Alaska - Cultural Destinations | Travel | Smithsonian

Alaska - Cultural Destinations

Alaska - Cultural Destinations

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Nearly 60 percent of visitors to Alaska see the state's Native culture: totem carving, Native dancing, the blanket toss, art and traditional music and museums. Whether travelers want to explore Alaska's vibrant Native culture or other artistic and intellectual attractions like music festivals, local artisan artwork, Russian iconography or museum exhibits, a long list of things to do and see await them.

Southeast Alaska Totem Poles, Chamber Music and Petroglyphs
In Southeast Alaska, cultural attractions abound. Sitka is home to Sitka National Historic Park, which houses an impressive collection of totem poles. Visitors to the park can wander forested trails while learning about stories the poles tell. Tour St. Michael's Cathedral, a bright blue, onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church that dominates Sitka's skyline. If visitors get their timing right, they can attend the Sitka Summer Music Festival. Held every year in June, it emphasizes chamber music and attracts an international group of professional musicians.

Working along the coast of the Inside Passage is the town of Wrangell. Wrangell holds the distinction of being the only Alaskan city to have existed under four nations and three flags—the Stikine Tlingits, the Russians, Great Britain and the United States. The Wrangell Museum features cultural exhibits, such as the oldest known Tlingit housepost in Southeast Alaska, a rare spruce canoe and spruce root and cedar bark basket collections. Wrangell is best known for its impressive collection of petroglyphs. The Alaska State Park at Petroglyph Beach features a newly constructed, fully accessible wooden boardwalk where guests can make rubbings from reproduced petroglyphs.

In Ketchikan, the cultural traveler can find authentic totem poles. The Totem Heritage Center houses 33 totems and fragments retrieved from deserted Tlingit and Haida Indian villages. In fact, this national landmark houses the largest collection of original totems in the United States. Saxman Totem Park houses totems as well, but includes carving demonstrations and performances by the Cape Fox Dancers at the Beaver Tribal House. Galleries galore are found on Ketchikan's bustling waterfront. The Blueberry Arts Festival, held annually in August, features arts and crafts, performing arts, a juried art show and other fun activities.

Haines, meanwhile, has a rich tradition of Tlingit culture. The area was originally named Deishu, meaning beginning of the trail. The local Native community of Klukwan is considered to be the mother village and the cradle of the Tlingit people.

In Haines, visitors can experience Native heritage in many ways. Known as an artists' haven, there are numerous art galleries. There, visitors can find beautiful pieces of Native artwork, from intricately carved jewelry to limited edition prints, hand-carved masks and basketry. The Sheldon Museum has an impressive collection of Chilkat Blankets and is a wealth of information for those interested in the history of the local Chilkat and Chilkoot tribes.

Local Native-owned businesses offer custom tours through the Chilkat Valley and into the Village of Klukwan, as well as daily catamaran service to Skagway. Alaska Indian Arts, located in historic Fort Seward, is a world-renowned center for totem carving and other Native arts. Open to the public and free of charge, visitors can enjoy watching master carvers at work while learning a little bit about the traditions of the Tlingit people. Nearby is the Totem Village, with a collection of totems surrounding a Tlingit Tribal House. This is where the Chilkat Dancers Storytelling Theatre performs contemporary interpretations of traditional Native legends. The show is performed most evenings throughout the summer and is a "must see."

Juneau also is rich in Tlingit culture, specifically art—totem poles, carvings, weaving, jewelry and demonstrations. Many of Juneau's public and private business and buildings are decorated with Tlingit art, and the local Native corporation owns and operates visitor attractions and activities in Juneau as well as Glacier Bay National Park and Glacier Bay Cruise line. At the Mt. Roberts Tram, also Native-owned, visitors can view the award-winning film "Seeing Daylight," a celebration of Tlingit culture and history. The Alaska State Museum has on display not only many artifacts of the local Native culture, but also of the Native culture of the entire state.

Southcentral Alaska Home to Alaska Native Heritage Center
Alaska's south-central region, encompassing Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, features some of the best the state has to offer for cultural travelers. Anchorage is home to the impressive Alaska Native Heritage Center, a unique cultural site dedicated to educating visitors about Alaska Native groups. The Center presents programs in academic and informal settings, including workshops, demonstrations and guided tours of indoor exhibits and outdoor village sites.

After visiting Anchorage, cultural travelers may want to rent a car and drive south on the Seward Highway to the Kenai Peninsula. The Seward Highway was named an All-American Road in 2000 and boasts some of the country's most spectacular scenery. A stop in hip and funky Girdwood is a must on this road trip. Located at the base of Mount Alyeska, the ski town is home to a group of artists who like the small-town feel of the place. Visitors can visit any number of small, unique galleries year-round or time their visit to coincide with the Girdwood Forest Fair, a midsummer arts and crafts event.

Continuing down the Seward Highway, visitors will eventually find themselves on the Kenai Peninsula. The Kenai area's growing reputation as a place of creative expression is well deserved as it develops visitor-friendly sites and centers. The Kenai Fine Arts Center, located in Old Town Kenai, provides studio space for members of the Peninsula Art Guild and the Kenai Potters Guild. The guilds host monthly art exhibitions, maintain an artist sales gallery and offer a variety of art workshops for adults and children. The region is also rich in Gold Rush history. Visitors can raft down Sixmile Creek and see evidence of mining operations from days past.

Upon reaching the end of the road in Homer, visitors will arrive in a cultural mecca of sorts. The tight-knit, artsy community of Homer prides itself on its beatnik image. Galleries and small artisan shops can be found everywhere in this oceanfront community.

Interior Alaska Home to an Amazing Museum
Heading north from Southcentral Alaska is the Interior, a region rich with culture. Fairbanks is the hub of Interior Alaska and home to The University of Alaska Museum. The museum is the state's primary repository of natural and cultural history and is internationally recognized for its comprehensive northern collections.

Alaska's Far North A Culture Tied to the Land and its Resources
The Far North region of Alaska encompasses the communities of Nome, Kotzebue and Barrow. North of the Arctic Circle, these towns offer cultural attractions that are closely tied to the rich Native heritage of the area. Nome has a special combination of traditional Eskimo culture and a gold rush past. Travelers may want to rent a car and tour the 300-plus miles of road system surrounding Nome. Nome also marks the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the longest such race in the world. The town of 4,000 swells to many times that size every March with the arrival of the much-anticipated race finish.

Located on a three-mile spit of land on the Chukchi Sea, Kotzebue has much to offer cultural travelers. Among its attractions is the NANA Museum of the Arctic, local history and cultural films at the park service and the Senior Center Cultural Center.

Barrow is located at the tip of the Far North region, situated on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. A walking tour of the town includes a visit to the Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Station, built in 1893. This is the oldest frame building in the Arctic. Also, visitors can see the Birnirk archaeological site, a group of 16 dwelling mounds representing the Birnirk culture (A.D. 500-900). Guests can witness the unique whaling culture of the Eskimos every spring when the annual bowhead whale hunt and festival gets underway.

Southwest Alaska Rich in History, Diversity
Alaska's expansive Southwest region is home to the communities of Bethel, King Salmon, Unalaska, Dillingham, Kodiak and the Pribilof Islands. The area is as diverse as it is big. Unalaska, located on the Aleutian Island chain, is home to Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Ascension and the Bishop's House. The church hosts one of the largest collections of religious artifacts and icons in the United States.

Kodiak Island, known primarily for its mammoth brown bears, boasts many cultural attractions in addition to housing one of the world's most legendary mammals. The Baranov Museum, a warehouse built in the 1790s by Alexander Baranof to store furs, is the oldest remaining Russian structure in the state. Kodiak is also rich with Alaska Native culture. The Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository reveal 8,000 years of Alutiiq history through artifacts and archeological digs. A new archaeological excavation gets underway every summer and volunteers are invited to participate.

Culture in Alaska is vast and varied as the land itself. The true cultural traveler could spend a lifetime in the state and never experience it all.

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