Dena’Ina Way of Living
by Jean Bundy, 3rd year IDSVA student
Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi, the Dena’Ina Way of Living, an exhibition at the Anchorage Museum, illustrates how a population lived thousands of years ago without electricity, running water and modern medicine. Ethnically Athabascan, the Dena’Ina have been in the Cook Inlet region of Alaska for millennia.
Europeans brought smallpox which reduced the Dena’Ina population, making subsistence more difficult. When America bought Alaska in 1867, traders arrived with fabric bolts and ready-made clothing. The imposing missionaries encouraged Western dress.
How do you relate to nineteenth century shaman dolls or arrows in glass cases, no longer used as once intended? Many visitors feel disconnected because they don’t possess a narrative about viewed artifacts.
The pair of summer gloves pictured above were made from caribou in 1883. Glass beads and dentalium shells were a mark of wealth and indication of a trading culture. Chances are today’s museum goer bought winter gloves at, say, LL Bean and can also afford to lose them; they aren’t precious. And modern machine washing would destroy beadwork and shells. Ancient cultures couldn’t run to a store or shop online for replacements. Without handmade outerwear, the Dena’Ina would have perished, which is why they highly valued and coveted their gear.
It took many ground squirrels to make this parka, 1898-1899, which is not unlike Western clothing styles. Was it itchy to the skin? Was it washable? What if the chief gained weight? Was there a thrift shop for unwanted clothing? In the late eighteen hundreds, Dena’Ina seamstresses began selling their work to tourists and seamen as art works, thus bypassing original functionality.
When does an art piece become an artifact or vice-versa? Is it monetary value that settles the score or is it institutions that make the call after scarfing up loot? Artifacts need a narrative to enliven form which loses sensuality when stuffed in a box away from its origin and intent. Viewers will sadly learn that a major collection arranged for this show was abruptly pulled and remains in St. Petersburg because of a 2012 Russian government ruling that prevents loans to American institutions. The exhibition catalogue is available on Amazon.