CIRI Spotlight: Mary Lou Bottorff

CIRI shareholder Mary Lou Bottorff has collected Alaska Native artifacts for nearly 30 years. When she retired as housing director for Kenaitze Indian Tribe in 2005, she decided she “needed something to do.”

That something evolved from cleaning out her crawl space into one of the state’s most unique museums. She originally opened the Roots Digger Museum in Old Town Kenai. Now located on Kalifornsky Beach Road, the museum is open seven days a week during summer and gives visitors a glimpse into Alaska’s past.

Bottorff took a break from canning red salmon recently to talk about her museum.

“I chose the name ‘The Roots Digger’ because these artifacts dig up the past,” said Bottorff. “The reference book I’m writing is also called ‘The Roots Digger.’ It helps to make people aware of the things Eskimos used in their everyday lives to survive.”

Her idea has been very successful. Visitors learn about Alaska Native ingenuity through a vast array of artifacts that Bottorff has collected – or been given – from throughout Alaska, including southeast Alaska, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the Seward Peninsula, Alaska’s northern coast and more. The artifacts include masks, artwork, tools, clothing, traditional dishes and cookware, trading beads, dolls, regalia and more. Many of the items in the museum were donated or lent to Bottorff by others.

Bottorff was born in Shovel Creek, Alaska, near Nome. Many of her artifacts come from this area. She moved to the Kenai Peninsula in 1972 and has been there ever since.

Bottorff’s foster mother, Verna Mickelson, began gathering Alaska Native artifacts years ago, inspiring Bottorff to continue the tradition. After going through and cataloging her collection after she retired, she decided the collection was something she wanted to share with others.

The museum also features an extensive collection of books on Alaska. Visitors can sit in chairs and learn about the state’s history and cultures.

Bottorff has three children who grew up in Kenai: Philip, Michael John and Lenny. Her husband Harvey passed away 24 years ago. Her great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren are an important motivator of her museum efforts.

Bottorff feels it is important that young people learn about Alaska Native cultures, and the museum is her way of helping to bring that knowledge to them. She gives free tours to school children and encourages field trips.