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Alaska Natives Still Struggle to Keep Their Traditions - 2001-12-10

More than 250 years after the first wave of European exploration broke over Alaska, the state's indigenous people are still struggling to keep their traditions from being swamped by western culture.

Mike Osborne takes us to Haines, Alaska, to visit one of the earliest and most successful programs designed to preserve native culture.

Alaska Indian Arts is housed in a cavernous, century old army barrack building on the hill rising up behind downtown Haines. Inside, visitors can meet and talk with craftsmen at work in several native artistic disciplines: painting, weaving, dancing, drumming, engraving and carving.

"Alaska Indian Arts was originally called Alaska Youth Incorporated, and that was basically a work project, keep busy program for youngsters that involved scouting and wood smithing out in the woods," says Lee Heinmiller, Alaska Indian Arts' director. His father, Carl Heinmiller, founded the program in the mid 1950's.

"My father was a primitive arts specialist and a sculptor and had worked before World War II for the city of Cleveland in parks and recreation centers there," he says. "So he was used to working with kids in scouting and trying to come up with 'keep busy projects' for the youth. So that's what he started here, because there wasn't a lot going on."

In 1957 Mr. Heinmiller's boys planned to travel all the way to the U.S. East Coast, for a national scouting event held that year in Pennsylvania. Made up largely of native children, the troop decided they would perform a traditional Indian dance for their fellow scouts at the annual meeting. But by the middle of the twentieth century, very few southeast Alaska natives were still living a traditional lifestyle. When the boys turned to their tribal elders for help with the dances and costumes, they ran into surprising resistance.

"They didn't really want to help the kids. They were saying, 'You know, we really shouldn't be doing this, the old ways are dead, forget about 'em, pretty much things are changing.' And then the kids started doing it anyhow," he says. "And the minute you start doing it, your grandparents go, 'Oh, you're not doing it right! I've got to show you how to do it.'"

The dancing was well received in Pennsylvania, so much so that the boys were invited to perform at a similar event in Alaska the next year and in New Mexico the year after that. Girls were added to the dance troupe in the early 1960's and the group began performing for the tourists visiting Haines each summer. The success of the dancers inspired a kind of cultural renaissance among local Alaska natives. Carl Heinmillers' original scouting troupe eventually evolved into a native art school attracting students from tribes all over the state. One of Alaska Indian Art's most successful ventures is totem carving.

For a culture without a written language, Indian totems preserve clan history, honor the dead, tell traditional stories, commemorate important events, and serve as a kind of family crest. Wayne Patterson is a second-generation carver. He learned the craft from his father, one of AIA's original artists.

"I used to watch him carve and say, 'I want to learn how to do that.' That was truly my original inspiration and I stuck with it. Now that I've got twenty nine years in, I've got five canoes and I've got thirty three totems. You know, I've been chopping on wood for a long time," says Wayne Price.

As Alaska Indian Arts graduates like Mr. Price begin to apprentice a third generation of craftsmen, the indigenous art of America's last frontier is moving into still wider circles. This past summer Wayne Price taught Indian art to a group of young apprentice carvers from all over the world. A tuft of hair from each student now adorns his latest creation, a war staff that he will carry in tribal dances.