Early in 2020, just before the pandemic shut down museums and other cultural spaces, the Alaska Native Heritage Center (ANHC) gathered together interns and elders, staff and board members. At stake: how to ensure the center — and the team — could survive.

That intergenerational gathering early in the pandemic forced the center “to hold up a mirror to ourselves,” says Emily Edenshaw, who at the time was brand-new as president and CEO.

The value and importance of truth-telling is emphasized at ANHC, and interns felt emboldened to share their truths with the board and staff.

For too long, interns felt they came second to the visitor experience. Like many other nonprofits, the organization had “drifted a bit,” Edenshaw said, from its mission of healing and strengthening its own people.

So began a transformation to recenter on traditions, culture, language and art — not just to inform and entertain, but as a path to healing. While the lost 2020 tourist season cost ANHC $1 million, it also created space for new strategies going forward.

Raising awareness for ANHC Culture Boxes

Partnerships were formalized including one that helps Alaska Native carvers who have struggled with addiction and homelessness. An Alaska Native business directory is in the works. Renovation of the physical space is planned.

In normal years, more than half of visitors to Alaska seek out Indigenous culture, an economic boon. Edenshaw, recently elected to the Alaska Travel Industry Association board, is part of a group building a tribal tourism alliance. Those sharing their traditions benefit in ways beyond money. Immeasurable “is the language revitalization, is our youth knowing they are part of a culture that is living and vibrant,” Edenshaw says.

The goal in the pandemic, Edenshaw says, was “manage to open up, safely. And we said, ‘if they can’t come to the Heritage Center, we’re going to bring the Heritage Center to them.’ ”

They did, in all kinds of ways.

Culture boxes were packaged and mailed to help youth make beaded necklaces and cedar bark bracelets, fishing jigs and traditional yo-yos. When ANHC asked who wanted one of the first 250, more than 1,200 requests poured in. Cooped-up elders were surprised with boxes of tea and activities just for them. Interns tucked in letters. Elders wrote back with their own stories of first catch or whatever they wanted to share. With support of Alaska Native regional corporations, about 2,000 culture boxes were mailed to youth and elders around Alaska and as far away as New York and Georgia.

Creative solutions filled needs for Alaskans. Branding kits helped 50 Alaska Native artists document, package and promote their art. The center’s Facebook feed was peppered with at-home activities like how to make snow goggles. Behind-the-scenes virtual tours and school visits kept the center accessible. Students heard directly from a culture bearer, got close looks at art collections and more.

Dustin Newman, who is Unangax/Deg Xiang Athabascan, builds a frame for an iqyax, a kayak, on the grounds of the Alaska Native Heritage Center in October 2020. (Photo by Mike Conti)

A surprise blessing will carry over in years to come. A consortium of national philanthropies including Ford Foundation in September 2020 named the Alaska Native Heritage Center one of “America’s Cultural Treasures.” The center will receive $3.1 million in general operating funds over the next four years to support healing, cultural and educational efforts. Learning of the award, Edenshaw was overcome with relief.

She knew: “The work had just begun.”