When an Alaskan museum closed, a Native Heritage Center thrived – 71Bait

Around the turn of the century, Edward Anton Rasmuson, a Swedish-born missionary, came to the Alaskan frontier to teach Tlingit children, at a time when many small villages had no public schools.

Before his death in 1949, Rasmuson rose to head the territory’s largest bank, the National Bank of Alaska, but never lost his interest in Alaskan Native culture.

He and his family collected around 6,000 artifacts, textiles, and tools, most of which ended up in a museum set up by the bank in downtown Anchorage in 1968.

But this museum, which was acquired by Wells Fargo when the National Bank of Alaska acquired it in 2000, closed its doors in 2020, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, much of this historical treasure has been given to the Alaskan Native Heritage Center, a museum focused on Native American culture and operated by Alaska Natives. Wells Fargo’s donation of more than 1,700 objects has nearly doubled the center’s collection and enabled the museum, which opened in 1999 as the only nationwide center dedicated to celebrating all Alaskan Native cultures, to revamp its program.

“These items will help us share our cultures with people around the world, but they will also help us work directly with our community,” Emily Edenshaw, president and executive director of the heritage center, said in an interview.

Edenshaw came to the Heritage Center in 2019, motivated by her own experience of growing up thousands of miles away from her Yup’ik and Iñupiaq heritage. Her mother was part of a 1956 forced adoption program and grew up in Texas, but Edenshaw returned to Alaska for college and eventually took the Yup’ik name Keneggnarkayaaggaq, meaning a person with a beautiful personality, spirit, aura, and friend means.

“For a long time I was ashamed of not knowing my own culture,” she said. “A large part of my journey is based around reconnecting with who I am.”

The theme of reconnection was a core part of the heritage center’s program, with workshops on indigenous food, dance and song; There are also community initiatives, like one aimed at helping Alaskan men struggling with homelessness.

Now the museum can also use many of the new objects to transform its exhibitions, which have not changed in two decades. Much of that work will fall to Angie Demma, a curator at the Wells Fargo Museum who now works for the Heritage Center. She had only been working at the bank’s museum for a few months when Wells Fargo decided to close not just the museum in Anchorage but 10 of its other museums across the country, leaving only the San Francisco location, which focuses on the company’s origins concentrated in the gold rush.

Demma, who had joined the institution with a plan to revitalize Wells Fargo’s program, now found herself managing its dissolution.

“It was a logistical nightmare,” Demma said.

In her new role, Demma said, she strives to showcase masterpieces of native craftsmanship, such as a 19th-century argillite chest by Haida artist Charles Edenshaw (a distant relative of Emily Edenshaw through her husband’s family), which a carved sculpture of a bear and sea lion in battle. There is also a 1950s Athabascan chief’s coat with floral beadwork, rawhide fringes and red felt ribbons.

Unexpected, however, were hundreds of other donations Demma says have come in over the past year, as private collectors and public institutions reckon with the ethics of preserving artifacts likely stolen or unfairly traded by aboriginal groups.

“We’ve always been a place where people drop things off on their doorstep, but there’s definitely an upward trend,” Demma said. “We struggled to keep up.”

The influx of artifacts has fueled ambition to modernize the heritage center building and the board is launching a $10 million capital campaign. It’s the kind of long-term planning that seemed impossible just a few years ago when the organization was on the brink of closure.

But the Ford Foundation named the center one of America’s cultural treasures, alongside institutions like the Apollo Theater and the Japanese American National Museum, in a program designed to help organizations recover from the pandemic. Accompanying the title was a four-year, unrestricted, $3 million grant and an additional $100,000 for strategic planning and technical assistance.

Museum officials said the grant is a godsend for a small nonprofit that doesn’t regularly receive government funding and relies on a mix of federal grants and private donations to keep its doors open.

Arts funding has been something of a battleground in Alaska, where Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy used his veto power to disappoint the Alaska State Council on the Arts in 2019. The state legislature eventually voted to overturn the decision and restore the agency.

Today, the state provides the council with about $700,000 — about 20 percent of the council’s total budget of $3.88 million. The rest comes from federal grants and nonprofit groups like the Rasmuson Foundation, one of Alaska’s largest patrons of the arts.

“We had a near-death experience when our existence was almost vetoed, but those dark days are behind us now,” said Benjamin Brown, Chair of the Arts Council since 2007. He noted that several Alaskan heritage centers are funded by Native companies, such as the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau and the CIRI Foundation in Anchorage.

Brown described the Alaska Native Heritage Center as a “key element of the state’s artistic and cultural infrastructure.” Museum experts also said the non-profit organization stands out as one of the few non-tribal arts organizations run by indigenous peoples. And by serving all, the center has become a meeting point for diverse tribes and people outside of these native communities.

Monica Shah, associate director of conservation and collectors at the Anchorage Museum, which also received part of the Wells Fargo collection, described the heritage center as vital.

“I don’t think we could accomplish our mission without their partnership,” Shah said. She credits the center with helping bring Native American culture to the forefront of Alaskan identity.

Edenshaw, who also sits on the state’s tourism board, said Alaska, which has one of the highest percentages of Native Americans in the United States, needs to do more to promote the cultural significance of its indigenous groups.

Gov. Dunleavy’s administration said it directed significant funds, including a recent $10.5 million federal grant, to the Alaska Travel Industry Associations, which include domestic tourism in their advertising. The Office of the Governor said that Kawerak Inc., a regional nonprofit in the Bering Strait region that is predominantly inhabited by Alaska Native peoples, has received another nearly $1 million tourism promotion grant.

But Edenshaw said too much of the state’s marketing focuses on “brown bears, Denali and fishing.”

“Where are the natives?” asked Edenshaw. “Our stories, when told, are not even told by us.”

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