Students use books, online collections, and resident Elders to learn more about the artifacts on display at the long-term care center in Kotzebue. - Hannah Atkinson

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Local artifacts bring Elders, youth together

February 10th | Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder Print this article   Email this article  

A thoughtfully-placed collection of artifacts is helping bring together Elders and youth in Kotzebue.

The objects are on display at Utuqqanaat Inaat, the long-term care facility in town, and for the last several months local students have spent time with the center's residents learning about them.

"We wanted to draw more people into the long-term care center and get involved with the Elders," said Hannah Atkinson, an anthropologist with the National Park Service, who grew up in town.

The project to share and renew the display was made possible by a grant last spring.

Atkinson partnered with the high school's Inupiaq studies program to bring a group of students into the center for a handful of workshops.

"The collection is pretty big so we were able to just take a small portion of it out of the case and have the students analyze the artifacts and learn a little bit about the methods of artifact analysis that involve looking at the artifact, seeing what you can observe about it, the condition that it's in, and taking measurements. Then, we use a comparative collection to see if it's like anything else from this region," she said.

The comparative collection they used for this project came from Cape Krusenstern, which they accessed online.

While the students were able to learn a lot about the collection using those more distant resources, the most unique resources were sitting right there in the room with them, she said.

"They were asking the Elders questions about the artifacts and the Elders would just pick up artifacts and start telling stories. The Elders added a lot of information because the artifacts are things they can remember their parents using. They can recognize certain styles and whether it's from upriver communities or coastal communities. They can also recognize different materials that the students aren't familiar with because different things have replaced them, like sinew that was used to tie tools together. They were able to talk really in-depth about these materials and how these were made," she said.

Elder Wendell Booth, who lives at the long-term care facility, recognized some of the subsistence tools in the display.

"These type of artifacts were used for ice fishing," he pointed out. "I remember using this for fishing."

Elder May Watson was drawn to an old ulu, and showed how it was used, while Mary Reed described other artifacts her family used to use for "cooking, grinding, cutting, and chopping."

"I think it's pretty important to have Elders engaged because they have such a wide range of experiences and they have experienced a significant change in their lifetime," Atkinson said. "The use of tools in the Inupiaq culture that they have experienced is so broad. They can just add really in-depth knowledge about things and they have a personal connection to these artifacts. That's a really cool thing to see them try to explain to students, that this tool the students are analyzing and trying to figure out through books are something the Elders are able to relate very personal stories about how they were used in their lifetime. It's definitely a more meaningful relationship that people can build with material culture if the Elders are there sharing how that material culture developed and how it changed the course of their life."

Some of the Elders shared memories of their parents living at camp. Other's shared tales of adventure and life-changing experiences, inspired by the artifacts they now had on hand.

"I think it's a connection to their lives," said Val Kreil, the administrator of Utuqqanaat Inaat. "We have a very unique set of Elders here who grew up on the land. From their grandparents, they were working with a lot of oral histories where maybe not everything was written down, so they were able to share their experiences with their families and have that continue on. The world's changing. You have your iPhones and your computers and you're learning about a generation that didn't have any of that. It's connecting the history of Alaska with young people and providing an opportunity to continue that knowledge. Instead of trying to guess what's in that artifact display case, they can tell you because it's what they used."

For one Elder in particular, Kreil said, the experience was even more special. She is blind and can't normally connect with the collection on display.

"This made it a little more accessible [for her] when we took things out of the display case," he said. "She was able to feel them and touch them and know what was in there."

While the workshops with Elders and youth are now complete, the organizers hope the relationship between the generations will be strengthened by the experience.

"I hope it shows the students that the long-term care center is a friendly place they can go to visit their relatives, learn about the past and connect with people," Atkinson said.

She also hopes it will inspire some of the younger generation to learn more about their heritage and the history of their community and perhaps even pursue a career in the field some day.

"I think it's important to involves students in heritage projects like this because they develop a stronger appreciation for the place they come from and possibly some of them will want to go on to do more heritage preservation work. We have a lot of need for archaeologists and anthropologists and museum curation experts so that we can build our infrastructure to build more collections to showcase the heritage," she said. "I wouldn't be in my position if it hadn't been for programs when I was at Kotzebue High School, so I hope to pass that on to others."

The collection will remain on display, and always open to the public, at Utuqqanaat Inaat in Kotzebue.

 

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