OPINION: The Anchorage Museum as a healing space for Indigenous people

I woke up on Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, Feb. 16, excited for the day. I had picked out my outfit for this special day, a black dress with shell buttons lovingly sewn along the hem, my culture bearer grandmother’s blood red bead necklace, and my mother’s carved silver bracelet. I had recently leaned into learning and connecting with my Lingít culture, found healing I didn’t know was needed, and kindled a new identity that warmly celebrates being Indigenous. I planned to visit the Anchorage Museum and to sit with the Lingít regalia displayed there. I had been filled with happiness and pride at the Anchorage Museum’s decision to allow free admission for Alaska Native peoples. To be near the cultural items that belong to Lingít people, that were sewn, fashioned, created and used by real flesh and blood ancestors holds great meaning and comfort. Specifically, I wanted to gaze at an octopus bag that I never tire of seeing, to spur my creativity as I prepare to make my own octopus bag for the first time. I wanted to go to the Anchorage museum to be and feel near to my culture, and to my ancestors.

My heart hurt and my anger swelled when I learned that this decision had been paused in the face of community backlash. In less than two weeks, this beautiful move by the Anchorage Museum — to strengthen relations with Alaska Native communities, honor the cultural items within its walls and the Dena’ina lands on which it is built — was attacked in an opinion piece entitled, “What is the Anchorage museum thinking?” In it, author Donald Craig Mitchell outlined thinly veiled legal arguments that the museum would violate the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment by offering free admission to Alaska Native people.

Labeling museum admission as a government benefit, he argued this is discriminatory to non-Alaska Native people. (No need to point out that the 14th Amendment seemed less relevant in the government’s historical dealings with Indigenous communities in Alaska.) For example, the attempted genocide (a.k.a colonization) of Alaska Native people and lands, first by Russia and later the United States, after our children were sent to boarding schools to “Kill the Indian in (them) and save the man,” as Richard Henry Pratt said, and after cultural ways and languages were prohibited. The results of which inflicted the most severe, devastating, and vile collective wounds in Indigenous communities that have yet to heal.

What is puzzling is that Mitchell’s career has been centered around representing Alaska Native organizations, causes, and interests — from serving in Bethel for the Alaska Legal Services Corp., vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and all the way to Washington, D.C. For $84, you can purchase his book, “Sold American: The Story of Alaska Natives and their Land 1867 – 1959,″ which describes how “Alaska Natives have participated in the efforts of non-Natives to turn Alaska’s bountiful natural resources into dollars, and documents how Alaska Natives, non-Natives, and the society they jointly forged have been changed because of it.” While I doubt this is the narrative that many Indigenous peoples and communities would corroborate, what is perhaps most perplexing is how someone with Mitchell’s résumé has such disdain for an act of goodwill toward the very people his career has been centered around. Mitchell ended by criticizing the Anchorage Assembly for making explicit their support for decolonization and acknowledging the Dena’ina lands on which we work and live, referring to it as mere zeitgeist. Community backlash, whether through legal arguments or otherwise, displays undercurrents of racial violence and prejudice against the Indigenous peoples of this land.

The relationship between museums and Indigenous peoples has historically been conflictual due to practices such as procuring cultural objects and even human remains that were stolen, resulting in the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Museums have often failed to request permission from communities to display their cultural items. Moreover, cultural items may often mean much more than “art” or “artifacts,” they may frequently be imbued with deep spiritual significance. A lack of collaboration with Indigenous communities has also resulted in the portrayal of our communities through a limited Western narrative. For example, displaying Indigenous communities as extinct or irrelevant rather than vital contributors to modern society.

Thankfully, there is a fresh movement by museums across the nation to change course toward a respectful relationship with Indigenous communities and creating exhibits that honor and uplift culture. Utah’s prehistoric museum announced its move toward free admission for enrolled tribal members during Native American Heritage Month in November of 2023. The press release described this “small gesture aims to honor the descendent communities of those cultures and helps highlight the Native American heritage underlying our museum…” The School for Advanced Research put forth the comprehensive, Standards for Museums with Native American Collections and as one of their recommendations highlights “recognizing that Native peoples have an inherent right to access their tangible and intangible cultural heritage.”

When I walk into the Anchorage Museum and see artwork fashioned of salmon skins as part of the Salmon Culture exhibit, the contemporary works of Lingít and Unangax̂ artist Nicholas Galanin, and my ever-favorite octopus bag, I see that the Anchorage Museum is not just working to comply with mandates or appease public pressures to respect diversity. Rather, the beauty of the Indigenous peoples of Alaska — in the past and present — courses through and hangs proudly on their walls. I see their efforts to build and maintain a strong and respectful relationship with Alaska Native peoples.


For those who find themselves agitated, uncomfortable, or otherwise provoked by the thought of Alaska Native people receiving free museum admission, there is an opportunity for self-reflection and curiosity. Perhaps there is a change in power dynamics, assumptions, or worldviews that is contributing to the angst — and if so, an opportunity to consider seeking change and personal growth. Take the opportunity to learn about the histories of Alaska Native people, told by Alaska Native people. Go to the Alaska Native Heritage Center and look at the freshly raised healing totem pole. Build relationships with Alaska Native people, and better yet sit with an Elder. Perhaps even pay a (gasp) full-price ticket to the Anchorage Museum. If you work to build relationships with Alaska Native people, learn about our cultures and what it means to be an ally, I wonder what would happen to any adversarial feelings about free museum admission for Alaska Native people.

To the Anchorage Museum, I say aatlein gunalchéesh and I gu.aa yáx̱ xʼwán! (Lingít for a big thank you and have courage). For myself, I have donated to the Anchorage Museum. I have shared my voice here. What will you do to stand up against the currents of racism and prejudice in our beautiful lands? How will you contribute to a more perfect union?

Aandáchjoon Alicia F. Marvin is Lingít, a lifelong Alaskan, and committed to supporting healthy communities and culture.

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