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A day exploring the city of Anchorage; learning about the First Nations of Alaska and dabbling in the natural sciences

We planned our trip to Alaska for the summer months when the days are at their longest and it never really gets dark. The hope was for good weather, which can never be guaranteed in this most northerly of the United States. On our arrival in Anchorage our hopes were raised by some warm summer sun, but when we awoke on morning of our second day the weather has changed for the worst, it was both cold and damp. Mind you we never expected this to be a beach type holiday. We had come to Alaska prepared, so we layered up and set off to the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.

Reading a book outside at 1 a.m. in the morning

Alaska Native Heritage Center

Location: Hours: Fees:
Alaska Native Heritage Center
8800 Heritage Center Drive
Anchorage, Alaska 99504
SUMMER: mid-May to mid-Sept
OPEN DAILY – 9:00 am – 5:00 pmWINTER: mid-Sept to mid-May
OPEN Select Saturdays
10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Adults: $24.95
Seniors/Military: $21.15
Children, ages 7-16: $16.95
Children, ages 0-6: FREE

Luckily we got our hands on some complementary passes so we were able to enter the Center relatively cheaply – but even if we had to pay the full price it was well worth the expense. There is an indoor exhibit area, theater and cinema but we decided to join a quick stop tour of the outdoor exhibits – which celebrates the native Alaskan cultures; the Athabascan of interior and south-central Alaska, the Yup’ik and Cup’ik Eskimo of southwest Alaska, the Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik of northwest to northern Alaska, the Aleut and Alutiiq from Prince William Sound to the end of the Aleutian Island chain, and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian of southeast Alaska. For each culture there is reproduction of a typical dwelling house and inside a guide to tell stories of the particular native people and introduce their way of living using everyday objects.

The first house we visited was that of the Eyak who live in the southeast area of Alaska, which has a milder and wetter climate. These people lived in large buildings constructed from cedar trees. Another distinctive feature of these people was their large totem poles (similar to those we had seen in the museum in Ottawa, Canada manufactured by the native people on the West Coast of Canada).

As we moved to the other areas the house designs were radically different. The other native Alaskans built their houses to survive the cold winter months of Alaska. The houses were generally subterranean with small entrances to protect the inhabitants from the cold and snow, but also unwanted visitors such as raiding tribes and polar bears in the far north. The tour was really good but a little to much of the whistle stop variety – we planned to go back around at our own speed later to talk to the interpretive guides in each dwelling (for one reason or another we never got around to this).

After the tour we headed back inside (to warm up as much as anything else). On the stage in the Visitor Center were a group of teenage Native Alaskans demonstrating some of the typical games played by the Native people. The derivation of these games had originally been to hone the skills and strengths of the people throughout the long dark winters, but had nowadays turned into competitive sports. There is even an world championship in these Alaskan sports. To you and I these sports are quite unusual – the ones demonstrated involved hitting a suspended ball with various parts of the anatomy (mainly the feet and hands) by balance and leaping. Other sports included carrying weights by your ears or carrying four men hanging from your neck as far as possible. Most strange – but when you understand the explanation of each you can see where they come from in terms of testing the skills and refining the strength of the native folk.

Following the sports activities we were entertained by a native dance troupe, made up of a single family from the Yu’pik region. The dances were somewhat reminiscent of the Hawaiian Hula, without the allure or sexuality. The performance of these dances is done from a static standing position; there is no leaping around the stage. These rituals have evolved this way due to the lack of room in the traditional buildings. The accompaniment is provided by simple hand held drums and voice, which somewhat limits the tonal qualities of the music. Like Hula and many oriental dances the movements are used to depict stories of bravery, love and other great deeds. The dancers looked like they were having a fabulous time, especially the oldest lady of the group who was really into her music. After the main show there was a chance to get up and dance, Emily was up for this so while she volunteered. I chose this moment to slip away to watch a film on life in the wilderness (which involved lots of killing and slaughtering of animals and fish). When I returned the audience participation had moved onto playing of the drums.


I can highly recommend visiting the Center. It provides a wonderful opportunity to learn about the first people of Alaska. This is such a vast country that to visit each region to experience the culture of each of these nations would be a real challenge – so this was fabulous way to get a little snippet of insight.

The Discovery Center and the Anchorage Museum

Location: Hours: Fees:
907-929-9200 |

MAY 1 – SEP 30
DAILY 9 A.M. TO 6 P.M.

OCT. 1 – APRIL 30
10 A.M. TO 6 P.M. TUE – SAT

$18 Adult
$15 Alaska Resident
$12 Senior (65+)
$9 Child (3-12)
Free 2 & Younger

The time we left the Native Heritage Center the day was still young so we decided to head off into downtown Anchorage. The city is not what we had expected; it is very modern with a number of high rise buildings. We had visions of something more rustic but alas it is very much like many other small cities throughout the USA.

Our plan for the afternoon was to visit a hands-on science discovery center (the only one in Alaska!!) in downtown Anchorage located at the City’s Museum. A great place for a cold, wet day!

The Imaginarium Discovery Center opened in May 2010 at the Anchorage Museum. This hands-on 9,000 square-foot science center includes 80 exhibits that make earth, life and physical science fun for all ages. Visitors can climb inside a giant bubble, experience simulated earthquake and auroras, hoist themselves vertically with levers and pulleys, and pet marine animals including sea stars. There are six distinct areas:

Explore the world of physics, including the principles of energy, force and motion.

A fun and interactive exhibit that uses bubbles of all shapes and sizes to demonstrate surface tension, shape and light reflection.

A gallery specifically designed for infants and children ages 5 and under where all exhibits offer safe interaction. Kids and their parents can explore the worlds of art, history and science through hands-on play, introducing the wonder of scientific learning through imagination and curiosity.

Learn the difference between geology and geography and find out why zoology has nothing to do with zoos.

Take trips through the solar system to explore the night sky. Click here to read more.

The Smithsonian’s Spark!Lab is a hands-on creative lab that uses engaging activities to help kids and families learn about the history and process of invention.

We spent a good couple of hours working our way around the exhibits. Jack and Emily particularly liked the bubble making, especially the giant bubbles you can stand inside. We headed inside a darkened room where there was a slide show running of photographs of nebula and other astronomical marvels shot by the Hubble Space Telescope. The effects of the darkened room, warm temperatures, stunning photographs and serene music were very soporific – and if we hadn’t had the grace to get up and look around some more the room would have resounded with the rasping tones of adults snoring.

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