ArtBeat: 'Idols' are difficult to come by at Alaska Native Heritage Center

Mike Dunham

I have to confess confusion at the announcement by a certain small out-of-state religious group that they planned to protest the Alaska Native Heritage Center on June 1 on the ground that "God hates your idols." We're not naming the protest group here since it already gets way more publicity than the population of the congregation reasonably allows. Their headline-generating tactics include picketing funerals of members of the U.S. military -- which strikes me as a great way to make the wrong impression about whatever message you're trying to communicate. Some observers say the group doesn't always keep their promised appearances.

Anyway, the perplexing part is the idols. I've spent a lot of time at the Heritage Center as a visitor, reporter, picking up or dropping off staff and even as a member of wedding parties, the latter all being mainstream ceremonies with clergy present. I know each display and exhibit by heart. I think I can find my way around the place in the dark.

But I don't remember seeing any idols, nothing that fits Webster's primary definition: "an image of a god, used as an object or instrument of worship."

Unquestionably, there are decorated items on display: art, clothing, tools, masks, houseposts and totems. You might call some of the artifacts or photographs "iconic" in the broad, and I think erroneous, sense of the word. But I've met most of the makers and artists and none of them ever hinted that they considered their creations anything but expressive or functional art or craft. They tend to strike me as Christians of the serious sort who show up at the Native Musicale hymn-fest during Fur Rendezvous, though some style themselves as secular humanists. None, so far as I know, practice idolatry to any degree beyond most other artists whose work is found in galleries and museums around Alaska.

Perhaps the protesters are employing "idol" in an alternate definition, as "any object of ardent or excessive devotion or admiration." Admittedly, the Heritage Center has a couple of items that I ardently, if not excessively, admire. The fancy parkas that sometimes appear in the gift shop. David Boxley's drum box. The indoor-size shark totem in the main lobby and the big pole by the Southeast site.

Master carver Nathan Jackson, who had a hand in both of those totems, understands totemic imagery and protocol as well as anyone alive. He is a pretty devout gentleman insofar as I can judge piety. He's made trips to the Holy Land where he's been involved in various charitable projects.

Then there's St. John's United Methodist Church, 1801 O'Malley Road, where we're told not one but two totems addressing the Easter story are on display today. At least one is outdoors, so you can drive by and take a look. They were carved by retired Rev. David Fison, one time pastor at Metlakatla. He's also executed at least one Christmas totem.

By the way, Happy Easter.

Maybe the protesters are referring to money. For a lot of people, including myself too much of the time, Dollar Almighty is something nearly divine. But how will they get to Alaska if they don't deal in money? I don't know how many people have actually walked from Kansas to Anchorage, but the number can't be large.

Webster's gives an additional current definition of "idol" as "a false notion or idea that causes errors in thinking or reasoning." Like the notion that anyone will care if three people, two under the age of 9, spend a chilly June morning waving signs in the parking lot while a couple hundred tourists walk through the center. That definition may be the most applicable here.

You can inspect the Alaska Native Heritage Center for any idols later this week for free. A fundraiser for Minto Denakkanaaga will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, April 25. There'll be refreshments, performances by Pamyua and other musicians, a silent auction and Chinese auction. There'll be gift certificates and a great deal of Native art and craft work offered.

Funds raised by the auction will help fund the annual Denakkanaaga Elders & Youth Conference, taking place in Minto in June, to help the Minto Village Council to cover meals, housing and other expenses for the 400-500 people expected to attend. Admission, as we said, is free.

It's reported that a counter-demonstration is planned for June 1, assuming the anti-idolators show up. But a counter-demonstration seems like exactly the extra attention they're hoping for.

A more constructive counter-protest would be to attend Friday's Minto fundraiser and spend generously. The center is located at 8800 Heritage Center Drive. If you just want to make a donation, email or

Archaeology Month events

The Alaska Anthropological Association has several free public events planned for April, Alaska Archeology Month. You can get additional details at, but here's a quick list of Anchorage area happenings:

7 p.m. April 21, Alaska Public Lands Information Center (the old Federal Building, 605 W. Fourth Ave.), "The secret second wave: a hidden chapter in the ancient human settlement of the American Arctic," a public talk at which National Park Service archeologist Jeff Rasic will discuss the period about 4,000 years ago in northern Alaska, which marked one of the longest and fastest migrations in human history.

7:30 p.m. April 22, UAA/APU Consortium Library Room 307, "The Role of Hunting at Neolithic Çatalhöyük: A Contextural Analysis of Projectile Points," a lecture by Lilian Dogiama examining why the ancient people of Çatalhöyük, Turkey so revered wild foods and animals even after making an economic shift to farming.

Noon-5 p.m. May 2, Alaska Native Heritage Center, the 16th Annual Alaska Atlatl Fun and Throw. Activities include using atlatl darts to hunt mock-ups of rhino, bison, and woolly mammoth, as well as hunting a seal from a kayak. The free event is for ages 8 and up. The mouth of the Yukon may be the only place in America where atlatls ("throw sticks") are still used as practical hunting tools. Contact: Richard VanderHoek, 269-8728.

May 13-16, Campbell Creek Science Center, the 40th Annual Outdoor Week at the Campbell Tract. This is a cooperative effort to get sixth-graders outdoors and teach them about Alaska's great resources and prehistoric Alaska. Contact: Jenny Blanchard, 267-1341.

Outside Anchorage:

6:30 p.m. April 22, UAF Northwest Campus Conference Room in Nome. Jeff Rasic will present the same lecture he presents in Anchorage on April 21.

10 a.m.-2 p.m. April 22, Fort Wainwright Physical Fitness Center, Building 3709 in Fairbanks. Colorado State University archeologists and natural resources specialists will help students of all ages construct model caribou skin tents, and participate in other Earth Day crafts and activities. Contact: Julie Esdale, (907) 361-9405.

6:30 p.m. April 23, Shaktoolik School. Jeff Rasic will present the same lecture he presents in Anchorage on April 21 and in Nome April 22.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.