“See this, right here; this is back home.”
The most powerful statement of the day came within seconds of entering the Anchorage Museum’s newest exhibition, and it didn’t come from a curator, program director, or the facility’s community relations staff. Instead, it came from a mother, speaking to her fifth-grader, sharing on a map the location of a place known simply as Home.
Titled “Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi” or “The Dena’ina Way of Living,” and opening Sunday, September 15 with a formal celebration from local Dena’ina elders and tribal members, the Anchorage Museum has managed to finally capture the esssence of southcentral Alaska’s most familiar, yet unfamilar, Alaska Native group.
Familiar because about half of Alaska’s residents live in traditional Dena’ina territory, but most don’t know it. Stretching from Cook Inlet to the Kenai Peninsula, and on to Lake Clark, Lake Iliamna, and the upper Stony River, the Dena’ina lived quite successfully for thousands of years until epidemic diseases decimated the population in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Hunting, fishing, gathering and storing food was a productive way of life, and village residents only left for seasonal fishing or hunting camps, and we who live in southcentral today are likely sitting on Dena’ina territory. Think about that.
Building space and finding artifacts and displays for this exhibit took years; almost seven, to be exact. Some had to be retrieved from far northern places like Norway, others we borrowed from museums in the United Kingdom and Germany. It was complex, emotional, and in many ways reflected the overall theme of Dena’ina themselves. We know about them, but we don’t know them. This exhibit hopes to change that, especially for those of us whose feet stand on dirt of the Dena’ina People’s former living spaces.
Divided into eight sections, Dena’ina Way of Living provides both a narrative and personal journey of the Dena’ina People, through visual, audio, and interactive components sure to reach kids in the mid-elementary and older age groups. Educators and visitors have the opportunity to visit with cultural experts of the Dena’ina People, on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. on September 18-20, October 9-11, and November 6-8. Encouraging dialogue and answering questions, these experts, along with youth ambassadors from the Alaska Native Heritage Center’s teen program, seek to reach out to visitors on an almost-daily basis.
From food to music, to child-rearing and discipline, anyone who makes the effort to understand the Dena’ina, and thus, the texture of southcentral Alaska, will come away with a new respect for the land and people who settled here way before a tent city erupted at the end of the 19th century. Follow the eight sections carefully, and in order if you can, for each one tells a unique story that builds upon the previous one, with language, relationships, and daily life of particular interest to the two sets of school groups who attended Friday’s media day.
Who should go? Kids of all ages are welcome, of course, but my observations are that those in grades 4 and up will benefit most. The interactive displays require reading and hands-on tasks, and our tech-savvy youngsters of those grades will eat it up. Stop by the storytelling house and listen to a Dena’ina elder relate a tale of Raven, or see the moose and learn his body parts in the Dena’ina language (very cool).
When should we go? Sunday, September 15 is the official opening, with a formal ceremony beginning at 1 p.m. The museum is FREE all day, so if you can swing by, especially to hear and see the blessing, dancing, and drumming, do. If not, attend on a weekday, late afternoon or early evening. Don’t be rushed, ask questions, and listen to your kids’ perspectives.
Is it expensive? The Dena’ina Way of Living exhibit is included in the price of Anchorage Museum admission, found HERE. Passholders will have admission. This is not a large exhibit, only three rooms, and it should take about an hour if you slowly absorb the exhibits and interactive components.
Where can you find more information? Visit the Anchorage Museum website for an excellent prepatory narrative, and a beautiful Dena’ina song that should inspire your family to visit, soon. Please remember that this is a place that deserves respect, and reverence, so no flash photos, no food or drinks, and definitely no running and/or antics (do you hear me, AK Kid?)
I’ll leave you with the words of Clare Swan, noted Dena’ina Elder and an integral part of the exhibit. Her words, perhaps, say what I can’t.
“As we wonder at these objects of our past, our ancestors touch us. We hear their words again, feel their strength, their artistry and spirit. This is more than just remembering, it is the way of knowing. We come back to ourselves.”
May you find a welcoming spirit, here.