Alaska Native Collections – Sharing Knowledge



Through the Sharing Knowledge project, members of Indigenous communities from across Alaska and northeast Siberia are working with the Smithsonian Institution and the Anchorage Museum to interpret the materials, techniques, cultural meanings, history, and artistry represented by objects in the western arctic and subarctic collections of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C. The Arctic Studies Center, which organized and implemented the project, is a special research program within the Department of Anthropology, NMNH, with offices in Washington and at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska.

The goals of Sharing Knowledge are to make the Smithsonian collections accessible to all and to support cross-cultural learning among Indigenous home communities, in schools, and around the world. Interest in the extraordinary arts and cultural heritage of the North is truly global in scope. Participants in this project are Elders, scholars, artists, and teachers who invite all to explore, learn, and appreciate.

The combined holdings of NMNH and NMAI are vast—more than 30,000 items from Alaska and northeast Siberia, most collected between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century. The great majority has never been published, exhibited, or seen by contemporary residents of source communities in the North. Collaborative study of these collections for Sharing Knowledge began in 2001-2005, with a series of trips to the museums in Washington by more than forty Elders and regional representatives. This documentation process will continue as many more objects are brought from Washington to new Smithsonian exhibition galleries and Arctic Studies Center facilities at the Anchorage Museum, starting in 2010. Through its alliance with the Arctic Studies Center (since 1993) and its planned physical expansion to house these programs and collections, the Anchorage Museum has become an important Smithsonian partner in fostering the collaborative work of museums and Native communities.

Object records on this site include edited transcripts of museum discussions as well as summaries drawn from history, anthropology, and recorded oral tradition. The Cultures section includes regional introductions and information about contributors. The Resources section offers reading materials, web links, and a curriculum guide with lesson plans designed for middle and high school students.

The Sharing Knowledge site reflects the current state of an on-going project, with inevitable gaps and uneven representation of the different cultural regions. It will grow over time as more information is recorded and new contributors can be brought into the discussion. Please watch the site for continually updated materials and features.

Collaborative Process

The Sharing Knowledge project seeks to follow best practices and standards for cultural research and interpretation. Interview information, including audio and video recordings, was generously provided for public use by members of Indigenous communities, with their informed consent, permission, and review. All of the Washington, D.C. collections study trips were organized in coordination with regional Alaska Native organizations, including the Aleutian-Pribilof Islands Association, Iñupiat Heritage Center, Kawerak, Inc, Sealaska Heritage Institute, Tanana Chiefs Conference, and the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center and Museum. These organizations selected and invited the participants on our behalf. For the Sugpiaq region, we thank the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository for its cooperation. Complete discussion transcripts and recordings are archived at the Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage, with copies provided to the cooperating regional organizations. A statewide panel of Alaska Native and museum advisors (see Credits) has provided overall guidance on exhibition and web design. We hope and expect that the site will provide a significant resource for cultural heritage programs throughout the project region.

Translation and transcription

The Sharing Knowledge materials were variously recorded in English, Russian, and multiple Indigenous languages and dialects. In transcriptions, the spelling and special characters follow standards of the Alaska Native Language Center (University of Alaska, Fairbanks). Every effort was made to work with Native language translators who were fluent in the same dialects as the speakers. Wherever possible, Native language names for objects are given in the language and dialect spoken at the object’s place of origin (if precisely known). The Library of Congress system was used for transcribing names and text from Russian Cyrillic.

Map note

The interactive map that appears in the Cultures and Search sections of the site shows cultural-linguistic boundaries as they existed in about A. D. 1900, an historical date that was chosen to approximate the age of many of the objects in the Smithsonian collections. However, cities, towns, and villages included on the map are contemporary. Map data for Alaska were obtained from publications of the Alaska Native Language Center (University of Alaska Fairbanks), with additional information from James Kari and the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians series. For northeast Siberia, historical map data were provided by Igor Krupnik (Arctic Studies Center) and contemporary village names were edited by Andrew Crow of the Institute for Social and Economic Research (University of Alaska Anchorage). The base map projection and geographic data are by Mountain High Maps. The graphic design is by Ralph Appelbaum Associates and the interactive design by Second Story Interactive Studios. Overall map research and editing was by Dawn Biddison (Arctic Studies Center).