To Preserve, Honor, and Share: The Alaska Native Heritage Center

alaska.jpg

A young woman is suspended in the air against a backdrop of an open sky filled with clouds. Below is the tense surface of a raw hide trampoline pulled by many hands.

A child enjoys the blanket toss, a tradition of the Inupiaz people of Alaska's north coast region at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Programming at the Center is funded in part by the NEA. Photo by Clark James Mishler.

1999The Alaska Native Heritage Center was founded by the Alaska Federation of Natives in response to the need for a community gathering place for the state's native peoples. Sited on 26 acres in Anchorage, the Center operates year-round, providing a range of cultural programming to residents and visitors including classes, performances, exhibits, and other special events.

"The Center [promotes] a better understanding of Native peoples so that they are not relegated to the past and earmarked for extinction," says Roy Huhnhorf, a former chairman of the Center. "Through educational and employment training efforts, we are rejuvenating our culture as a means to improving our self-image. We hearken back to ancient ways where we live in harmony with the land and are proud of who we are, not ashamed."

The National Endowment for the Arts was an early supporter of the center. In 1999, the Center received an NEA grant of $70,000 to support workshops in business skills and public arts interpretation for at least 120 Native artists.

"[The NEA's] support was extremely important in developing the kind of programs and educational project we had envisioned," says Huhnhorf. "The center is a wish come true. We believe it is good for the whole nation because it shows how Native people fit into our complex society."

The Center's programs include demonstrations and workshops with master artists and tradition bearers. Recent offerings have included workshops in caribou hair tufting, Athabascan beading, and Tsimshian carving. Courses in Alaska Native studies are also offered, including dance and art classes and instruction in Native languages such as Alutiiq and Tlingit. Visitors also can tour the Center's five traditional village sites, each of which presents a range of permanent and temporary exhibits on the everyday life of Alaska Natives since ancient times.

As part of its mission to promote cultural diversity and understanding, the Center also sponsors two-day Cultural Awareness workshops. Presented by Alaska Natives from different areas of the state, the interactive workshops are designed for individuals, organizations, businesses, and agencies wishing to learn more about Alaska Native cultures in order to better serve their clients and employees. Past workshop participants include the First National Bank of Alaska, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the American Red Cross.