Pratt Museum opens spectacular exhibit on the Dena’ina people

A word of advice when you walk into the Pratt’s newest exhibit: don’t say hello to the ladies cleaning fish. Though these life casts look incredibly real, like they could take a breath and say hello back, they aren’t real and you’ll feel a bit foolish initiating a conversation.

This life-sized replica of a modern-day fish camp in Nondalton sets the stage for the Pratt Museum’s impressive new exhibit entitled Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi or The Dena’ina Way of Living. 

This historic exhibit, the first ever presented about the Dena’ina Athabascan people, walks visitors through 1,000 years of Dena’ina culture and history and shows what it means to be Dena’ina in the modern era. 

It was originally curated by the Anchorage Museum who worked closely with a group of Dena’ina advisors for seven years to bring it together. The Pratt is the first site to host a traveling version of the exhibit and the only site outside of Anchorage that features original artifacts.

The exhibit is a mixture of artifacts, replicas and hands-on activities. Ipads mounted throughout the exhibit allow visitors to delve further into Dena’ina history with specially-designed apps that teach language, tell stories and show some of the artifacts that were part of the larger exhibit in Anchorage.

“The advisors felt it was important to highlight language,” says Aaron Leggett, one of the Anchorage Museum exhibit’s co-curators. “There are less than 25 fluent speakers of the language left so they felt strongly about passing it down. You’ll find Dena’ina words written and spoken all throughout this exhibit.”

Visitors have a chance to try out the language by learning Dena’ina words for the many different parts of a moose and phrases such as “I saw a beautiful moose.”

A map of the Dena’ina homeland at the start of the 20th century hangs near the start of the exhibit. It shows that roughly half of Alaska’s residents currently reside where the Dena’ina once thrived. 

“Their homeland has been subject to the greatest settlement, growth and urbanization of any region in Alaska,” says Leggett. “Not only that, their lands around the Cook Inlet positioned Dena’ina as middlemen between the explorers and traders coming to the region and the many tribes that bordered Dena’ina lands.” 

Another display shows how the Dena’ina people got around. “In the fall and winter months, the Dena’ina did a lot of walking,” says the exhibit’s other co-creator Suzi Jones. “In summer, they used birch bark canoes in calm waters and open skin boats for ocean and big river travel.” 

“Interestingly, dogs were used for hunting and for carrying heavy loads,” she explains. “People pulled sleds up until the end of the 19th century.”

Next, visitors learn how the Dena’ina marked the passage of time with counting cords, or string calendars. A collection of 100-year-old cords shows how beads and feathers marked key dates and celebrations. After learning all about string calendars, visitors have a chance to sit down and make one of their own.

Visitors will even learn a thing or two about the Dena’ina by sitting down and taking a rest. A bench designed especially for the exhibit charts seasonal subsistence activities including what plants were harvested, what
birds and mammals were hunted and what fresh and
saltwater fish were caught.

Guests at the opening reception were taken by the dinner for seven. Seven Dena’ina people, old and young, sat down to a traditional meal in a film studio. A filmmaker set up cameras looking down on the table and microphones throughout the studio picked up the conversation. 

A traditional meal that included salmon, fried spruce hen and moose nose soup was served as cameras rolled. Visitors to the Pratt can look in on that meal as though they were hovering above the table and listen to the conversation as it flowed between English and Dena’ina. 

“I heard it was an amazing exhibit in Anchorage,” said Mary Langham who came to the opening on Friday. “My favorite part was the dinner.  It was interesting to see what people were eating and what they were talking about.”

If you plan to visit the Dena’ina exhibit at the Pratt, plan to spend some time. The exhibit runs until Sept. 1.  The Pratt Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for youth and free for children 6 and under.

Sarah Richardson is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.

Denai’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi:

The Denaina Way of Living

When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Sept. 1

Where: Pratt Museum

A bear gut raincoat-Photo provided, Anchorage Museum

A bear gut raincoat-Photo provided, Anchorage Museum

Chief Stephan wears a dentalium bandolier and ground-squirrel parka in Knik about 1907.-Photo provided, Anchorage Museum

Chief Stephan wears a dentalium bandolier and ground-squirrel parka in Knik about 1907.-Photo provided, Anchorage Museum

A counting cord-Photo provided, Anchorage Museum

A counting cord-Photo provided, Anchorage Museum

A dentalium necklace-Photo provided, Anchorage Museum

A dentalium necklace-Photo provided, Anchorage Museum