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Dena’ina Athabascan Exhibit Wraps Up At Anchorage Museum

By | January 14, 2014

Sunday marked the final day of the Dena’ina Athabascan exhibit at the Anchorage Museum. A culmination of seven years of work, the exhibit reveals the art, history, culture and science of the lives of the people whose territory Anchorage now encompasses. Aaron Leggett is one of the curators and a Dena’ina tribal member. We walked through the exhibit one last time on Sunday. Leggett says thousands of Anchorage school children, residents and tourists visited during the four month run. The exhibit starts with a contemporary fish camp scene. One of Leggett’s favorite parts of the exhibit is a slide show of the Dena’ina people.

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The exhibit opens with a fish camp scene that is contemporary but displays cultural continuity for thousands of years.

Yes, at one time there were salmon cultures up and down both the east and west coasts and most of them are gone now. But in Alaska, certainly for the Dena’ina, the Yupik, the Tlingit in southeast, we still have sustainable wild salmon runs so this literally is an unbroken chain of activities that goes back thousands of years, our ability to go out and put up fish for the winter time. It varies from community to community, like in Eklutna, where I’m from, we have to have an educational permit, but nevertheless, it’s not about the number of fish, it’s about the activity, and being able to pass that on to future generations to know how to put in a net, how to catch fish, how to split fish, how to dry fish for the winter. It’s about the activity not the quantity necessarily.

So let’s walk on a little bit. We’re by the fish camp now. When we come into the next room, give us the visual here.

So in this gallery, this is organized around Dena’ina identity. And it takes you through Dena’ina life cycle. A slide show with photographs going back to the 1880s all the way up to contemporary photographs. There’s about 180 images and it takes about 12 minutes to watch, but I know Dena’ina people who have sat here and watched the entire slide show and they see pictures of their family. Themselves, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, it’s about people, not just objects from the past. It’s about our people and it’s about our people. So to have images from the 1880s up to last summer when some of these were taken. It shows the continuity over time, so despite all the changes that have occurred, the offices, the shopping malls, the movie theathers. This is still our homeland and we’re still here as a people.

When you were doing the research and collecting these items, you’re quite young, was it odd to think about. I imagine it gave you a better visual of what this area looked like, that is now so urbanized. What were your thoughts about that?

Yes. When I got into college and started to learn more, it really informed the place I lived in. It opened my eyes to think that when my grandmother was a child for example, we had fish camps here in Anchorage and they would go to them and we were able to put up thousands of fish. And in some ways it will be the lasting legacy of the exhibit. There’s no replacing seeing the actual exhibit but I know a hundred years from now that book will still be around and people can go to it to learn what for example this display case with traditional clothing that would have been worn during the 19th century. Tanned caribou hide and woven porcupine quill embroidery. It’s spectacular and really fine work. It’s a style of clothing that hasn’t been done during the 20th century. We actually don’t even know how it was done because the Dena’ina gave up that style by the 1880s. So it’s kind of eye opening even to our own people to see these things because we’ve heard stories about them but we’ve never really seen them up close and personal.

I would imagine that some elements of it stand out more than others for you. What are some of your favorites?

This identity slide show I really like, especially in the context of the exhibition. It really made a difference watching this go in and the difference seeing the objects in here without it and then with them, it really brings it to life and again, brings it back to the idea of a living people. Obviously the dioramas I love, the fish camp and the beluga harpoon. The case with the leadership regalia sticks out to me. The beluga spearer itself is quite a rare object. The only one in the world we have here. The story telling house is neat. To be able to sit down with the I pads and be able to select different stories in both English and Dena’ina. I love it all, but those are some of the things that pop into my mind. Also some of the films in the timeline came out very well, very impressed with being able to convey that history, both the Dena’ina resistance to early Russian occupation but also the Kenaitze Indian tribe struggle for the educational fishery during the 1980s. These are very important stories that aren’t told very often and so bringing that history out will open people’s eyes to the history of the area that we live in both from the distant past , from the late 1700s to something that happened in my lifetime in the 1980s.

One of the displays in this exhibit is the table top, describe that for people who haven’t been here.

Sure. It’s called the Dena’ina dining table.  We rented space here in Anchorage, had a special camera set up high above in the ceiling and it filmed down on the table and we had our eight advisors and myself included, who sat around the table with traditional Dena’ina foods and we had a meal. Everybody sat around and we talked about the food and the land and we had a good time. After we filmed it, we had a projector set up and it throws the image down on to an almost full sized table, so it’s almost a one to one table and people can stand around and watch us eat food and laugh and tell stories and have a good time. Of all the things related to the exhibition, visitor feedback, that’s the number one object. I wouldn’t have thought that but hands down, overwhelmingly, people respond to that dining table. I have to admit, even the first time I saw it, it looked very spectacular. We were able to achieve a really good effect.

What are you hoping that the residents of anchorage and people who have come here to see this, what are you hoping they go away with. What was the whole idea of what you were trying to achieve here?

I think number one, anybody who now, when they say Dena’ina, they can put an image to it. When I was a kid and I said Dena’ina, people would say ‘What’s that?’ and I’d say, we’re the people of this area and they would say, ‘well I didn’t know Natives used to live here,’ and I’d say well, we still live here. So, every time they see the Dena’ina center, they’ll now have an image of who the people are. That’s my hope, if I can think of anything, probably that people will have a visual reference or a quote or a place name or an object will come into their mind now. Because if you say Tlingit, something comes into your mind, if you say Yupik, something comes to mind, if you say Inupiaq, something comes to mind, but if you said Dena’ina, maybe nothing came to mind, so that would be it.

Aaron Leggett will receive the governor’s award for arts in the humanities later this month in Juneau.

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