A word from the president: Alaska Native Heritage Center turns 10, still teaching…and learning

By: Margie Brown, CIRI president and CEO

Congratulations to the Alaska Native Heritage Center (ANHC) for reaching an important milestone – 10 years of operation. CIRI takes great pride in this accomplishment because it grew out of the actions of former CIRI President and CEO Roy Huhndorf, former Executive Director of The CIRI Foundation, Lydia Hays and Paul Tiulana, a well-known Inupiaq mask maker, dancer and singer.

These individuals first started discussing the idea of building an Alaska Native cultural center in the 1970s. They thought Anchorage was the best place for a statewide cultural center because the city was Alaska’s largest Native village, with a significant population of Alaska Native people who had connections with literally every other community in the state. Their vision was to build a center that would serve as a gathering place where Alaska Native cultures would be nurtured and shared with visitors, both Alaska Native and non-Native, from all over the state and the world.

CIRI staff members and associates did much of the early work to promote the cultural center concept and they won support for the project from the Alaska Federation of Natives in 1987. Less than two years later, in 1989, ANHC incorporated as a non profit educational and cultural organization. Supporters raised $14.5 million in public, private and Alaska Native regional corporation contributions to construct the Center on 26 acres of CIRI land in Northeast Anchorage. It opened to the public and started operation on May 1, 1999.

ANHC encountered many challenges during its first decade, from revenue shortfalls to the demands of trying to simultaneously operate a successful tourist attraction, culture center and education facility.

But the Center is working and achieving success in its cultural and educational missions. Walk across the grounds and you will see a microcosm of village life, and life in Alaska. Recently the scene included out-of-state tourists watching Alaska Native dancing and inspecting traditional village sites while nearby young iPod-clad ANHC staff members sat on a blue tarp, in the middle of a parking lot, learning to field dress ducks.

It is an exciting time for the ANHC because, like Alaska Native cultures, it is still growing to meet its full potential. I am especially interested in some of the Center’s new education initiatives, especially the cultural proficiency program being developed by Ethan Petticrew, vice president of cultural and educational services.

Petticrew came to the Center last June after a long career as a teacher and then as curriculum and assessment coordinator in the Aleutian Region School District. There he worked with Outside consultants to develop a curriculum that combines national education standards with village practices to improve student success and graduation rates. They came up with a concept, similar to the national Quality Schools Initiative, that replaced K-12 grades with three broad levels and replaced traditional report cards and grades with quarterly progress reports that evaluate where students stand on a continuum of well-defined academic objectives. This system improves learning by enabling students to learn at their own speed. It rewards high-achieving students by moving them through the three levels more quickly and encourages slower learners to stay in school and keep learning because it doesn’t fail students at the end of a school year and then make them restart from the beginning of a grade level when they fail to reach certain objectives.
The ANHC is adopting a similar program to improve its employees’ cultural proficiency. The goal is to improve guest experiences while also increasing young Alaska Native staff members’ cultural awareness and helping them develop work and learning skills that will improve their future success in a modern world.

Petticrew has developed 11 different educational rubrics for different job categories, ranging from greeters to gift shop employees and maintenance workers, that assess staff members’ knowledge about each of the five major Alaska Native culture groups. Workers will demonstrate their cultural skills and knowledge by choosing to give a demonstration or presentation to ANHC guests or co-workers and they will be rewarded with pay raises that are correlated with growth in cultural competency.

If successful, this program will benefit both guests and workers while also helping the Center satisfy certain grant requirements and educational standards. More importantly, it will help young Alaska Native people know themselves better by knowing more about their own heritage.

I wish the ANHC a bright future and great success in meeting all of these goals, because the idea of having a cultural center that nurtures Alaska Native cultures and promotes cultural education is just as important today as it was when Mr. Huhndorf, Ms. Hays and Mr. Tiulana started discussing it more than 30 years ago.