At 32 years of age, CIRI shareholder Aaron Leggett has played a vital role in preserving and perpetuating the Dena’ina language and culture. As the Special Exhibits Curator at the Anchorage Museum, Leggett has been instrumental in bringing the first exhibition of the Dena’ina Athabascan people to a major museum.
The exhibit “Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi: the Dena’ina Way of Living” opened September 15 and runs through January 12 featuring artifacts and artwork from museums all over the world. A crowning achievement for Leggett, the exhibit is but the latest in a lifetime spent exploring the Dena’ina culture and elevating its prominence.
Born in Anchorage in 1981, Leggett was raised at a time when there was almost no recognition of the original inhabitants of Cook Inlet. His only source of information on the subject was his grandmother Marie (Ondola) Rosenberg who was Dena’ina from Idlughet (Eklutna).
“She instilled in me a sense of being proud of who I am,” said Leggett.
He first learned of his ancestry in preschool after telling his grandmother about a school project where students made jars of cranberry sauce to take home for Thanksgiving.
“I remember giving it to her and saying, ‘Grandma, we dressed up as Indians in school.'” She replied, in her husky voice, “Aaron, you are Indian.”
Until about 15 years ago, most of the region’s history focused on the tent city that became Anchorage and the pipeline days. Outside of a few mostly out-of-print publications on the region’s original inhabitants, it was difficult to find relevant information about the Dena’ina people. After earning his degree in anthropology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Leggett set out to change the historical narrative.
“I have never encountered a man so passionate about his culture, about getting the story right and about making it his life’s work,” said CIRI Board member Hallie Bissett who interned with Aaron at CIRI. “He has truly returned Dena’ina to a level of prominence in the community that was unheard of such a short time ago.”
Leggett’s work includes scholarly articles about the Dena’ina language and people and he has also co-authored several publications including “Dena’ina Heritage and Representation in Anchorage, AK,” “Dena’ina Nat’uh: Our Special Place” and “Sakuuktugut: Alaska Native Corporations, an Overview of ANCSA.” He also served as one of the editors and contributors to the exhibition catalog for “Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi: The Dena’ina Way of Living.”
Leggett was an influential voice in naming the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage and helped select the art that is displayed there. He has been involved in putting up a series of interpretive signs around Anchorage that reflect Dena’ina culture, including near Ship Creek, Chester Park and Potter Marsh.
Leggett currently serves as the Tribal Council Treasurer of the Native Village of Eklutna. He has worked on the Anchorage Historic Preservation Commission, was the Dena’ina cultural historian at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and interned at CIRI as an assistant historian. He also serves as an advisor to the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center and has continued to lend his expertise to CIRI for its annual calendar.
“Even though Aaron is still very young, he has devoted countless hours to serving his people by working tirelessly to preserve their Dena’ina culture and traditions,” A.J. McClanahan, CIRI’s former historian stated.
Leggett has also made it his personal mission to spend the rest of his life learning the Dena’ina language.
“Many of the things I could only have dreamed of a few years ago – such as interpretive signage, proper recognition, a museum exhibition and catalog – are already happening,” Leggett said. “Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done to reinvigorate naqenagq (our language).”
The mission of CIRI is to promote the economic and social well-being and Alaska Native heritage of our Shareholders, now and into the future, through prudent stewardship of the company’s resources, while furthering self-sufficiency among CIRI Shareholders and their families.
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Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (CIRI) is one of 12 regional corporations established in Alaska by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. CIRI is owned by over 9,100 Shareholders, primarily of Athabascan, Southeast Indian, Inupiat, Yup’ik, Alutiiq/Sugpiaq and Aleut/Unangax descent.