Living Our Dream travel blog

Classroom at Denakkanaaga, an organization that serves as a voice for Native...

Luke, First Chief of Denakkanaaga, sharing his life story with us

Sharon, Exec.Dir., telling us more about Athabascan culture & tradition & present...

Trip to Large Animal Research Station, University of Alaska

Musk Ox, a mammal that has resided in AK & surrounding area...

Presentation about musk ox, cairibou & reindeer

Caribou or reindeer???? Can you tell which it is?

Caribou or reindeer?????

Our day began at the Morris Thompson Cultural Center where the offices of Denakkanaaga, our Fairbanks hosts, are located. Denakkanaaga is a non-profit educational organization founded by the local Athabascan Elders of the indigenous tribe of Interior Alaska. Denakkanaaga means "Our People Speak".

The Athabascans have inhabited Interior Alaska for at least 6,000 years, making up the largest group of indigenous people in North America. They are often referred to as Dene meaning "the people". Descent is traced through maternal lines. Historically nomadic, today most live in permanent settlements, mainly along rivers. They are experts at hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering and still tend to live a subsistence lifestyle, supplemented with goods from community stores. Tradition calls for elders to make all major decisions.

Around 800-1,000 years ago some migrated from Alaska into Canada and as far south as Arizona and New Mexico.

A highlight of the day was Luke, an elder and chief, telling of his life experiences and his overcoming of the trauma experienced as a child being forcibly separated from his parents and placed in an Alaska native boarding school. This was common practice between the late 19th and mid 20th centuries for the purpose of reprogramming Native American children into American culture.

Children as young as 5 were taken. Parents had no choice but to turn their children over to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Any resistance meant jail. The children were forced to abandon their native identities and culture, forbidden to speak their indigenous language (often seriously punished if caught speaking it), had their real names replaced with "christian" names, and taught that everything they knew previously was evil.

Can you imagine being a young child, taken from your family and familiar surroundings, not knowing what was happening to you, not understanding what the people around you were saying, perhaps being put on an airplane when you had never even seen one before, being taken to a place with mountains and forests when all you had ever seen was the arctic plains? How many children today are being put through a similar experience?

On a positive note: Many learned skills they wouldn't have had without these schools, had an opportunity to learn about the outside world beyond their villages and had successful careers as a result.

After lunch at Denakkanaaga, we had a field trip to the Large Animal Research Station, run by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. We got to observe and learn about 3 large herbivorous land mammals - caribou, reindeer and musk oxen. The musk ox is a large shaggy animal that has been in Alaska and the surrounding area since the last ice age. Although they once roamed throughout the northern regions of North America they were forced out of Alaska more than a century ago due to climatic and environmental changes. They were transplanted back into the area in the 1930s from Greenland and now number about 4,000.

Reindeer and caribou are actually the same species; the reindeer have been domesticated while the caribou have remained wild. Reindeer were domesticated in Scandinavia 2000 years ago and brought to Alaska around 1900 in an attempt to provide Alaska natives with a stable food source. Reindeer are slight shorter and stouter than caribou and don't make the long migrations that caribou make.

Free time this evening. Some of us chose to have dinner in the Bear Lodge dining room.

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