Alaska Native Heritage Center Builds Cultural Bridge

Alaska’s Native population is vibrant and rich, and perhaps nowhere else can a visitor broaden understanding of cultural awareness in a most interactive way than through the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. Young or old, those who spend a few hours exploring the history and traditions of Alaska’s first people will undoubtedly depart knowing a whole lot more about this must-do family vacation stop.

The Native Heritage Center has been a staple of Anchorage’s tourism scene for several years, but a dedicated board of directors and constant tweaking by center staff have resulted in a truly authentic indoor/outdoor experience that for the most part is worthy of the steep admission fees ($24.95 adult/$16.50 kids 7-16; military/senior/Alaskan discounts available). Located on 26 wooded acres in the northeast section of Anchorage, huddled at the base of the Chugach mountains, ANHC is culturally connected to both its people and its environment. From the sleek architecture outside to the soaring windows inside, ANHC seeks to truly assist visitors in experiencing Native life from all perspectives, and provides valuable insight through a host of programs, interpretive staff, and artifacts.

Many guests stop first at the Hall of Cultures, an intense collection of artifacts and oral history that walks one through the 11 different cultural groups residing in Alaska. Hand-hewn canoes and kayaks hang from the ceiling,  photographs cover the walls, and everywhere, quotes in the melodic rhythms of a particular Native language pull the stories together. It is my favorite exhibit, but for six year-old AK Kid, the excitement lasts for five minutes before he longs to rush outdoors. The Native Heritage Center used to host a Children’s Art Area in the rear corner of the Hall of Cultures, where kids could make masks, color totems, and experiment with various textures and shapes while their parents took their time browsing. Sadly, this area has been disbanded, and I wish they’d bring it back. Please. For the sake of parents everywhere who want to finish reading about the Eyek or Yup’ik, bring it back.

Native dwellings provide real insight into the cultures of Alaska.

Outdoors, the center boasts an impressive “village” of authentic Native dwellings, built to spec just for visitors. AK Kid simply loves going underground to see the Yup’ik/Cup’ik houses, where he always listens intently to interpretive staff inside as they show artifacts used daily in the far North. Every house features a volunteer or staff member sharing his or her experiences growing up Native, and we learn something new every single time.

A new program launched this summer features another valuable Alaskan tool, the dog. Titled “Qipmigaq” or “traveling with dogs,” this hour-long tour (for an additional fee) explains the fascinating historical partnership between canine and man. Operated by 2011 Iditarod Sled Dog Race winner John Baker and Team Baker Tours, Qipmigaq offers more than the typical sled dog show most visitors experience. Bryan Bearss, a local Kindergarten teacher and Iditarod finisher in 2006 was our guide for the presentation, walking our little group through an expansive history of dogs in Alaska, from thousands of years working and breeding dogs right up to current Iditarod champions.

Iditarod musher and local educator Brian Bearss shares the history of dogs in Alaska during the 'Qipmigaq' tour.

Held in a quonset hut/tent near the native dwellings, Qipmigaq features a videos of the 2010 Iditarod race, John Baker’s mushing equipment and gear, and a number of antique items, including a very old and very long dog sled used to deliver mail in remote Alaskan communities. A well-informed Bearss knew how to engage both kids and adults, allowing ample time for questions, photographs, and time to cuddle ‘Cupcake,’ a small and very precious ambassdor for sled dogs everywhere. Bearss’ teaching skills certainly came to the fore, as the interesting information of both dogs and Alaska was as vast and diverse as the state itself, and was a breath of fresh air for dog mushing in general.

Team Baker sled dogs ready for action!

The most popular aspect of the tour, of course, is catching a ride behind a sled dog team. Team Baker kennels a full house of sled dogs just behind the tent (and a whole enclosure of adorable puppies), offering rides around the back forty of ANHC property (included in the Qipmigaq tour). Not a long trip but certainly far enough to appreciate the power and obedience of 12 or 14 dogs all working together in a sort of blissful existence, the dog team ride is worth the $10 in addition to regular ANHC admission, if one does not take the Qipmigaq tour. There is nothing quite so exciting as listening to the howling, yowling cacophony of dogs waiting to leave the chute, and Baker’s team is no different. There might not be snow, but these canines don’t care, because pulling is pulling and they’re ready.

Peeking through the door to understanding different traditions at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center is open for the summer season until September 5, 2011; re-opening back up during the fall and winter months for special events, when admission is usually free. The center will welcome summer season visitors in May, 2012. Find their calendar, additional information about the center’s admission fees and passes, or research further the cultural Native groups of Alaska at the ANHC website, HERE.

There’s still time to experience the Alaska Native Heritage Center before they close for the season. Alaskans receive a heavy discount on admission prices, and others can save through the Alaska TourSaver book, a two-for-one coupon bonanza.

Bring snacks and drinks for kids, or eat in the Raven Cafe, a nice little cafe with sandwiches, wraps, etc. Dress for chilly temperatures and for getting dirty, as kids always like to lounge on the dwelling floors or romp with the puppies. Plan on at least three hours at the center to fully experience the Alaska Native Heritage Center. And believe me, your family will experience a lot.

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