museum.

In the process of pulling the exhibit together, Fall has seen a lot of artifacts, but thinks the most interesting ones in the exhibit are the quivers, which held hunters’ arrows.

“And these quivers, they’re very beautiful objects, but they’re also decorated with the images of various game animals that people hunted as a well as the hunters themselves,” Fall said. “So their fun to look at; they’re beautiful, and they also tell us something, I think, about the respect that the hunters expressed to the animals that they depended on and hunted.”

Hunters traveled across a vast, rich territory, ranging from Seldovia in the south to Talkeetna in the north.

Suzi Jones is the Deputy Director of the Museum and a co-curator for the exhibit. She says Dena’ina people are unique among Athabascans because they live both inland and along the salt water, and the exhibit demonstrates that.

“One of the recreated settings in the exhibit is of a Dena’ina man hunting from a beluga spearing platform,” Jones said. “They upended a spruce tree, anchored it into the mud flat and made a platform out of it with the root mass of the tree; and the hunters stood or sat there as the belugas followed the salmon into the river mouths.”

Today, Cook Inlet Beluga Whales are on the Endangered Species List and Alaska Natives have voluntarily stopped hunting them because of declining numbers. In addition to artifacts and diorama’s recreating traditional practices, the exhibit contains stories and songs.

This song, composed by Dena’ina, Shem Pete, was recorded in 1915.

It’s a lament to a lost love – a young man leaves his girlfriend, and wonders if she’s thinking about him as he walks the trail between Tyonek and Susitna Station.

Graphic credit: National Park Service. Courtesy the Anchorage Museum.
Graphic credit: National Park Service. Courtesy the Anchorage Museum.

The song became well known to Dena’ina singers throughout the 20th century. The exhibit, for Leggett, is his own love song to his people.

“My hope is that when they grow up they can have something to turn to be proud of their heritage because when I was a kid we didn’t really have a lot to point to that was definitively Dena’ina,” Leggett said.

Leggett says the years of work he put the exhibit are dedicated his ancestors, and to the next generation of Dena’ina.

He helped edit a book to go along with the exhibit, which is the most comprehensive ever produced on the Dena’ina.

The exhibit opens with a free celebration from 1-3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15 and runs through Jan. 12.

Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage.

Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email.

Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.

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