Home » Alaska » All You Need to Know – Alaska Native Heritage Center

If you are in Anchorage, no visit would be complete without a trip to the Alaska Native Heritage Center. It is a unique educational and cultural institution that attempts to make rich connections to the native cultures of Alaska. Here are a few things you need to know to make the most of your time at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The ANHC opened in 1999. It is only 10-miles north of downtown Anchorage, easily accessed off the Glenn Highway. The center is on 26 wooded acres-ideal habitat for wildlife. At the entrance, we stopped to watch a mama moose and her calf browsing on the lush green trees. We never tire of watching wildlife. If you do not have a rental car or transportation, there is a free shuttle bus that picks you up at several downtown Anchorage locations.

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Moose calf in a meadow
Moose Native Heritage Center Credit: Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

As you enter the parking area, you can see that they designed the center to complement the surrounding woods. We maneuvered our Great Alaskan RV rental easily in the large parking area. We bought the museum pass, which gets you admission to both the AHNC and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. There is so much to see and learn at the Native Center, so I would dedicate at least 4 hours to see everything. Inside the facility, there is a reception desk that will provide the schedule for the day’s activities. The staff is knowledgeable, helpful, pleasant.

What you Need to Know: The Alaskan Cultural Heritage Center

In the summer, the center is open Tuesday – Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May through September self-guided tours are free. Current admission rates are: Adults $29 (18-64), Seniors $25 (65+), Children $19 (Ages 4-17), Alaska Resident Adult $14 and Alaska Resident Child $12. Just a short distance from downtown Anchorage at 8800 Heritage Center Dr.

Alaska Native Heritage center-Barry in front of the Raven the Creator Statue
Raven the Creator Statue

The Gathering Place – Native Dancer Performances

The Gathering Place is the central stage where the Native dance performances take place. This was the most engaging part of our day, watching the dance performances given by the different indigenous groups. We watched the native artisans performing their ceremonial dances in the airy, open auditorium area. They have several excellent live performances by different native Alaskans throughout the day, demonstrating their traditional games, songs, dances, and stories. 

Dancers on the Gathering Place Stage Alaska Native Heritage Center

During one performance, the lead dancer wearing an authentic dress explained how the outfits use different animal pelts and instructions handed down by her grandmother. She detailed their subsistence lifestyle, which depends on the whale, walrus, seal, polar bear, caribou, and fish found near their village. Subverted by early missionaries and the U.S. government, the narrator tells us the story of her village. The storyteller expressed how they are still working to coexisting in the modern world. Meanwhile, in the same instance, many of the elders are striving to ensure their history, language, and culture are passed down to the next generations.

Alaska Native Heritage Center-Fascinating Theater Area

The small theater plays, “Stories Given, Stories Shared” and “Living from the Land and the Sea” that detail how the native indigenous peoples lived. The Nanvaq café on site has breakfast and lunch items. An outdoor eating area is ideal for having a picnic lunch.

The gift shop has a plethora of crafts, handmade by local and rural native artists. I prefer to buy directly from vendors in the artisan area.

Authentic Native-All You Need to Know - Alaska Native Heritage Center

The best part for us was the local artisan’s booths that sell authentic native arts and crafts. In the Hall of Cultures (lower level), there are Alaska Native craftspeople show their skills, such as working with beads, making jewelry, and baskets. The artisans are wonderful and we wish we could have purchased something from each of them. It was a wonderful experience just talking with them about their art, understanding the significance of the materials used and the explanations behind their designs.

We purchased a few items from the native vendors. My favorite was a beautiful sea otter purse.

TIP: when purchasing Alaska products, just remember to look for the Silver Hand logo. This will tell you the artifact is authentic-Native made. 

Whale Gate - Lake Tiulana
Whale Gate – Lake Tiulana

Visit the Hall of Cultures-Alaska Native Heritage Center

The Hall of Cultures in the main building features many beautiful and well-preserved artifacts. We spent about 40 minutes inside looking at the artifacts and reading the placards about the distinct groups of Alaska native peoples. There are 11 indigenous Alaska Native culture groups in the state. The Hall of Cultures features exhibits about each of the major indigenous groups in Alaska: Athabascan, Inupiaq/St Lawrence Island Yupik, Yup’ik/Cup’ik, Aleut, Alutiiq, and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. The written descriptions of each exhibit are very informative. The exhibits show the variety and diversity of each cultural group detailing how they lived through history until today.

Grey Whale Skeleton people standing in front - Alaska Heritage Center
Grey Whale Skeleton

Walk the Lake Tiulana Loop Village Walk-Alaska Native Heritage Center

Outside the main building, there are additional exhibits. Take the ½ mile loop trail walks around Lake Tiulana. You can either do the self-guided walk or we definitely recommend waiting for the tour guide instead of just walking the path yourself…it gives you a chance to ask questions. Guided village site tours are at 10:15, 12:15, 2:00, and 3:30. There are also interactive audio tours available via an app for your Android, iPhone, or iPad device or for rent from the ticketing desk. 

Alaska Native Heritage Center Island Yupik Village Site Dwelling
Island Yupik Village Site

Explore the six life-sized replica houses from the five major indigenous cultural groups of Alaska. Along the way, you will see the different artifacts Unique to each village site, including a totem and a whale-bone arch. The whale-bone arch is a great photo opportunity. Inside each house was a young volunteer that would explain the uses of the tools, animals, hides, unique entrances, and how they lived and survived in such harsh conditions. Each village culture has adapted to the materials available in their environments. These replica villages accurately reflect native life and traditions. Interpretive signs clearly present informative details. The biggest takeaway we felt like we learned something genuine about the indigenous cultures.

Most interesting was being able to feel the animal skins. The volunteers explained how seal intestine parka is naturally waterproof, polar bear fur is hollow to prevent loss of heat, therefore ideal for winter warmth and the water repellent hide of the sea otter. However, each culture used what was available in order to survive. Remarkably, how the youth, adults, and Elders alike collaborate to share their experiences continuing their traditions. We came away with an appreciation and a better understanding of how these cultures lived.

Lupine Wildflowers
Lupine Wildflowers

Need to Know Facts About the Alaska Native Heritage Center Villages

  • Tlingit/Haida and Tsimshian – Renown for their use of wood in carvings. They carved totem poles with animals that symbolized their guardian spirits. Dugout canoes used fire to hollow out the centers. This lightweight craft made them a seafaring culture. The Tlingit/Haida Longhouse, constructed of logs with no windows that were used to house an entire clan, is the chief attraction.
  • Aleut, Alutiiq, and the Eyak – The traditional houses were semi-subterranean dwellings. The house comprised one room with whale bones used to support the grass roof. Mostly located in coastal villages, they used the sea to make kayaks (iqyax and qayaq) for hunting seals, whales and walrus to feed and clothe their families.
  • Athabascan – lived in the state’s interior. They were highly nomadic, yet skilled at fishing and hunting. Like most indigenous cultures, they had a matrilineal system. They traveled in small clans to summer fishing grounds and winter hunting areas.
  • Inupiaq/St Lawrence Island – lived in a semi-subterranean structure, using the ground as insulation. Used large open skin boats to hunt whales, seals, and fish. Today, many still live a subsistence lifestyle.
  • Yupik, Yup’ik/Cup’ik – traditionally all the men of the society lived together in a qasgiq. Women and girls lived in an ena. The tools included the slate knife, seal, and whale skins that were used for clothing and food. Traditionally, men hunted and women prepared the meals.
Athabaskan Village Lodge - All You Need to Know - Alaska Native Heritage Center
Athabaskan Village Lodge

Sled Dog Demonstration-Alaska Native Heritage Center

One highlight of the village is the sled dog enclosure hosted by John Baker, an Iditarod champion. Baker took 1st place in the 2011 Iditarod. They had a litter of 8 weeks old puppies you can hold and cuddle! He offers customers a ride on a sled with wheels through the forest for a very reasonable fee. He was very accommodating, allowing us to take photos of the dogs. The trail ride is short, and he provides a narrative on the history of dog sledding. These dogs love to run and work.

Sled Dogs resting @ Alaska Native Heritage Center Anchorage
Dog Sled Team

Alaska Native Heritage Center Traditional Games-Demonstrations

Two-Foot High Kick

If you are lucky, there is often a demonstration by the native youth of the traditional games at the Gathering Place. The Alaskan Natives Olympics includes many of these games since they required a high degree of athleticism. It is traditionally how the young men of the village kept fit during the winter months. The first demonstration was the two-foot high kick. The idea is to touch or kick the ball suspended by a string and pole. The athlete jumps off the floor using both feet, hits the suspended target with both feet together while maintaining balance and successfully reaching the floor. To increase the completion, when the jumper is landing, both feet must touch the floor at the same time.

Alaska Kick Game - All You Need to Know - Alaska Native Heritage Center
Two-Foot High Kick Credit: ANCC

The two-foot high kick was implemented many years ago when a whale was harvested. A young runner would run back toward the village. When within sight of the village, the messenger would jump and kick both feet into the air while running. This was the signal to those in the village that a whale was caught. Villagers would then prepare themselves to help with “beaching” the whale, thus ensuring their fair portion of the meat.

One-Handed Reach

Next, a young girl demonstrated the one Handed Reach. They lower a ball on a string to a specific height above the floor. The athlete first puts all her weight on her left fist. This requires the athlete to balance on her hand with at least one elbow tucked under the lower abdominal area. The rest of the body is parallel to the floor. The participant will then use their other hand to reach up and touch the suspended target. Upon doing this, the participant must get that hand back to the floor before any other part of his/her body touches the floor, thus showing his/her balance to the floor officials.

This game shows balance, athletic prowess, and strength. Having the best height is the aim of the game. Not surprisingly, the taller the person, the higher they can reach. The winner of the day was a young man who completed a one leg kick with the ball suspended approximately 10 feet above the floor. 

Native Heritage Center-Kayak Building
Native Heritage Center-Kayak Building

“Experience Alaska’s Indigenous People” is the center’s motto. It is definitely fascinating.….and some young guides were great and threw in funny little tidbits about their culture. The Alaska Native Heritage Center showcases the importance of cultural preservation. Everything you need to know and understand the values of Native Alaskan cultures past, present, and future is authentically demonstrated here. We highly recommend adding this to your Alaska itinerary.

Have you visited the Alaska Heritage Cultural Center? We would love to hear about your experience. Please share a comment below!

Remember that happiness is a way of travel-not a destination-All You Need to Know - Alaska Native Heritage Center