On Sunday, September 15, the Anchorage Museum debuted its latest third floor exhibit, titled “Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi” or “The Dena’ina Way of Living.” This historic exhibit was opened up for an early viewing by the press on Friday, and Alaska Commons was fortunate enough to be in attendance.
The 5,000 square foot exhibit features eight sections that will walk attendees through 1,000 years of history and culture. The Dena’ina culture developed and thrived on 41,000 square miles of territory centered around Cook Inlet. The significance of the exhibit is monumental; it’s the first time this group of Athabascan people have been featured exclusively in a museum exhibit. Coordinating the event was quite the challenge, according to co-curator Dr. Jim Fall.
Many of the items in the exhibit are on loan from international collections. Because of some issues involving other U.S. museums, plans to draw items from Russian archives in St. Petersburg fell through at the last minute. This meant that the exhibit was unable to procure the most intact example of a shaman doll, the last of only three known in existence. The other two dolls are available for viewing at the exhibit. Even without the Russian additions, the exhibit is quite an impressive display of old and new Dena’ina culture.
Many of the pieces are locally owned and contemporary. Several of them, including the headdress and regalia below, were donated to the museum for long term preservation, but were still accessible to elders for ceremonial use in recent times.
The exhibit begins as attendees walk into a life size replica of a fishing camp from the Nondalton area. The scene depicts the blending of old and new culture in the camp and shows how the Dena’ina have adapted in modern times. Attendees can see a replica of a k’usq’a, or “fish box.” These fish boxes are wooden pens kept in the water and used for storing salmon while they are waiting to be processed. Processing the fish are life sized and lifelike mannequins dressed in modern rain gear. An interactive placard along the front of the scene provides more information on how the Dena’ina have adapted their fishing culture over time.
A glimpse of the Life Size fish camp scene at the start of the tour.
From the fish camp scene, visitors enter into the full exhibit and begin tracing the path of the Dena’ina starting with the linguistic, archaeological, and oral origins of the Athabascan clans that migrated into the valleys surrounding Cook Inlet. Sections Two through Four dig into aspects of cultural life and identity. Section Five and Six cover the material culture of the Dena’ina, including seasonal activities and the tools and raw materials used in daily life. Section Seven and Eight are on the topic of Western contact and colonialization, and the modern movement to renew and revive the culture.
The exhibit isn’t just built around artifacts, either. There are interactive displays, including a build-your-own “counting cord” kiosk. Counting cords were beaded bracelet calendars used to mark the passing of time and as mnemonic devices for tracking important life events.
I had a wonderful time seeing all the displays and chatting with Anchorage Museum staff, curators, and members of the press. If you have time, I highly recommend going to this one of a kind exhibit. It really is a world-class showing of local history and culture. You have until January 12, 2014 to check it out. You can also check out more of my photos in this gallery.