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First major exhibit of Alaska's Dena'ina people opens at Anchorage Museum

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 13, 2013

The old caribou antler speaks of troubled times in northern Cook Inlet, times of bloodshed and war. It's a war club. The handle uses the natural curve of the antler to maximize the power of the blow. Leather straps reinforce the shaft and secure the warrior's grip on the weapon. At the tip is a sharpened stone. Carvings line the weapon -- decorations? Charms? A record of kills?

The club is one of more than 160 items related to the Dena'ina -- the Athabascan group that has lived in the Anchorage area for the last millennium or so -- assembled from collections around the world and included in the first major museum exhibit devoted to that culture.

The Anchorage Museum is offering free admission for the opening of "Dena'inaq' Huch'ulyeshi: The Dena'ina Way of Living" on Sunday. The exhibit will remain on display through Jan. 12, 2014.

In addition to the antiquities loaned by the Smithsonian Institution, Yale-Peabody Museum, museums in Germany, Denmark, England -- and even a high school in Finland -- "Dena'inaq' Huch'ulyeshi" includes contemporary displays, film, audio, learning stations and hands-on installations. There's a reproduction of a traditional log house where visitors can listen to Dena'ina stories. There's a "talking" moose. And an array of photos, text and talks that trace the story of the Dena'ina from prehistory to the present day.

Invisible people

The Dena'ina traditionally lived in what is now the most populous part of Alaska, a region stretching from Seldovia and Lake Iliamna to Talkeetna and from Chickaloon in the Matanuska Valley to Lime Village on a tributary of the Kuskokwim River. Modern Anchorage sits more or less in the middle.

It is estimated that there were about 5,000 Dena'ina when Captain James Cook made the first recorded contact by Europeans in 1778. Russian traders followed with guns and goods that began the transformation of local society. Gold brought stampeders to Hope and the Talkeetnas. The Iditarod Trail brought commerce from the port of Seward to the Interior. Disease reduced the Dena'ina population and intermarriage diluted it.

Perhaps the biggest change came on the eve of World War I when Ship Creek became the headquarters for the U.S. government's railroad. What had previously been a seasonal hunting and fish camp location became, in the blink of an eye, a modern American city, Anchorage, the hub of business in the territory, the buckle connecting the gold wealth of Fairbanks and the transportation corridor of the Yukon River with the docks of the industrialized world.

Today, Anchorage is known as "Alaska's largest Native village." But that generally refers to Alaska Native residents who, like the non-Native Anchorage, Kenai and Mat-Su population, trace their roots somewhere outside the immediate region: Southeast, Bristol Bay, the Interior and the Arctic.

The Dena'ina themselves are a minority in their traditional territory. The total population of the Kenai, Mat-Su and Anchorage is about 500,000 but only 2,000 people identifying themselves as Dena'ina are enrolled in various Native corporations.

"We became invisible in the community, invisible to each other," said elder Clare Swan, one of the Dena'ina advisors who have worked on the exhibit with the museum for the past seven years.

Counteracting that invisibility is a major reason for "Dena'inaq' Huch'ulyeshi."

Pushing back

"I first heard talk about this exhibition in 2006," said Aaron Leggett, one of the curators. Leggett is a Dena'ina from Eklutna, the historic Athabascan village within the boundaries of modern Anchorage. "I got involved and one of the first things I had to do was find out if there were enough items to even do an exhibition."

Few old Dena'ina objects have remained in the possession of Dena'ina families, he said; an elegant dress on display from the Iliamna area is a rare exception. The catalogs of American and European collections weren't always clear, either, a problem that went all the way back to the first contact.

"Captain Cook wasn't that interested in collecting things," said Leggett. "His stuff is scattered all over the world." Researchers are still chasing down and trying to identify Cook memorabilia to this day. Nonetheless, a bowl made from a sheep horn and traded to Cook by Dena'ina people is part of the exhibit, as is an exquisitely detailed knife sheath made from porcupine quills and acquired by George Vancouver, the English navigator who followed up on Cook's voyages to the Pacific Northwest.

One reason why Dena'ina material from the early contact years is hard to find has to do with the tribe's fierce resistance to the Russian incursion. The exhibit recounts how several trading posts in the area were attacked and destroyed. A remnant of the garrison at Kenai escaped by the skin of their teeth.

Orthodox missionaries maintained a tenuous presence but traders remained a sore point for years afterward, even after the United States purchased Russia's claims on the territory in 1867. An Alaska Commercial Company manager, George Holt, was killed in Knik in 1885, leading to altercations with Ahtna Athabascans who traded in the area that lasted for years. (A recent essay on the incident by Coleen Mielke can be found here.)

Everything decorated

By the 20th century, the battles were over. More miners, traders, trappers, homesteaders and cannery operators from the Lower 48 poured into the area where smallpox and flu had already decimated the indigenous population. The federal government built the railroad, military posts, courthouses and schools where Native ways and speech were squelched.

Nonetheless, the array of daily items from traditional Dena'ina life on display in the exhibit is impressive and beautiful.

"People don't think of Dena'ina objects as being particularly visual," said Leggett, "like the Tlingit or the Yup'ik. But everything we've been able to identify has some sort of decoration. They decorated everything."

The designs are primarily geometrical, like the pottery of the Dena'ina's southern cousins, the Navajo. There are few depictions of humans or animals on the scope of the totems of Southeast or the masks of Western Alaska.

Much of the decoration is in the detailed use of beads and dentalium shells. The visitor can see mittens, parkas, footwear, headgear, bags and baskets -- almost all with beadwork. There are several drinking tubes, shafts used to take a sip from fast-moving streams or, in the case of stagnant water, to go below the scum on the surface; they were apparently carried on fancy lanyards by nearly everyone.

Fish traps and snares are on view. So are arrows and spears, including a whaling harpoon. One of the most dramatic displays is a diorama showing a man hunting beluga the old way -- from the roots of a tree stuck upside down in Cook Inlet mud. It comes with a video showing contemporary hunters using skiffs and guns.

Another diorama greets visitors as they enter the exhibit; it's a replica of the Evanoff family fish camp near Nondalton.

There are headphones at the story-telling station where several people can listen to different tales at once, a film showing a table with typical Native fare, a place where people can make their own "counting strings," a way of keeping track of important events. A large map of Anchorage lets modern residents discover the Dena'ina names and history associated with their neighborhood.

And the talking moose. Actually, a mounted bull borrowed from the museum's Alaska wing and adorned with numbers on various parts of its anatomy. Push a button on an interactive screen and you hear the Dena'ina phrase for the animal's hump, hindquarter or neck, and phrases like, "I saw a beautiful moose."

Reclaiming the long-suppressed language may prove more difficult than locating the far-flung artifacts.

"Anyone can get the nouns," Leggett explained. "But the Athabascan verb is one of the most linguistically complex things the human mind has ever come up with."

For example, totally different words are used for "pick up," depending on if you're picking up something firm, like a knife, or flexible, like paper, or something containing something else, like a cup. And there are different words depending on who is doing the picking up and when they're doing it.

Fortunately, enough speakers have remained that the exhibit designers have been able to present it in a living and contemporary form. The present is as much a part of "Dena'inaq' Huch'ulyeshi" as the past. A timeline describes the Native Land Claims movement. The figures in the fish camp diorama are in modern dress and using such contemporary artifacts as plastic buckets.

Final battle

But some mysteries remain. Like the markings on the war club.

"We can only speculate," said Leggett. "The meaning's been lost. The same thing goes for the designs on the clothing."

It is entirely possible, however, that the club mentioned above and a similar weapon on display drew blood.

"They would still have been in use in the middle of the 19th century," Leggett said.

Perhaps they saw action in the fight between local Indians and a raiding party from Prince William Sound, said to be the last intertribal battle in Dena'ina territory.

Alutiiq raiders made a surprise attack on a Dena'ina settlement on Knik Arm, making off with the daughter of a chief. The Dena'ina regrouped and pursued the raiders down the shore, catching up with them and killing all but two. The pair of survivors were sent back to Prince William Sound with instructions to warn their kinsmen to stay out of Dena'ina country.

The battle is said to have taken place around 1850. Dena'ina lore specifies the location as Point Campbell, the west end of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, between the tide and the idyllic bike paths and ski trails of today's Kincaid Park.

An illustration based on the elders' stories shows that it was fought with clubs.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

"DENA'INAQ' HUCH'ULYESHI: THE DENA'INA WAY OF LIVING" will be on display through Jan. 12, 2014, at the Anchorage Museum, 625 C St. Admission is free on opening day, Sunday. Events associated with the exhibit include:

Opening Celebration, 1-3 p.m. Sunday. Native dancers and a traditional welcome by Dena'ina elders are featured.

Brown Bag Film Series, "Ye'uh Qa Ts'dalts'iyi: Living Dena'ina," noon Wednesday. This is the story of how a family lives off the land in anticipation of an ancient prophecy.

Cook Inlet Historical Society Lecture, 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Aaron Leggett with the Anchorage Museum and James Fall with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will present an overview of recent efforts to increase the visibility of the Dena'ina people in Southcentral Alaska.

Bus Tour: Dena'ina Destination, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sept. 28. Leggett leads a tour of important Dena'ina sites in the Anchorage Bowl. Boxed lunch included. $35. Register at

Exhibit events

Smithsonian Spotlight, 7 p.m. Oct. 3. Alaska composer Craig Coray discusses recordings of Dena'ina songs made by his father in 1954.

Brown Bag Film Series, "We're Still Here," noon Oct. 16. A documentary follows efforts by Kenaitze Tribe members to revive traditional fishing rights.

Cook Inlet Historical Society Lecture, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17. Historian Alan Boraas discusses the importance of salmon in Dena'ina life.

Intertribal Gathering/Dena'ina Day, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Nov. 2. The gathering is free at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Brown Bag Film Series, "Tebughna: The Beach People," noon Nov. 13

Dena'ina Quillwork Workshop, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Nov. 16-17. $230. Register online.

Smithsonian Spotlight, 7 p.m. Nov. 7. Leggett gives an insider view of the exhibit.

Alaska Native Heritage Day, 2-4 p.m. Nov. 10. Free admission is courtesy Wells Fargo.

Smithsonian Spotlight, 7 p.m. Dec. 5. Artist Joel Isaak talks about his work, which includes several of the items seen in the exhibit.

Brown Bag Film Series, "Talking Alaska: Shem Pete," noon Dec. 11.

Brown Bag Film Series, "Tyonek Potlatch," noon Jan. 8