Pulling the past into the present

Dena'ina exhibit brings old ways to new generations
Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Visitors to the Anchorage Museum's Dena'ina Way of Life sit at some of several listening stations at the exhibit Sunday September 15, 2013 in Anchorage, Alaska.

Barbara Shepherd stood quietly in front of the video, her face inscrutable but her eyes darting all over the screen, taking in every detail.


On the screen, Helen Dick — a Dena’ina woman from Lime Village — and her family work to find logs to strip cut into smaller strips for a fish trap. The process is laborious, the video long and Shepherd riveted.

“She’s my cousin,” Shepherd, who lives in Anchorage, said quietly. “I didn’t know she did this. I’ve been living out here for 20 years.”

Shepherd is from Lime Village, upriver from Bethel.

“I’ve seen other things like this before,” Shepherd said of the technique. “I’ve seen my grandpa do it. I’ve never done it.”

Shepherd, who dipnets in Kasilof during red salmon season, watched a boy on the screen strip several pliable branches from a tree and bend them into circles before selecting one to make into a dipnet.

“I’ve never seen anybody make a dipnet like that,” she said. “I wish I’d have seen that before.”

As Shepherd reconnected with a portion of her history at the Anchorage Museum’s Dena’Inaq Huch’ulyeshi: The Dena’ina Way of Living exhibit, which opened on Sept. 15, others celebrated the culmination of nearly a decade of work gathering the objects and bringing them to Anchorage.

Aaron Leggett, Anchorage Museum special exhibits curator, estimated that there were no more than 500 Dena’ina artifacts left in the world and the museum houses 160 of them through Jan. 12, 2014.

But the objects, varied and ancient as they are, represent just a portion of a larger exhibit that brings first person quotes, photographs, songs and full-scale recreations of both modern and ancient Dena’ina ways of life.

A recreation of a contemporary full-size fish camp at the entrance of the exhibit greets visitors.

It is based on one located in Nondalton, a village about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage where some 200 residents practice a subsistence lifestyle ­— a group of the village’s Shadow Dancers performed as part of the exhibit’s opening festivities.

The fish camp is a surreal representation in that the posed inhabitants use techniques and tools that have been the same for hundreds of years, but wear Helly Hanson jackets and “Alaska Grown” hoodies.

The collision between heritage and modern technique is one that Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology and Dena’ina scholar at Kenai Peninsula College, said is unique to indigenous culture — specifically Dena’ina who still work at fish camps.

“It’s not just about the fish camp in terms of the artifacts of the fish camp, but the idea of a family working together, a family doing meaningful work together has transcended pre-history to now and that is very, very rare,” he said.

Families catch, process and store salmon for the winter while youth learn how to behave and live in harmony with the environment by watching their elders.

“That’s a remarkable thing,” Boraas said.

Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart, Rural and Native Student Services Coordinator at Kenai Peninsula College, said she has spent most of her life trying to reconnect with her Athabascan-Dena’ina heritage — inherited from her father— and Paiute tribal roots — inherited from her mother.

Shaginoff-Stuart said she was lucky to attend the opening of the exhibit with Dick, who was integral in the development of parts of the display.

As the two walked into the exhibit, a slideshow of pictures projected onto the wall kept them both busy for almost an hour, Shaginoff-Stuart said.

She sat and watched legendary figures from Cook Inlet history walk across the wall and said she looked for her grandparents — who lived in Susitna Station — while Dick told stories she remembered about the people in the photos.

“She was walking with me and explaining everything that she knew about it and I’ve only seen them in books or seen their writing or just heard them in tape,” Shaginoff-Stuart said.

The pair spent so much time at the beginning of the exhibit that Shaginoff-Stuart said she did not make it through the whole thing.

But, she said, she plans to take her sons to the museum and see the rest of it, while hopefully giving them the expanded history she received on her first visit.

Shaginoff-Stuart’s experience connecting with her past was one several organizers hoped would come out of the exhibit — that it would educate non-Dena’ina but also bring a deeper cultural understanding to people whose heritage was put on display.

Clare Swan, a Kenaitze elder and chair of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, said elders owe an explanation of history to their children and grandchildren to enrich their lives.

“We have always been here and help them understand that we have always respected the land, we are close to the earth and now there’s a way we can help them understand that process,” Swan said. “I can just see the grandmas and grandpas smiling and nodding their heads when all of the sudden you get something that they have been trying to teach you forever.”

Swan said she saw the exhibit as a way to help answer the question of what it means to be Dena’ina now against the backdrop of history.

For example, Swan and Shaginoff-Stuart said the intricate porcupine quill sewing and bead work on display stood out to them.

A Deghk’isen sez — or beaded woman’s belt — from the 1880s on the Kenai Peninsula spoke to the history of the region through the objects it contained; 15 Chinese coins, moose hide, dentalium shells, glass beads and sinew.

At the time, the Dena’ina were trading extensively and the belt’s Chinese and French coins were part of the status it conferred through the signs of wealth and use of beads, according to museum information.

For Shaginoff-Stuart, the porcupine quill work was both a reminder of her heritage, and a glimpse at what she may have lost by being modern Dena’ina.

“I don’t know how to express how intricate it was, I have seen pictures of it,” she said. “I thought, oh yeah I can figure this out. We (she and Dick) can do this.”

The two were excited to see the quill work used to decorate ornamental clothing on display because they had planned to reproduce it.

The quills are flattened and woven into the fabric in intricate stitches that are repeated in tightly bound patterns, each just a few inches from the next, the whole way around the edges of the clothing.

“I thought the quills were possibly goose quills, I thought they were bigger,” Shaginoff-Stuart said. “They are porcupine quills and they’re were just a little at a time, little squares.”

She realized she did not have the time or skill to reproduce the quill work.

“We (she and Dick) began to rethink our project,” she said with a laugh.

In the recognition that she no longer had the time to do the things her ancestors did — reflected in modern jokes about “Native time” being without the rigid deadlines — Shaginoff-Stuart said she was in awe of how fast time seemed to move now.

The connection to technology and addiction to the clock has replaced a connection to the land and the community, she said.

As Shaginoff-Stuart, Shepherd and others struggle to fit their cultural heritage into their current way of living, Boraas said a deeper message was being communicated through the exhibit — which heavily utilized knowledge of local elders to paint a more complex picture about Dena’ina people.

“There is a Dena’ina prophecy that this world is not sustainable,” Boraas said. “This modern culture is not sustainable and that someday people will need to know the old techniques, the old ways of hunting the old ways of fishing and the attitudes that go along with those old ways.”

It’s not just how to hunt a bear, Boraas said, it’s about having the attitude to live off the land and the patience to be subject to its natural cycles.

The subtle difference between sharing cultural history out of habit versus doing so out of a belief that the next generation may need it to survive was one of the reasons many of the elders were motivated to share their knowledge and experience for the exhibit, Boraas said.

“Not that you’re going to learn how to live off the land in this exhibit, but it gives recognition to a sustainable way of living and that’s why it’s called Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi: The Dena’ina Way of Living.”


Rashah McChesney can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com


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