Experiencing Alaska's Indigenous cultures
Depending on where you travel in Alaska, you might have dozens of opportunities to learn about the state’s Indigenous peoples and cultures, whether you visit Saxman Native Village near Ketchikan, hear stories about Glacier Bay from a Huna Tlingit cultural guide or watch artists working on their Umiaqs for whaling season at the Iñupiat Heritage Center.
Alaska’s 11 distinct Native cultures are spread across the state, with Iñupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik peoples living in the Arctic; Athabascans living in Southcentral and Interior Alaska; Yup’ik & Cup’ik, Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) Native peoples in Southwest Alaska; and Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit tribes in Southeast Alaska.
Joe Williams, Jr. (Tlingit), who owns Where The Eagle Walks, a walking tour company in Ketchikan, encourages anyone traveling to Alaska to take the time to understand that each of these ethnic groups — their traditions, stories, languages, etc. — are different.
“My hope for travelers is to truly see and experience Alaska through an Indigenous lens. Engage in cultural tourism and learn from the First People of this land,” says Emily Edenshaw, who is Yup’ik/Iñupiaq and the executive director of the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. “Alaska Natives have been here for more than 10,000 years and we will know more about any mountain, river or glacier than [anyone else] in the state.”
Edenshaw continues, “I encourage travelers to do research before they come to Alaska. If you don’t know where to look, please feel free to reach out to the Alaska Native Heritage Center and participate in one of our Cultural Awareness Workshops. I would also encourage travelers to learn our languages. Any effort to speak in any of our 20 Alaska Native languages will be appreciated. Last but certainly not least, please try and visit rural communities as they are the strength of our community.”
Many operators around the state assist travelers who seek to visit these rural communities. For example, Northern Alaska Tour Company takes visitors to Utqiagvik, Anaktuvuk Pass and more. St. Paul Island Tour guides travelers on its small island rich with birding opportunities and cultural experiences. Travelers to Southeast Alaska especially have numerous options to participate in Alaska Native-owned visitor operations.
“The communities of Ketchikan, Saxman, Sitka, Juneau, Hoonah, and Klukwan each have clan houses and facilities that are designed to immerse visitors in opportunity to learn the complexity of Tlingit culture and art,” said Ricardo Worl, marketing and development director at Sealaska Heritage Institute. “Tribally owned, cultural operations differ immensely from typical high-volume commercial tours in that education and cultural engagement drives their purpose. Participants ultimately discover that the culture is much more than the art objects and dance performances, and that the Native community provides significant contributions to the economy, public policy, education, social well-being and the arts."
In Sitka specifically, Camille Ferguson, the economic development director of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, recommends visiting the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House and Sitka National Historical Park. “[The park] is an excellent exhibit of Tlingit history representing the past as well as an opportunity to interact with artisans who practice traditional and modern Native art,” she says. She recommends seeking out elders and knowledgeable tribal people who also understand tourism or have experience working with visitors. Sitka Tribal Tours is a great place to start.
Similarly for travelers who visit Icy Strait Point, an Alaska Native-owned cruise ship destination near Juneau, Huna Totem Corporation CEO Russell Dick recommends meeting Jeff and Lisa Skaflestad. “Listen as Lisa shares the healing powers of locally-harvested roots and plants. Watch Jeff carve in the Huna Tlingit style of Formline art. It is more than a demonstration; the Skaflestads utilize Huna values in their daily lives.”
Dick continues, “Alaska is one of the few places around the world where you can meet the aboriginal people. From Glacier Bay National Park, travelers learn the history of Huna Tlingit. Then at Icy Strait Point, visitors meet the descendants still practicing our traditional way of life. Alaska is full of time-tested traditions. More than ever, travelers seek real connections with our Native culture.”
Ferguson leaves travelers with some advice. “Visitors to Alaska Native communities should be respectful in boundaries pertaining to sacred places, art, photos and videoing performance (gain permission first). With our ‘new normal,’ it will be good to understand visitor protocols pertaining to social distancing and disease prevention.”
To learn more about engaging with Alaska Native cultures during your vacation, continue reading here. And order a vacation planner today.
Editor’s note: The health and safety of Alaska’s visitors and residents, along with its member businesses, remains a top priority to the Alaska Travel Industry Association throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Alaska tourism businesses are open under the Reopen Alaska Responsibly plan and can help you decide if it’s right for you to travel now or in the future. We encourage you to stay in touch with your travel providers for the latest updates and travel requirements.