By Jay Jones, Special to Tribune Newspapers
7:37 PM EST, February 12, 2013
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — "Ook na how tuk," Verna Dommek cheerily said in Inupiaq, the language of the Inupiat people, who live north of the Arctic Circle, scattered across Alaska's barren permafrost.
Dommek, an Inupiat, then explained in English that she had just said "Good morning" to an old friend, a whaling captain from the isolated village of Point Hope.
"He's a great man," she said of the Native whaler, who to this day hunts his prey on the frigid seas for subsistence. "He feeds our people."
Though Dommek grew up in Kotzebue, a remote coastal community of 3,000 people, mostly Inupiats, the friendly exchange took place 550 air miles to the south, at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. She has lived in Alaska's largest city for 17 years. It's a place where, unlike in Barrow and Kotzebue, people no longer forage for food.
That said, Dommek is never far from friends and family. According to the census, more than 23,000 of Anchorage's residents, 8 percent of the population, are Alaska Natives.
"Anchorage is considered the largest Native village in Alaska," said David Farve of the Alaska Native Heritage Center. "There are more Inupiat here than in Barrow. There are more Yupik here than in Bethel."
For whatever reason the villagers moved to the city — employment, education or family — their presence makes it possible for visitors to savor the cultures of the state's Native peoples and take home some beautiful works of art without leaving modern creature comforts.
The Heritage Center (907-330-8000, alaskanative.net) is a great place to start. During the summer, as visitors wander a path around Lake Tiulana, they stop at various "villages." In these, the history and culture of Alaska's five distinct Native peoples — from the Haida in the southeast to the Inupiat in the far north — are shared.
Native transplants to Anchorage often are dressed in local garb as they invite discussions about everything from subsistence lifestyles to sports such as the blanket toss.
Want to guarantee that the not-so-inexpensive Alaskan keepsake you're buying didn't really come from somewhere near Beijing? This is your place. Artists and crafters invite visitors to watch them work, also offering their goods for sale.
Among them is Dommek, who makes clothing, from hats to coats, out of leather and fur. She began years ago, stitching together gloves for her daughter and other girls to wear during ceremonial dances that were meant to ward off evil spirits.
"I work with polar bear, wolverine, beaver, wolf and seal skin. They're the traditional furs from my area," she said.
That might make some of people uneasy, but in Alaska there is no shortage of fur. For the Native peoples, this isn't about glamour or sartorial whim. The Alaska Native way of life and hunting can be likened to that of the Plains Indians, who hunted bison in a carefully managed and sustainable way, using every piece of the animal, unlike hunters who came later to slaughter and exploit.
And anticipating concerns of animal rights activists, Dommek said, "PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) can go to my village when it's 65 below with their (synthetic clothing) and see if that keeps them warm. God clothed us in animal skins, just like Adam and Eve."
Rare examples of outerwear made from various animal parts can be seen — and, yes, admired for their ingenuity and style — at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, housed in a new wing of the Anchorage Museum (907-929-9200, anchoragemuseum.org). In a light- and climate-controlled environment, priceless relics from 19th-century scientific expeditions are displayed.
"All of this was sitting in (Smithsonian) archives in Washington, D.C. Most of it has never been publicly displayed before," the museum's Sarah Henning said as she stood among the large glass cases of artifacts.
Most of the 600-plus items are one-of-a-kind pieces in pristine condition. Visitors marvel at watertight clothing made from animal intestines a century before Gore-Tex was invented. They are awed by a beautiful coat created from entire crested auklets (a type of bird) and trimmed with dog fur.
Even though she sees the displays on a regular basis, Henning continues to be impressed.
"When you think of how much work, how many hours goes into a piece, it's a lot different than buying something at Target," she said.
On the museum's ground floor is a well-stocked gift shop, where visitors can select from a variety of pieces of Native art.
The museum's wares, however, pale when contrasted with what's offered by a little-known place considered one of Anchorage's hidden gems: the small but well-stocked craft shop tucked inside the Alaska Native Medical Center (907-729-1122, anmc.org/auxiliary/anmc-craft-shop).
Here, visitors can buy everything from sealskin thimbles priced at $2 to ivory and whalebone carvings priced in the thousands. Since the 1960s, artists from remote villages have been dropping off their work — for sale on consignment — while in Anchorage to visit sick relatives.
"We are all volunteers, and we're here as a service to the Native people," explained Agnes Coyle, who manages the shop. "We're here to market their things … and to get money in the hands of the Native people."
Locals say the prices at the hospital generally are lower than at commercial outlets. Coyle said the shop takes a 20 percent commission to cover administrative costs and to help fund the medical center and scholarships.
"This (shop) is word-of-mouth and has a reputation for having exclusively Native crafts," she noted. "I believe we have sustained people who otherwise would have given up on their basket weaving or their sewing."
So even in the state's largest city, the Native ways still live.
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