The Alaskan Native Heritage Center
The History of the Indians

Anchorage, AK

July 26th, 2002

One of our adventures was to the Alaskan Native Heritage Center. Here we learned about the 5 Indian tribes that exist in Alaska. Indians inhabited Alaska long before recorded history. They are believed to be older than the Egyptians. Archeological records have been found dating back to around 8000 BC. One popular belief is that sometime back then, on a particularly bad winter, the Bering Straits, which separates Alaska from Siberia froze over and a nomadic people crossed over to find a land completely devoid of human life. A far more plausible possibility was the creation of the subcontinent of Beringia which is believed to have connected Asia and Alaska during the last ice age. Either of these theories would make the tribes of Alaska the oldest humans on the continent. Unfortunately, they did not possess a written language so no official record exists. This makes any belief concerning their arrival subject to challenge. Although separated for thousands of years, they share remarkably similar beliefs and life styles. Physically, they cannot be told apart, and today many of the dozens of different languages, which they once spoke, have been lost or are in the process of disappearing. It has always been a harsh and often brutal existence and so most of their life styles were dictated by the environment. This lent itself to the creation of similar if not exact methods of hunting, fishing and the building of shelters. Outside the center is a large bronze statue of the Raven deity, a creature that has mystical powers in the eyes of many natives; one of which is to change itself into other animals, including man. The main area of the entrance is broken up into a stage, gift shop and a museum where many of the artistic skills were being demonstrated. These skills once used to enhance and adorn an otherwise often bleak life have now been turned into small cottage industries; everything from ulu knives, the traditional knife of the Eskimo, to caribou head drums were being fashioned on a line of tables along one wall. I stood for a while and watched Jerry Lieb Jr, carefully finishing up a drum. It is the primary musical instrument of Native Alaskans. The drum and singing comprise all the music of the tribes. From what I was able to ascertain during the 30 minute show, the drums were beaten without variation. A steady one stroke evenly spaced sound accompanied by a chanting involving no more then a dozen words or so. The dance, like the drumbeat showed very little variation. It was comprised mostly of short even steps creating slow turns and an occasional lateral lunge. The costumes were mostly of blankets utilizing red and black as basic colors. The back of the blankets were embroidered, including a large number of various size buttons, which were formed into tribal patterns,which identified each dancer with his particular tribe and clan. These took the form of the animals, which those clans lived on. Bears, eagles and whales were used in soft edged designs with the traditional large eyes. From here we went out into the fenced-in yard, which has a small lake as its centerpiece. Each of the 5 tribes took up a portion of land adjacent to the water. Here, prominent aspects of the tribe's lifestyle were displayed along with a native from that tribe who talked about life as it once was. Again, I found more similarities than differences. An added attraction was the labeling of many of the plants that grew freely around the lake. These labels gave short insights into what the Indians used it for and how it was prepared or treated. 
The Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people form the tribe that inhabits the southeast island area of Alaska. Such towns as Juneau and Skagway were once the hunting ground of these people. These tribes stand out with the greatest differences. They utilized the giant cedar trees to make everything from canoes to totem poles. They lived entirely above ground in clan houses and had the most formal government based on the clan system. The warmer coastal area provided abundant fish and game, as well as fruits  and berries. 


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