By Jenny Neyman
A museum exhibit is typically about history — descriptions of already happened events, depictions of olden-days practices, displays of long-ago artifacts — preserving the past through research, recollections and re-creations.
That’s part of what “Dena’inaq Huch’ulyeshi: The Dena’ina Way of Living” is about. The Anchorage Museum exhibit, on loan to the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center until May, is a cataloging of the history and traditions of the indigenous Athabascans of the Cook Inlet region.
But it’s not just a static look at a once-upon-a-time culture. It’s an exploration of how that culture has transformed over the years, into what it means to be Dena’ina in the 21st century. Along with the to-be-expected old pictures, ancient artifacts and re-created models of how things used to be, are hands-on iPad learning stations, audio recordings and film clips of how things still are today. In that sense, the exhibit is as alive and contemporary as the Dena’ina themselves.
“(What) we tried to convey is not only to educate people that we were here, but that we’re still here. So we had Dena’ina artifacts going all the way back to Captain Cook in 1778 and his voyage all the way up to we have photographs that were literally taken in the summer of 2013 right before we opened the exhibit, so we’re showing that it’s still a living culture,” said Aaron Leggett, one of the co-curators of the exhibit for the Anchorage Museum, and a Dena’ina himself, from Eklutna. “We’ve had an intense amount of change, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is still Dena’ina Ełnena — our Dena’ina homeland — and that we’re still here as a people and that we still fight to maintain some of our traditions and culture, even if we don’t always necessarily recognize it. It’s still building up that sense of pride.”
And what better way to demonstrate that currentness than with live performances, fresh food, laughter, visiting — people coming together to celebrate tradition as it’s experienced today? That was the idea behind the Dena’ina Heyi, a winter celebration, held Friday by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe amidst the exhibit at the visitors center.
“We knew that we had to acknowledge the fact that this traveling exhibit was here and it’s been a long time since we just celebrated with our family and our friends and our community,” said Alexandra “Sasha” Lindgren, director of tribal government affairs for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. “And we wanted to acknowledge all the hard work that the Anchorage Museum did, get the community to come in and look at this exhibit and share some of our stories and songs. … Anything that says, ‘We’re still here,’ resonates with our tribe, our families.”
The event included music, tales and many mentions from “A Dena’ina Legacy: K’tl’egh’i Sukdu,” the collected stories of venerated Kenaitze elder Peter Kalifornsky, who was integral in preserving the Dena’ina language from the brink of extinction. Circling the room was the exhibit — at least, the pared-down traveling version that could fit in the smaller space — with flickering video clips, scrolling pictures and glowing iPads stealing the attention (it was gladly given) of the attendees, particularly the kids in the crowd.
“We were trying to make it relevant, especially to younger generations. They know how to access iPads and that’s how they access information, so we recognize that. And not only that but it’s also a good way to convey a lot of information in a very small space, and it can travel very easily,” Leggett said. “… For younger people, they really respond to it (being) hands-on. One of the worst things that you can do in a museum is have what they call a-book-on-the wall sort of thing, so (it’s important to) have the iPads having the listening stations.”
Also in the vein of hands-on was a refreshments table loaded with a mound of fry bread and an enormous batch of salmon dip. Be sure to ask about the special ingredient, the crowd was advised.
“I used season salt — it has salt, pepper, garlic, you name it in it. Just added a little bit of that. And it also has liquid smoke in it, but I didn’t want to overpower it with liquid smoke … But, yeah, it’s just season salt. And love. That’s what I keep telling everybody,” said Peggy Segura, one of the ladies responsible for the ample spread.
The audience cycled in and out during the hours-long event, as did the performers on the stage.
Atz Kilcher, from Homer, known in Alaska for his music (and musical daughter, Jewell) and much farther afield as the patriarch on the “Alaska: The Last Frontier” TV show on the Discovery Channel, performed a few songs that explored his relationship to the Dena’ina. He’s the son of Swiss immigrants but became familiar with Dena’ina culture as a homesteader outside of Homer. One of his songs was about Kalifornsky.
“You will live on, Dena’ina Indian. Is there one more tale that you can weave before you leave? Of the trails you have walked, and the tongues you have talked, the legends you’ve left written on these trees. And when you’re gone, Dena’ina Indian, I’ll be listening for your song on the morning breeze, and I will watch your shadow run across the morning sun, as you whisper to me through the trees,” Kilcher sang.
Maggie Jones also referenced Kalifornsky, sharing one of the stories from his book.
“The story she just told you is of this place, Yaghanen (Dena’ina word for the Kenai Peninsula, meaning “the good land”). So many awesome stories from the past, from the past, from the present, from the past, and this is one of my favorite, it’s called ‘Bad Clearing,’” Jones began.
The story told of a baby fooling a war party into abandoning its marauding mission to a village. Many of Kalifornsky’s stories had an element of mischief to them. In its thousand-year history, Dena’ina was an oral tradition long before it was codified into a written language in an attempt to preserve it, in the 1980s and ’90s when there were only a scant handful of fluent speakers left. Stories were passed on to impart wisdom and teach traditions and values. Having a light touch made the messages a littler easier to give and receive.
It was fun to hear the stories, said Mary Barrows and Linnie Barrows Randolph, of Nikiski, who said they were having a sister day in coming to the winter celebration. They’re Tlingit Natives, of Southeast Alaska, but said it was interesting to see the similarities in the Dena’ina culture. Both are Athabascan.
“Learning the different stories from each culture and how they tie together, like the raven. In the Tlingit tribe there’s the Raven Clan and the Eagle Clan, and it’s really cool to listen to Dena’ina stories, and they talk about the raven stole the sun, and it’s the same thing. It’s all the different peoples in Alaska, but, you know, it’s still the same story,” Mary Barrows said.
Lindgren shared a story first written down by her mother, a Kenaitze poet and storyteller who worked with Kalifornsky on his book. “Chuda Fiona Goes Berry Picking” tells of little 4-year-old Fiona, who is separated from her mother and aunts on her very first berry-picking expedition and is led back to her village by a spider, golden crowned sparrow, rabbit and bear.
“Chuda Fiona was 4 years old and it was fall, fall on the Ken, the flats in Kenai,” Lindgren said. “A sunny day, a series of sunny days. And those of us who love it here remember what those days are like — the sun slants in at an angle and everything’s bathed in golden light and the air is crisp and there’s berries to pick, silver salmon are coming and we’re together and we know winter is coming.”
For Lindgren, being able to tell a Dena’ina story today completes a circle with her elders, and rolls it on into the hands of today’s youth.
“Peter (Kalifornsky) first wrote in Dena’ina and then it was translated into English, and now we write in English and translate it into Dena’ina. And that we have the gift from our elders to be able to do that, that our words will live in the language of this place, means so much to me. And that I can share a story that was given to me by my mother who is no longer with us means so much,” Lindgren said.
That sentiment was particularly fitting among the exhibit, as Leggett said that one of the goals was to highlight the Dena’ina language.
“Another reason to use multimedia is to convey language in interesting ways, so, whether it’s interactive where you learn in Dena’ina of different parts of the moose, or it’s hearing Dena’ina singing at a potlatch in Tyonek, this is a way that we can convey our language, because, unfortunately there’s only about 20 to 25 fluent speakers from all the Dena’ina communities around Cook Inlet and the inland area toward Lake Clark and Iliamna lake,” he said. “But we’re very fortunate that there’s a huge amount of resources and documentation that’s occurred to document our language so that it didn’t disappear, so we incorporated that into the exhibition.”
Putting together the exhibit was a massive amount of work, from 2006 until it opened in Anchorage in 2013, Leggett said.
“Being the Anchorage Museum, strangely enough there had never been an exhibit on the indigenous people in which the museum’s homeland sits,” he said. “… There was a lot of work in preparing it because nobody had ever done an exhibit like this. There was an intense amount of research that needed to go into it and we wanted to be as thorough as we possibly could in documenting every known example of Dena’ina pieces in museum collections that we could identify.”
Researchers traveled across the state, country, Europe and Russia documenting Dena’ina artifacts. Over 160 are included in the full exhibit, and many more that couldn’t be borrowed are documented in a catalog of the exhibit.
“It’s a great resource and in some ways — aside from the memories of seeing the exhibition and the sense of pride — the lasting legacy is really going to be that book,” Leggett said.
The exhibit, though comprehensive, isn’t 100 percent complete. One of the surprising holes in the collection are examples of the Dena’ina’s winter clothing.
“There are some examples of some gloves and boots and hats, but when it comes to winter fur garments there are less than five known to exist that I’ve ever come across,” Leggett said. “But there’s just some of these wonderful things that are described, either from Dena’ina oral tradition or early anthropologists who interviewed Dena’ina people, that we don’t have, like cloaks made from eagle down. Or there are all these different types of fur that were used.”
But some of the items that were found were truly unexpected gems. Leggett’s favorite is an 8-foot-long whale harpoon found in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. It would have been used to hunt belugas in Cook Inlet before the introduction of high-powered rifles to the area in the 1890s. The Dena’ina would fell a large spruce tree, limb it and peel the park, then sink it in the mud, root structure up, at low tide. A hunter would perch on the roots as the tide rose, harpoon a beluga if one came near enough and signal hunters waiting in kayaks to chase the whale ashore.
“So I knew about this but I didn’t actually think that we had one that still existed, but there was one that was collected from 1883 from Tyonek. So, to me, that was pretty amazing that we still had one because it was literally collected at the absolute tail end of when they were doing that style of hunting,” Leggett said. The piece isn’t included in the Kenai exhibit, but can be seen in the exhibit catalog available at the visitors center.
Another favorite moment of discovery was coming across a painted arrow quiver with woven porcupine-quill embroidery depicting a hunting scene that was found in a collection of Alaska artifacts squirreled away in a school in Finland.
“And what it highlights is, although we covered all the major collections, I know there are more pieces out there, but it’s just a matter of time and money,” Leggett said. “… All things considered, I was just glad to be a part of it and be able to bring something this comprehensive together.”
He said he also was happy to visit Kenai for the winter celebration.
“Which is actually when the Dena’ina would most often have gatherings would be during the wintertime, because during the summer everybody would be so busy … (with) subsistence activities that they don’t come together. So, in the Dena’ina language, in fact, in one of the dialects the month of January is, ‘The month that we come together to sing,’” he said.
Leggett said it hasn’t yet been decided where the exhibit will go after Kenai, but he hopes to find a way to have at least part of it remain on display in the community.
“It’s very exciting to be a part of it, and for the community,” Leggett said. “And what I do really is hopefully inspire the next generation. … I hope that the young kids, the young Dena’ina, have a much better sense of what it means to be Dena’ina than I ever did.”