Alaska News

Elders peek into past while helping sort museum's photo collection

Among political groups peddling their agendas and Alaska Native artists selling authentic goods at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention Friday was a booth scattered with a series of folders containing more than 500 photographs from Alaska Native communities.

The images, brought to the convention by the Anchorage Museum in hopes that passers-by could identify people and places shown in them, sparked nostalgia as elders took turns browsing in hopes of seeing an old friend, a grandparent or a unique trait of their home communities.

"They are very nice to look at because I have lived here (in Anchorage) for the last 21 years, and I haven't looked at anyone wearing parkas and coats like that. We have to wear Columbia coats in this city," said Anita Okomailuk, who was herself wearing a black Columbia jacket.

Okomailuk wouldn't say her age -- just that she is over 50. She said she moved to Anchorage from Barrow in the mid-1990s.

She was searching through the folder labeled "North," one of eight folders separating images by the region in which museum staff believe they were taken. As she ran her fingertips across the photographs, she picked up a No. 2 pencil and began scribbling on the side of one image: "Luther Leavitt Sr."

The man in the picture is standing in only trousers and what appears to be a thin jacket and is next to a big whale, which the townspeople, in the background, are about to butcher and share.

Okomailuk said Leavitt lived across the street from where she grew up.

"He was a badass whaler if I ever saw one," said Okomailuk. "And he was not a stingy man -- he fed the entire village.

"He would catch a whale in the morning and they'd have it all butchered before the night was over."

According to Teressa Williams, the Anchorage Museum's Atwood Resource Center manager and librarian, it is hard to fact-check the information provided by attendees at AFN, but there is really no other way to gather the information.

"There are little discrepancies," said Williams. "But you know, people moved around."

Williams said most of the pictures were donated in collections that had been handed down from family and friends to the donors. "They are from average people from the community and Lower 48."

The 505 pictures at AFN are part of the museum's much larger collection of images, which Williams said consists of about half a million images. Last year, when AFN was held in Fairbanks, the museum brought just more than 400 images, and people were able to identify faces in half of those, she said.

But the pictures have provided more than just information. Williams said those looking through them experience little flashbacks into the past, sparking them to share stories and smiles with the strangers sitting next to them at the booth.

As a thank-you from the museum, people who took time to look through the photos will be given two free prints of any pictures they choose. Williams said the prints should be sent out within a couple of weeks.

Megan Edge

Megan Edge is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.