The Sharing Knowledge Project
“Esghallghilnguq [what you do not see],
Nagaqullghilnguq [do not hear],
Nanghiillghilnguq [do not experience],
Nalluksaghqaq [you will never really know].”
– Iyaaka (Anders Apassingok, St. Lawrence Island Yupik)
From Sivuqam Nangaghnegha: Siivanllemta Ungipaqellghat
(Lore of St. Lawrence Island: Echoes of our Eskimo Elders)
Through the Sharing Knowledge project, Alaska Native Elders, tribal representatives, scholars and artists shared their knowledge about cultural heritage objects at Smithsonian museums, collaborating with Arctic Studies Center staff to create the Sharing Knowledge website and the basis for the exhibition Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska at the Anchorage Museum.
Between 2001 and 2005, forty-five Alaska Native Elders and tribal representatives from across Alaska traveled with Aron Crowell to Washington, DC to conduct research at the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of Natural History, where they discussed cultural objects ranging from ceremonial and spiritual items to objects reflecting traditional subsistence and village life. Some of the items – boots and parkas stitched with sinew and caribou hair, woven baskets of grass and spruce fibers, wooden dance masks, hunting weapons, carvings of walrus ivory and much, much more – are up to 150 years old. Others were made in recent decades of the 20th century. In materials
and design, they embody a whole way of life on the land as well as Indigenous ways of seeing and celebrating the connections between human beings and the natural world.
The uses and meanings of the objects come to life in the words of the Alaska Native experts. Many learned the intricate skills of skin sewing, kayak building, trapping and hunting when they were young, and they examine the old museum objects with practiced eyes. Estelle Oosevaseuk, from the village of Gambell, described how St. Lawrence Island boot makers measure their patterns on reindeer and bearded seal skins using a system of finger lengths and hand dimensions. Oscar Koutchak, from the village of Unalakleet on Norton Sound, held an implement (NMNH E033143) that hunters used for scratching the sea ice to attract seals. He said, “My dad used to use this kind. This is handy. It’s small. You can put that in your pocket. This is for the sole purpose of luring a seal to come near. You scratch with it (on the ice), once in awhile. The seal comes up close. But you’re sitting down on a cake of ice or on the main ice in a white parka, and you wait for it. You wait for the seal to come close before you shoot. They can hear you (from underwater). They think it’s another seal.”
Information provided by Alaska Native Elders is joined with historical and anthropological information, photographs and video clips for the Sharing Knowledge website at https://alaska.si.edu/. Visitors can learn about traditional and contemporary Alaska Native cultures, with a focus on the rich diversity of cultural heritage objects from the Smithsonian collections. More than 600 objects from the Smithsonian came back to Alaska on long-term loan for the exhibition Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska, which opened in 2010 at the Anchorage Museum. An innovative exhibit case and mounting system allows objects to come out for study in a Cultural Consultation Room where collaborative work with Native Elders, artists and scholars enables conversations about cultural meaning and history to continue.
Throughout the gallery, emphasis is placed on first person, in-depth indigenous interpretation with connections to anthropology, history, art and science, and with multi-media contextual information and interpretative materials. Visitors find information on objects that interest them using interactive touch screen media at exhibit case kiosks or sit down in the Learning Center for access to the full web site with its in-depth information. An orientation film across seven monitors provides introductions to the ten Alaska Native cultures represented in the gallery. Along a 100-foot window walk, there is a Listening Space that immerses visitors in the languages, lives and environments of Alaska Native peoples. Public programming includes study projects, lectures, and educational activities making active use of the gallery.
The Sharing Knowledge Project was a coalition of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, the Anchorage Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of the American Indian and Alaska Native regional organizations, including the Sealaska Heritage Institute, Kawerak, Tanana Chiefs Conference, Aleutian-Pribilof Islands Association, Yupiit Cultural Center, Cook Inlet Regional, Kenaitze Indian Tribe, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Major funding was provided by the Rasmuson Foundation, ConocoPhillips Alaska, Alaska Native regional corporations, the National Park Service, the Museum Loan Network, Barney and Rachel Gottstein, and the Robert B. Gillam Family.
Images of project contributors:
1. Daria Dirks, Maria Turnpaugh, Vlass Shabolin
and Mary Bourdukofsky
2. Branson Tungiyan and Estelle Oozevaseuk
3. Joan Hamilton, John Phillip Sr., Neva Rivers and Virginia Minock
4. Elaine Kingeekuk
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