Aaron Leggett talks about his experience growing up Dena'ina in Anchorage when native cultures weren't broadly visible.
The most comprehensive exhibit featuring the artifacts and culture of the Dena’ina the Anchorage Museum has ever produced is on display for about six more weeks. The exhibit’s coordinator, Aaron Leggett, spoke at Kenai Peninsula College recently to talk about what’s at the museum and his own experience growing up Dena’ina.
Aaron Leggett can remember, to the day, when he realized he was a native Alaskan. November 22nd, 1984. Just before Thanksgiving.
His elementary school class in Anchorage celebrated the holiday by dressing up in the traditional pilgrim and Indian costumes, and making cranberry sauce, which Leggett was excited to give to his grandmother, who was full-blooded Dena’ina from Eklutna.
“I remember giving it to her and saying ‘Grandma, we dressed up as Indians at school today.’ She replied in her husky voice ‘Aaron, you are an Indian.’ That one sentence completely redefined who I was,” Leggett said.
Fast forward almost thirty years, and Leggett has come to not only embrace his ancestry and his cultural heritage, but celebrate it through his work; the most recent of which is an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum called Dena’inaq Huch’ulyeshi : The Dena’ina Way of Living.
Leggett says growing up in Anchorage didn’t expose him to what we typically think of as a native way of life. He had just one relative who spoke Dena’ina as a first language, and he remembers hearing just a few Dena’ina words in his youth.
The reason for the exhibit is pretty simple. To tell the Dena’ina story. Not just to the general public, but to the Dena’ina people as well.
“It’s and education for Dena’ina people, but it’s also a celebration of what we’ve been able to hold on to. It’s sort of my dedication to those that have passed on that shared their knowledge, especially at a time when it was not as fashionable to do it. But also, it’s for those kids who come after me. My new nephew; he’s going to grow up in a different world than I did.”
Leggett says he struggled with his own cultural identity because there were no Dena’ina influences to look to.
“Then all you’re told is what you’re taught in school, which wasn’t very much, or the negative stereotypes, then you don’t have anything to reference to.”
A summer job at the Alaska Native Heritage Center emceeing dances and guiding tours of an Athabascan village made him even more interested in the history. He said his desire to learn was insatiable.
In putting together this exhibit, Leggett says they worked with an advisory committee to decide what the focus should be and what sorts of artifacts would be important in telling the story.
“What they said was make it about a living culture and history and make the people visible, which was the number one thing I felt passionate about.”
Besides the language, another big part of the exhibit looks at how the Dena’ina took advantage of the bounty of the upper Cook Inlet region.
“We recreated a yuyqul, or beluga-spearing platform.”
They would take this long, straight spruce tree, clear it of bark and branches, then bury it, upside down so the root body was resting way above the water line when the tide came back in. At the mouth of the Kenai or Susitna rivers, or in front of Tyonek, where the belugas were taking in salmon or hooligan, Leggett says the hunter would harpoon the beluga when the tides came back in. Then a team of two or three would kayak out to the whale, finish the kill and drag it back in.
He says that particular hunting method, as far as anyone knows, is unique to the Dena’ina, and one that anthropologists have only recently recreated. In addition to that, many native articles of clothing have been either recreated or brought in from other collections from around the world, and there are two movies to go along with the artifacts. The exhibit looks at Dena’ina life from the late 18th century, around the time of Captain Cook’s arrival, to today, and is open until January 12th.