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Dena’Ina Way of Living, at the Anchorage Museum

By | January 9, 2014

Hurry, you can still make it to Dena’Ina Way of Living with its preserved artifacts and dioramic recreations. Not to worry, the exhibition catalog will be available after the show closes; it’s a good read in cold dark January. Fact: more art aficionados read the book than see live work. Catalogs usually contain more information than what is chosen for museum walls.

Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi, the Dena’Ina Way of Living illustrates how a population lived thousands of years ago without electricity, running water and modern medicine; be humbled by those who came before. Ethnically Athabascan, the Dena’Ina, have been in the Cook Inlet region and its tributaries for millennia. The cultural focus of this show and catalog begins when Euro-American explorers arrived in the mid-to late eighteenth century and continues to the present.

While I was writing this essay, my daughter Jenn texted me from the Brooklyn Museum. She and her family went back East visiting siblings for New Year’s. Granddaughter Averyl is a fifth generation visitor. My mother was a Brooklyn artist; her father Irving practiced medicine from their Carlton Avenue home. Looking at the same paintings that relatives from a bygone era also contemplated is one way to experience a family’s culture. Today it is very common not to live where your ancestors did. Relocating means appreciating new cultures as my husband Dave and I did when moving to Alaska over forty years ago.

Going to my K Street office, I drive past Nordstrom, absorbed in whether I need more ink for the copier. I am oblivious to the Dena’Ina who once walked right under my tire treads as I think about dinner– is last night’s rice and chicken enough leftovers for two?

In the museum’s exhibition a Native male/mannequin harpoons a Beluga whale from an inverted tree trunk ingeniously stuck into mud flats. The message is clear, creativity is not a modern concept. Sure, the name Dena’Ina is on the new convention center and conferences often have Native dancers beating drums while waving fans—show over, everyone goes home.

What does it mean to look at glass-enclosed artifacts that were once someone’s utility item, most likely for survival? How does an artifact become an art piece? New York’s MoMA devotes an entire wing to twentieth century chairs and toasters. I am always amused when I see a piece of Pyrex or an early computer becoming the focal point for a lecturing docent.

Dena’Inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi begins with a diorama of a present day fish camp. Two adult women are wading in shallow water as they cut salmon on a makeshift table. One of the ladies wears a Helly Hansen parka. The other is wearing wraparound sunglasses. Nearby a small boy watches a catch basin of recently caught fish. He is wearing an ‘Alaska Grown’ sweatshirt. Even if museum goers have never experienced life in a fish camp, they can relate to these mannequins who are wearing clothing that can be purchased locally. Identifying with an art piece is one way to empathize with the message about preserving subsistence.

Europeans brought smallpox which reduced the Dena’Ina population, thus fewer Natives to sew clothing. When America bought Alaska in 1867, traders arrived with fabric bolts and readymade clothing. Missionaries encouraged western dress. Native lifestyles were affected by intruders, as was clothing. Tunics now sported collars or were abandoned for Western shirts and vests.

In the exhibition, a looping video of traditional Native dishes projects onto a dining table. Visitors pause to look down onto contemporary place settings as if becoming part of this virtual meal. Aboriginal fare of beaver, moose and berries are passed around by virtual contemporary Natives (only their hands are visible). This DVD and the fish camp diorama demonstrate how ancient customs are kept alive.

How do you relate to nineteenth century mittens or arrows in glass cases, no longer used as once intended? Boring, you say, as you give objects a cursory glance, thinking about that nice cup of tea you intend to sip after you breeze by the whittled wooden spoons and caribou hide tunics with the matching knee-high footwear. You are not alone; many visitors typically don’t feel connected. That’s because they don’t possess a narrative about the viewed artifacts. Hey, if museum goers can find a story in Lautrec’s café scenes or in Monet’s water lilies, they can construct one from Dena’Ina artifacts.

Summer Gloves with Strap, Tyonek (1883.)

Summer Gloves with Strap, Tyonek (1883.)

Fire Bag for Powder and Lead (1883).

Fire Bag for Powder and Lead (1883).

For example: here’s a pair of summer gloves, 1883, made from caribou. They are decorated with glass beads and dentalium shells, often a mark of wealth and indication of a trading culture. The gloves are attached to an embroidered string, similar to mittens sold today for infants. Unless our museum goers bought gloves to wear to a gala, chances are they bought winter gloves at, say, LL Bean. They can also afford to lose them too, they aren’t precious.

And visitors probably don’t care if the gloves are decorated. In fact, modern day machine washing would destroy beads and shells. Now look carefully at the care that went into making and maintaining the Dena’Ina gloves, their detail and design quality. Ancient cultures couldn’t run to a store or shop online for replacements. Without handmade outerwear, the Dena’Ina would have perished, which is why they highly valued and coveted their gear.

Here is a matching beaded fire bag with a velvet strap, 1883. Imagine the ego this hunter displayed wearing such flash, perhaps along with the gloves. Velvet for making the bag’s shoulder strap was acquired through trade. Recreational and subsistence hunters today might snicker at what would now be considered a feminine satchel, back then it was status—culture evolves.

Stone Lamp found at Fish Creek near Knik.

Stone Lamp found at Fish Creek near Knik.

Here’s a stone lamp found around Fish Creek near Knik. The carving is delicate; there appears to be a figure, maybe a god, in the center. Did everyone have lamps? Probably not. As Heidegger commented, the meaning goes when the artwork leaves the temple, relocating to a museum. The spirituality of this piece may be lost to present day viewers but that doesn’t mean the onlooker can’t imagine, appreciating the lamp as both an artifact and a present day art form.

When approaching Anchorage International by air at night, lights from Girdwood to Wasilla appear on the horizon. Imagine the darkness these Dena’Ina endured thousands of years ago and how much appreciation came from a stone lamp.

Arrows for Sea Otter. Fort Kenai (1883).

Arrows for Sea Otter. Fort Kenai (1883).

Arrows, 1883, reside in an exhibition case like pencils in a desk drawer. While some tools are made from stone or bone, these have metal points. Were these projectiles made locally or was the metal traded? Someone had foresight to see that adding serrations to the blade anchored the material into the wooden shaft. Feathers had been attached to the other end of the arrows with sinew. Did these Dena’Ina know that feathers were needed for aerodynamics? How many animals suffered at the expense of misfires? Did hunters succumb to friendly fire? Was the shaman the only medical aid or psychological comfort?

Shaman Doll (1850-1900)

Shaman Doll (1850-1900)

Here is a shaman doll, 1850-1900, many were destroyed by Russian Orthodox clergy who sensed a competitive spirituality. Can viewers differentiate between a religious icon and a child’s toy?

Ground Squirrel Parka Susitna River (1898-1899).

Ground Squirrel Parka Susitna River (1898-1899).

It took many ground squirrels to make this parka, 1898-1899. This garment is not unlike Western clothing styles made after the 1920s. Except for the tailored sleeves, the piece hangs without any cinching to the waistline. Was it itchy to the skin? Was it washable? What if the person gained weight? Was there a thrift shop, of sorts, for unwanted clothing? In the late eighteen hundreds, Dena’Ina seamstresses began selling their work to tourists and seamen as art works, thus bypassing original functionality.

When does an art piece become an artifact or vice-versa? Is it the monetary value that settles the score or is it established institutions that make the call after they’ve scarfed up the loot? For centuries art philosophers have tried to separate form from content. In the late twentieth century content, not necessarily the intent of the original work, got superimposed on unsuspecting forms by self-declared critics. In the end artifacts need a narrative to enliven form which loses sensuality when stuffed in a box away from its origin and intent. One has only to observe animal abstractions found on utility items from past civilizations to realize narration has been a human necessity.

If a story isn’t offered, make one up and share it over afternoon tea and a crumpet with a friend. If you miss Dena’Ina, Way of Living, the catalog is filled with Chris Arend’s photography along with a cultural narration about efforts to preserve the past in the present. Oh, note: readers will learn that a major collection arranged for this show was abruptly pulled and remains in St. Petersburg because of a 2012 Russian government ruling that prevents loans to American institutions.

Dena’Inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi, available on Amazon.

About Jean Bundy

Jean Bundy is a writer/painter living in Anchorage. She holds degrees from The University of Alaska, The University of Chicago and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a member of AICA/USA. Jean is a PhD candidate with IDSVA. Her whaling abstracts and portraits have been shown from Barrow to New York City.


She can be reached at: 38144 [at] alaska [dot] net