Since Alaska is such a huge state, its climate varies greatly between the mild panhandle and the frigid Arctic. It is believed that the original residents all walked over from Asia, but where they ended their walk made a huge difference in their lives. We went to the Cultural Center today to learn more about the original inhabitants of Alaska. In a way their remoteness has helped them to retain their culture and traditions, although when the Russians began working their way east into the country, they brought the same diseases, arrogance, and selfishness that western Europeans inflicted on the natives in the lower 48. The natives here watched and learned and when final land settlements were made in 1972, they decided not to be segregated into reservations. The major tribes formed corporations and received a significant monetary settlement in addition to sizable chunks of land. Some of the tribal corporations managed this windfall well and are quite affluent today; others have squandered this opportunity. These days the wisest elders have determined that their young need to live in the modern world of technology and creature comforts, but also need to remember their roots. The culture center is an important part of the remembering.
The main building housed exhibits and artifacts and had a performance area where we saw Eskimo athletes and native dancers. Here in Anchorage native dance is part of the high school curriculum and the performers learned their dances at school rather than at home. The athletic competitions used to take place in the dark of winter. People cooped up inside would invent athletic events that would keep their physical skills sharp and help them pass the time. Eskimos have more in common with their Arctic neighbors in Canada, Scandinavia and Russia than Alaskans further south. They get together every two years for their own Olympic competitions using skills such as these we saw today.
We walked around the lake with a guide who explained the typical buildings representing the five major tribal groups in Alaska. Most of them were buried in the ground and covered with grass. In much of Alaska there are no trees. The Aleutians are buffeted with high winds that would blow over anything made with local materials. Most Arctic zones are above the tree line. The earthen homes we saw today would be dug into permafrost and were hard to build. Water would have to be boiled and used to melt the permafrost before it could be dug. In some towns it was easier to just build one big house and have everyone in town live together. In others a widowed man would have to leave his house and live communally so a young married couple could move in and not have to start digging from scratch. All these homes were furnished with fur on the floor, walls and ceiling. Everyone wore fur. It was the only way to survive. When we thought about people living in the dark for weeks on end in -60º temperatures, it was hard to imagine how they did it, even as we heard the explanation. The natives in the panhandle had it much better. They lived in rain forests and could build their homes from the massive trees that grow there. Their diet had much more variety and included lots of green stuff in addition to seafood.
Today native folks all live in homes or trailers. Most have electricity and the internet. Access to running water is still a problem in some towns. Health problems are a huge challenge. In many areas the hospital and other medical services are a long plane ride away. Natives eat a combination of the sorts of foods familiar to us and the walrus, seal, whale and salmon that their parents ate exclusively. Distance learning has helped the young people to learn about the world they are physically often not a part of. Some of the languages their elders spoke have been forgotten and others are hanging by a thread. But just like we have become more sensitive to endangered animals and plants, we are also concerned about what's being lost on the human scale. The Alaskan Culture Center should help.