It took more than six years and a worldwide search for Alaska Native art and objects in far-flung museums and private collections, but the effort finally paid off to create a collection that became the first large-scale exhibition of the Dena’ina Athabascan people.
More than 160 of the world’s known collection of about 500 surviving Dena’ina artifacts are housed at the Anchorage Museum, 625 C Street, and will be on display through January 12, 2014.
“This is probably going to be the one amount of time that this amount of artifacts will be assembled in one location,” said Aaron Leggett, special exhibits curator at the museum. “It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see material culture.”
One fact is that the most spectacular pieces generally are not found in American institutions, Leggett said.
For Clare Swan, Kenaitze-Dena’ina Tribe Elder and Chair of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, the exhibit is a chance to give a voice to Dena’ina people.
“In the settling of Anchorage and making it a city as it is, we just kind of faded away,” she said. “We just felt like — and believe— our history has been in the background. No one saw us. I have characterized us as being an invisible people and we are always there,” she said. “The artifacts say we’re here, we’re a living people (and) we need to start honoring that.”
The exhibit contains film, life-size re-creations and archival images and rare objects including a caribou war antler club, originally from the Kenai Peninsula, waterproof bear gut parka and a Dall sheep horn bowl that was originally collected by Captain Cook during his 1778 exhibition.
The exhibit also works to bridge the gap between the history of the Dena’ina people and what it means to be Dena’ina now.
Walking into the exhibition, you’re greeted with a recreation of a contemporary full-size fish camp based on a Dena’ina fish camp across Cook Inlet in Nondalton. Also seen is a smoke house flown in from Pedro Bay. In the last section of the exhibition an illustrated time line brings the history up through to the modern day, Leggett said.
Alongside the exhibit, placed to educate non-Alaskan natives, Swan said she hopes Dena’ina people will come to value to their heritage.
“We’re still Dena’ina people and we may not be like the John Wayne rendition like people like to think about but it’s not about them, it’s about us,” Swan said. “It’s about how we see ourselves and it’s a great thing about our children and grandchildren and all other people who love Alaska and have made it their home.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org