Alaska's cultural frontier


By Nick Gallo

Alaska, a title derived from the Aleut word "Alyeska" meaning Great Land, overflows with superlatives—the biggest state, the highest mountains, the bluest glaciers. It is easy to be awed by the landscape and wildlife, especially on a first visit.

But travelers quickly discover that the Great Land also has a rich cultural history, intertwined with three main threads: the Native cultures, Russian America, and the Gold Rush.

Native cultures

The Native people comprise 16% of the state's population and belong to five major cultural groups: the Athabascan of the interior; Yup'ik and Cupik Eskimo in the southwest; Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik to the north; Aleut and Alutiiq in the Aleutian Islands; and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian in the southeast. Their culture and customs are still vibrant community traditions.

Wood chips fly as Nathan Jackson, a master Tlingit carver, shapes the stylized face of a bear cub in a 300-year-old red cedar. Using an adze, Jackson works in slow, rhythmic fashion to transform the log into an 18-foot totem pole.

Jackson is one of a handful of top-notch carvers at Saxman Totem Park outside Ketchikan, which hosts the world's largest outdoor collection of totem poles. Thirty poles, some rising as high as 60 feet, stand as a symbol of triumphant culture and tradition for three Native cultures—the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.

The totem park is a premier place to appreciate the beauty and power of the cedar monuments. Jutting into the sky, the towering totems have a sacred air. However, they're not religious objects. Poles served as history books, to pass down legends, mark major events or honor the dead.

The Saxman poles were gathered in the 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corps helped retrieve deteriorating poles from ancestral villages. Dozens were relocated to Saxman, where Native carvers restored or replicated them.

Notable examples include the myth-telling Sun and Raven pole at the park's entrance. The Lincoln Pole, probably carved to commemorate the clan's first meeting with white people, is topped by a likeness of Abraham Lincoln. The Chief Ebbits Pole honors an important Native leader.

Equally moving are the carvers' sheds, where a wave of new artisans represents a revitalization in Native culture. With adzes, knives and other carving tools, they make museum-quality art while keeping ancient traditions alive.

Russian America

Shafts of sunlight drift down from the windows of St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka to settle on a rich tapestry of icons glistening amid the interior. The paintings, carved doors, silver gilt tabernacle and other priceless adornments recall a time when Alaska belonged to the Czars.

Russian America began in the mid-18th century with the arrival of promyshlenniki (frontiersmen) and didn't end until the area was sold to the U.S. more than a century later. In 1799, Sitka was the center of Russia's lucrative fur trade. The town, then called New Archangel, blossomed into one of the largest on the West Coast-the "Paris of the Pacific."

The Russian Orthodox Church still flourishes in Alaska, with more than 30 of its characteristic onion-domed buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. St. Michael's, built in the 1840s, stood as Alaska's finest Russian Orthodox cathedral until 1966 when a fire destroyed the original structure. Townspeople formed a human chain and saved almost all of its valuable contents. The cathedral was rebuilt from the original blueprints, and again dominates Sitka's skyline with its striking green dome.

Among the treasures rescued from the flames are the "Sitka Madonna" and "Christ Pantocrater." Both paintings are attributed to the Russian artist Vladimir Borovikovsky. They boast stunning silver rizas, a decorative metal overlay used to protect sacred images. Other standout Russian artifacts include an icon depicting the Archangel Michael, a pearl-encrusted miter and silver gilt wedding crowns.

The Gold Rush

After the U.S. took possession of Alaska in 1867, the region long remained remote and unknown. Then — "Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!" screamed the headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in July 1897. Frenzied by dreams of wealth, thousands of fortune seekers rushed via steamship to Skagway, starting point of the 1898 Klondike Stampede to the gold fields over the White Pass — "the meanest 32 miles in history."

The Gold Rush faded in Skagway just a few years after it began, but it left behind a wealth of historical nuggets preserved in a seven-block district, part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. Skagway retains many original buildings, and thanks to a decades-long restoration effort, the downtown looks much as it did a century ago.

The National Park Service visitors center offers a film, ranger-led talks, and a collection of prospector's equipment similar to the year's worth of provisions each new arrival was required to carry over the pass. The Trail of '98 Historical Museum adds more displays on the Gold Rush and pioneer life.

Nearly 20,000 gold seekers passed through Skagway, transforming a one-homestead settlement into a rough-and-tumble boomtown ruled by crime boss Soapy Smith. Smith's reign ended when he was killed in a gunfight with vigilante Frank Reid. The town's Gold Rush Cemetery is worth a detour. The hero of the day, Reid, was memorialized with an impressive granite slab while Smith was denigrated with a simple wooden marker. Ironically, Skagway now commemorates Smith, not Reid, with an annual summer celebration called Soapy's Wake.

Putting it all together

"Different places in Alaska have pieces of the puzzle, but we offer a nice overview," says Steve Henrikson, collections curator of the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. "We're a good place to see how things fit together." The museum devotes more than half of its exhibition space to permanent displays, which include a clan house and a series of Native galleries. At the entrance to the Tlingit gallery stands a gorgeous, 12-foot-high Thunderbird Screen, depicting the creator of thunder and lightning. The Eskimo gallery displays elaborate masks and traditional Arctic survival equipment.

Exhibits on the museum's second floor, connected by a ramp that curves around an eagle-nesting tree, spotlight Alaska's history after whites arrived. The most significant holding is a bronze Russian imperial crest of a double-headed eagle, given by a Russian official to a Native chief. The section also has cooking utensils, samovars and other items from the Russian America period.

Not to be missed are displays devoted to World War II. It's an eye-opener for many non-Alaskans to learn that the Japanese occupied two of the Aleutian Islands in a lengthy conflict costly to both sides. Like the museum, most of the cultural attractions mentioned in this article are easily reached by cruise passengers. The land of the grand, one learns, has some great people stories.

Nick Gallo was an award-winning Seattle writer. He passed away while this magazine was in production and will be missed by all who knew him.

More to Explore

Anchorage Museum of History and Art
The state's best showcase for art has a wide range of cultural artifacts, paintings and 350,000 historical photographs.

Sitka National Historical Park
This park, built on the site of the 1804 Russian-Tlingit Battle, features a cultural center, walking trail, totem poles and the meticulously restored 1842 Russian Bishop's House.

Sheldon Jackson Museum, Sitka
Alaska's oldest museum, dating back to 1895, contains an important collection of Native artifacts gathered by Dr. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary and educator.

Creek Street, Ketchikan
A narrow boardwalk and historic buildings set on pilings recall the early 1900s, when this area was a red-light district.

White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, Skagway
During this scenic 40-mile rail excursion to White Pass summit, the foot trail worn into the mountainside by gold seekers can be seen.

Alutiiq Museum, Kodiak
This small gem on Kodiak Island conveys the 7,500-year history of the Alutiiq people, decimated by Russians during the fur-trader period.


AAA Connection

AAA Colorado's travel agency offers a variety of cruise options to Alaska. Contact your AAA travel agent, call 866-235-7070 or visit