Alaska Culture Comes Alive in Tanacross

Alaska seem so remote from the continental US.  That’s because it is in more ways than one. 

During my visits to Alaksa, I have always felt like I stepped back about 40 or 50 years in time.  Things are different there.  Life is different.  Slower, less commercialized and much more self-reliant.  Of course, in Anchorage, you can find a coffee shop, but you can also go to the farmers market and buy carvings from a man who lives in a home without plumbing….along with the rest of his neighbors….and that is normal.

In the June 2012 Alaska magazine, Jeanie Greene wrote a short article called “Culture Comes Alive.”  I am going to quote part of it below:

“I can imagine thousands have driven by the village just a short drive off the main highway near Tok, Alaska.  The village had moved 3 times and now Tancross has been in its present location on the Tanana River since 1973.

I drove in one day and stayed a week.  They were planning a potlatch.  I ended up filming the activities and captured the elders and local people cooking and baking and the men, dicing moose meat for the moose head soup, so delicious with a hint of smoke flavor from the meat shed.

During the big meal, hundreds were fed and my eyes grew huge as I watched my husband pick a hunk of moose and bone as big as his plate.  Something about being around Alaska Natives turns this softspoken scholarly man into one of them.  Happens all the time, like in Fort Yukon, we visited a lovely elder named Mrs. Ward.  She told us stories of her tough life, walking for miles in the winter snow.  She served us tea and showed us her beautiful beadwork.  She didn’t have indoor plumbing but her charm and dignity belied her humble surroundings.  To us she was royalty.

That’s what makes Alaska so wonderful.  It hasn’t caught up to the rest of the US, in that sense.  Alaska Natives live far enough apart that traditions and customs remain intact, as does the pride in the differences.”

Here is a youtube video showing the dancing in Tanacross.

Jeanie summed it up so eloquently.  I have always felt the spirit of inclusion in Alaska.  I have wonderful memories of dancing in the long house wearing a beautiful eagle robe loaned by one of the elders.  It’s hard to leave.  It’s easy to stay a day, a week, a month, and before you know it, forever.  I have friends there who have done exactly that.

I imagine that when the Europeans first encountered the Native people in the lower 48 that culture and life was much the same here.  Note the comment about the village having moved 3 times.  We know from early maps here that villages moving, and sometimes significant distances, wasn’t so uncommon. 

Visiting Alaska, for me, was a way to transport myself back in time to when the Native people had not been spread to the winds, before losing their cultural connections in the tsunami of Europeanization and assimilation. 

You can see and listen to Jeanie Green’s award-winning documentary series, “Heartbeat Alaska,” depicting the life of Alaska’s Native people in remote villages at this link:

About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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