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Alaska: The Largest, and Most Overlooked, Tourist Destination of the North

By Admin | June 27, 2022 | North Western | 0 Comments

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Of the 574 Native American tribes legally recognized by the United States, 231 are located in Alaska. There are few places anywhere in the world where someone can experience so many different tribal cultures and traditions, all within one of the most scenic and breathtaking natural wonders on Earth. Native Alaska has it all.

On the surface, it shouldn’t be surprising that this one state is home to nearly half of the recognized tribes in the United States. Alaska is over 665,400 square miles, large enough to squeeze 19 other states within its borders.

Of course, a state as enormous as Alaska is also home to an incredibly diverse array of wildlife and natural scenery. There are ancient glaciers, vast tundra, and jaw-dropping mountains. Believe it or not, 17 of the 20 highest mountain peaks in the United States are located in Alaska.

As for wildlife, Alaska is home to over 430 species of birds, 70 species of mammals, and the largest population of bald eagles in the United States. Alaska also has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world but is famous as well for its moose, caribou, and wolf populations. Within Alaska’s coastal and interior waters are countless humpback whales, orcas, and gray whales that draw sightseers from all over the world.

The five regions of Native Alaska

As you can imagine, a land mass as large as Alaska’s has to be divided up into regions. There are five regions of Alaska: Interior, Southcentral, Inside Passage, Southwest and the Arctic / Far North. Each region is home to Native people that have lived there for centuries, with their own unique languages, customs and traditions. Today, Alaska Natives constitute more than 15% of the entire population of Alaska.

Generally speaking, there are five groups of Alaska Native people identified by region – Iñupiat & St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik in the Arctic; Athabascan in Southcentral and Interior Alaska; Yup’ik & Cup’ik, Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) in Southwest Alaska; and Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit in the Inside Passage.

Each of these regions has tourist destinations that have to be seen to be believed, some of the most incredible natural wonders and cultural and historical experiences to be found anywhere on Earth. The Native people who inhabit these lands often welcome visitors to learn more about their history and traditions and experience Alaskan Native culture firsthand. Yet, most people still are completely unaware they even exist.

Interior and Southcentral Regions

Athabascan

If you love to experience the elements of nature, the interior region of Alaska is certainly for you.  Winters can witness extreme cold temperatures, well below zero degrees Fahrenheit, while summers can be as hot as any in California.  The terrain is mostly spruce, willow, and birch, with rivers flowing throughout the region.

The single biggest attraction of this region is the aurora borealis (or Northern Lights), which on clear winter nights can give a visitor a light show of a lifetime in the sky.  Many tourists venture to this region for the sole purpose, despite it possibly taking days to get there, depending on how they travel.

The interior region is also home to the native Athabascan people, who have lived off this land for centuries, perhaps even thousands of years.  As the terrain they’ve lived on would suggest, the Athabascans were migratory, following the fish and game through the seasons, creating fishing settlements by Alaska rivers during the summer, and more insulated villages during the winter.  The Athabascans lived and traveled in small groups of between 20 and 40 people.

Today, the Athabascans still follow the same customs and traditions that have guided them for hundreds of years.  This includes hunting and fishing, and trading with other tribes for goods that are needed throughout the seasons.

The name “Athabascan” comes from the Cree Indians in Canada, who migrated to Alaska from Lake Athabasca.  In Cree, “Athabasca” means “grass here and there.” Believe it or not, there are 11 distinct languages among the different tribes of Athabascans, and many of the natural wonders of the region carry traditional Athabascan names – like Mount Denali (the Great One).

Denali is the tallest mountain in all of North America at over 20,000 feet, and considered the third tallest mountain on the planet.  Denali National Park and Preserve, which of course is where the mountain is located, is a national park of over 6 million acres that includes wildlife such as grizzly bears, moose, caribou and Dall sheep.  Tourists visit this park to hike, bike, backpack or just enjoy a few days to get away from everything and soak in the park’s wondrous natural beauty.

Most of the entire interior region is still preserved landscapes, with enough outdoor adventures to satisfy even the most seasoned natural explorers.  For those tourists looking for local expertise and guidance in planning your Alaska interior adventure, there is the Fairbanks Alaska Public Lands Information Center, located in the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center, in Fairbanks – the second largest Alaskan city.  The helpful guides there can offer assistance in planning your trip and in educating you about the culture and traditions of the Athabascan you are likely to encounter on your journey.

For a truly once in a lifetime experience, one can travel to Ruby, an Athabascan village on the Yukon River that is inhabited by less than 200 people.  Only accessible by plane or boat, at Ruby you can meet with Tribal members personally, including George Albert, an Athabascan Living Cultural Treasure according to the Alaska State Council on the Arts.  George makes dog sleds and snowshoes from birch and moose skin.

Dog Sledding in Alaska

If Native history is your thing, you can drive south to the Eklutna Heritage Site, the oldest continuously inhabited Athabaskan Indian settlement, which dates back to 1650.

Just further south you will find the largest city in Alaska, Anchorage.  There you can explore the Alaska Native Heritage Center – simply one of the best places to visit in Alaska to learn about the native cultures.  The museum and exhibits demonstrate a fascinating and detailed understanding of Alaskan native culture and tradition, while giving you a glimpse of history through the display of ancient artifacts.  There are also live performances of Native dances and music that happen daily. You can even meet the natives and attend lectures in the presentation hall, and there are walking trails outside to see native dwellings up close.

Southwest Region

Yup’ik & Cup’ik

Unangax̂, and Sugpiaq (Alutiiq)

Were the Northern Lights dancing through the sky not enough for you? Climbing one of the highest mountain peaks in the world was not enough of an adventure?  Well, then maybe the southwest region, which includes the Alaskan Peninsula, is the place for you.

The Alaska Peninsula extends 55 miles into the Pacific Ocean, and is home to some of the most extraordinary wildlife experiences you can find anywhere. Commonly seen wildlife includes moose, caribou, red fox, wolverine and bald eagles.  The peninsula includes the largest lakes in Alaska — Becharof Lake, Iliamna Lake, and Lake Clark — and extends toward the Aleutians to encompass several world-renowned natural preserves.  These include the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge, Becharof and Izembek National Wildlife Refuges, Aniakchak National Monument, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, and Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Katmai National Park is world famous for brown bears, which congregate every summer to feed on spawning salmon, and also its rows of volcanoes. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes within the park is filled with ash from the eruption of Novarupta Volcano in June 1912, one of the largest of all time.

Southwestern Alaska as a whole is known for its remote, long Aleutian chain of rugged, windswept, volcanic Aleutian Islands that stretch out 1,200 miles sweep toward Russia’s Komandorski Islands. The world famous Kodiak Archipelago is part of this region, an area comprising sixteen major islands along the Alaska Peninsula for 177 miles.  Kodiak Island, home of the (endangered) Kodiak brown bear, is the second largest island in the United States, second only to the island of Hawaii.

Brown Bears in Alaska

As you can imagine, Southwest Alaska is not easily accessible. It is not on the road system and access to most areas is only by air or sea.  Nearly all of Southwest Alaska is protected, untouched, natural preserves.  However, that is not to say it is uninhabited.

The Yup’ik, Cup’ik, Unangax̂, and Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) peoples have lived in Southwest Alaska for thousands of years.  Yup’ik and Cup’ik Alaska Native peoples are often referred to as “the Genuine People,” named for the dialects of the languages they speak. Unangax̂ settlements are in the Aleutian Island Chain and Pribilof Islands, and Sugpiaq are associated with Kodiak Island and Prince William Sound.

Like all Alaskan indigenous peoples, they live in harmony with their surrounding environment, hunting and fishing for food, and families migrate for the seasons.  Every winter, Tribal members celebrate their relationship with the animals and spirit world through ceremonies and dances.  Elders are charged with teaching their way of life to the younger generations so their unique culture is not lost to history.

Everyday activities are celebrated, and historical events are recounted through storytelling repeated through the ages.  Shamans still inhabit the region, as they have for millenia, relied upon in many villages to bring good health, weather and natural abundance to the people.

For the Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq, water is the central component of their lives, as one can imagine living in a maritime environment.  Nearly all their food comes from the sea, as has been the case for thousands of years.  The Unangax̂ arrived in the Southwest area – the Aleutian archipelago in particular, approximately 3,000 years ago, which makes them relatively new compared to other Alaskan tribes.

In the 18th century, Russians arrived in the Alutiiq land as well, and had a tremendous influence on the Native people.  Russian traders used the word “Aleut” to describe the people they encountered in the Aleutian Islands – “Alutiiq” is simply the Alaska Native pronunciation.  Many aspects of Russian culture can be found in the Southwest, including Russian Orthodox Churches that date back centuries that the people still worship in today, as the religion is now a major part of Alutiiq culture.

Inside Passage

Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit

The Inside Passage is also known as the state’s Southeastern region, which is essentially a narrow corridor spanning 500 miles along Canada’s border and stretching south of Ketchikan.  Like the Southwest, there are more than 900 islands, each one with virtually untouched natural beauty and wildlife.

Of the five Alaska Regions, the Inside Passage is the most popular tourist destination, largely due to the booming cruise industry and accessible Native villages.

The most popular Alaskan cruise is through Glacier Bay, a 3.3 million acre natural wonder that features awe-inspiring mountain ranges, rainforests, deep sheltered fjords, and, or course, glaciers.  Glacier Bay is home to 11 named glaciers, including the famous Marjerie, Grand Pacific and Johns Hopkins.

The spiritual homeland of the Huna Tlingit, Glacier Bay is one of the largest internationally protected biosphere reserves in the world, and is recognized by the United Nations as part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site.  There is so much wildlife, including whales, and natural monuments that all cruise ships employ park rangers to identify and explain them all as tourists coast slowly through the icy waters.

The Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian and aforementioned Tlingit people all live throughout Alaska’s Southeastern panhandle, as they have for an estimated 10,000 years (you read that right).  The Tsimshian people live primarily in Metlakatla, located on the Annette Islands, Alaska’s only Native reservation. From Ketchikan, a visitor can only reach Metlakatla via boat or chartered plane. The Metlakatla Reservation voted to opt out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of the 1970s in order to retain their rights to their land and waters.

Tlingit villages are found throughout the region, where residents happily welcome visitors with traditional dance performances and storytelling.  No matter where you travel in Southeast Alaska, you are sure to find Native people with centuries-long traditions of not just hunting, canoeing and fishing, but also crafts, artisans and woodworking as well.  Intricate baskets for cooking, ceremonial robes, pottery and other crafts and works of art can be found in just about every village.  However, no work of Native Alaskan art may be as well known as the totem pole.

It is in the Southeast region that a visitor can learn all about the totem pole, and see some of  the most beautiful and intricate totem poles in the world.  Totem Bight State Historical Park, located a few miles north of Ketchikan, is one of the most famous.

Totem Bight State Historical Park is an 11-acre park within a dense, lush rainforest that is packed with restored and re-carved totems.  A former fishing camp, iIt was abandoned by natives who relocated to other communities and left behind the iconic totem poles. The site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hiking within Totem Bight State Historical Park is possibly the best way to witness Native history up close.  Ancient landmarks and statues are found throughout the park, some hundreds of years old.  Tourists can walk right up to any of the 15 totem poles on the site, and read information plaques that explain each totem and the history behind it.   Every landmark found at the park represents the livelihood, traditions and culture of the Natives at that particular moment in history.  The park also features a recreated clan house from the early 19th century.

Just south of the park in Ketchikan, you will also find the Totem Heritage Center, where a visitor can learn about traditional and modern carving techniques, as well as the stories behind the totems.

Perhaps one of the most interactive Alaskan Native cultural experiences can be found in Sitka. Established in 1972, Sitka National Historic Park is the oldest park in Alaska, and the smallest park, but it is also one of its most popular.  Every year, more than 100,000 people make the long trek to Sitka, with many coming from thousands of miles away for the experience.

The park has been known officially by several different names, including Sitka Park, Government Park, Indian River Park, Sitka National Monument, and now Sitka National Historical Park. It is just as often referred to by its unofficial names, Lovers’ Lane or Totem Park.  However the purpose of the park throughout the years has always been the same: to preserve and protect the Tlingit and Russian history that has been such an important part of the Native Alaskan story.

Tlingits lived in Sitka for thousands of years before Russian traders began arriving in the 19th century in search of natural resources and goods.  They found, among other things, the sea otter which was valuable in the Chinese market, which led to the development of the Russian fur trade.  Tlingits and Russians fought often for years, and then uneasily coexisted under a truce. When the Russians finally left after six decades, both peoples had been changed forever.

Today, visitors travel from the world over to experience tribal drumming and hear traditional stories shared by the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Dancers at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House.  The dancers perform native storytelling such as the raven dance wearing regalia decorated with shells and clan crests. The audience is invited to participate, who always do – dancing and singing sacred songs and dances as if they were part of the tribe themselves.  The immersive and elaborate cultural experience is said to be a true spiritual awakening by those visitors who have participated.

Of course, a tourist can also hike the Totem Trail within the Sitka National Historic Park to see 20 incredible totem poles.  13 of these poles were showcased at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair to attract interest in the region, and then relocated back to Sitka.  There were actually originally 15 totem poles sent to St. Louis from Sitka, but that’s another story.

Arctic / Far North

Iñupiat & St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik

Like all arctic regions, the months from May to July in the summer have no darkness at night, only a twilight during the night hours. The months of November to January have very little daylight at all.

But that’s not to say one should not experience the Far North of Alaska, with its incredible ancient glaciers and unique Native cultural experiences.  Only that, if you do, be prepared for either the lack of sunlight or darkness (depending on when you arrive), because it can affect your sleep and emotional state if you do not take the time to prepare yourself.  Not to mention preparing yourself for the frigid temperatures during the winter season (as low as 30 below 0 F).

Once you are past all that, the arctic region of Alaska can be the most rewarding cultural experience out of all the regions.

For example, nearly all native villages welcome visitors with open arms (they don’t get too many) and are happy to teach them about their ways and traditions.  You can be a part of a professional guided tour or tour a village on your own (either way you need to charter a flight to reach these remote locations).  But once you arrive, the entire adventure will be like nothing you have experienced before.

A good example is the northernmost point in North America, Barrow, Alaska.  Located 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it’s the largest Eskimo village in the world. Locals here still adhere to the same fishing (whaling), hunting and seasonal traditions that they have for centuries. Chartered flights arrive often to visit the Eskimo people, and they are more than welcoming, provided of course visitors respect their home and traditions.

Alaska’s northern region is also home to the Iñupiat and the St. Lawrence Island Yupik people, who often refer to themselves as the “Real People.”  Like other Alaskan Natives, they live off the land, hunting and fishing, continuing to depend on the whale, walrus, seal, polar bear, caribou and fish of the region.

For a more unique arctic experience, you can travel to the sand dunes of Kobuk Valley National Park, a mountain-enclosed preserve between the Baird and Waring mountains and the home of Native Alaskans for an estimated 12,000 years.  The sand dunes were created by the grinding action of ancient glaciers, with the sand being carried to the Kobuk Valley by the wind and Kobuk River over millennia.  Half a million caribou migrate through the dunes every year.  River bluffs, reaching heights of up to 150 feet, hold permafrost ice wedges and the fossils of Ice Age mammals. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes can be reached at their northern tip by traversing the Kobuk River and following a relatively simple cross-country hike.

Culture that predates recorded history

There is simply nothing like experiencing the culture, history and traditions of Native Alaska first-hand, and there are few places in the world to simultaneously witness countless birds, mammals, whales and other marine life in their natural habitat within millions of miles of preserved land.

Seriously, how often do most people get the chance to meet indigenous people whose cultures date back to the time of wooly mammoths? Meeting these Native Alaskan locals and experiencing, first-hand, their traditions, culture and way of life, and how it all flows seamlessly with their surrounding natural environments, is simply something you will never forget.

Tourists who would rather forgo adventurous treks through the vast Alaskan wilderness can still visit world-renowned Native museums – such as the Sealaska Heritage Institute in downtown Juneau, or the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska and the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, or even the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel, where Yup’ik and Cup’ik Elders share their language, culture, and arts.

Tourists can also experience fun and exciting events, such as the World Eskimo Olympics, and of course take life-changing cruises into Glacier Bay or the countless other waterways throughout Alaska.

There really is something for everyone, and no one who has ever experienced the culture and heritage of Native Alaska will ever have another experience quite like it.

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