Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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Chapter 3:
SUBSISTENCE IN ALASKA'S PARKS, 1910-1971 (continued)

D. The Alaska Native Cultural Center Proposal

The National Park Service had no Alaska presence outside of the various parks and monuments throughout the territorial period and for the first several years of statehood. But in November 1964, newly-appointed NPS Director George Hartzog appointed a special task force to prepare an analysis of "the best remaining possibilities for the service in Alaska," and two months later, the group produced Operation Great Land, a bold blueprint of potential agency activities. Among its many recommendations, the report identified thirty-nine Alaska zones or sites that contained outstanding recreational, natural, or historical values, and it also called for the establishment of an Alaska-based office. In response, the agency established the Alaska Field Office, located in Anchorage. The office, opened in April 1965, was minimally staffed; it seldom consisted of more than a biologist, a planner, and a secretary. The staff worked under the direction of the Mount McKinley National Park Superintendent. [40]

In October 1967, the potential for an enhanced level of agency activity arose when NPS Director Hartzog, along with Assistant Director Theodor Swem, were invited to meet with Governor Walter Hickel in Juneau. At this meeting, which had been arranged by Federal Field Committee for Development Planning in Alaska chairman Joseph Fitzgerald, the two NPS officials floated various park proposals. [41]

In addition, Hickel—at the behest of Congresswoman Julia Butler Hansen (D-Wash.), who had just returned from an Alaskan vacation—was presented with the "Native Cultural Centers" idea. This concept envisioned that the National Park Service would assist in

the development of places where Alaska visitors can see examples of native culture in appropriate settings and, through meeting and talking with natives, can gain greater understanding and appreciation for those who have inhabited this strange, hostile land for centuries. [42]

The beneficiaries of this idea, however, would by no means be limited to tourists. Natives, and Native communities, were recognized as being in the midst of a rapid transformation between traditional and modern ways, and traditional occupations, housing styles, and other cultural elements were being cast aside as Natives—particularly in western and northern Alaska—attempted to cope with those changes. The NPS hoped that the establishment of various cultural centers might serve as cultural touchstones, where Natives across the state would learn about their own traditional culture. [43]

The NPS's San Francisco Service Center responded to the Juneau meeting by designating a three-person team to travel to selected sites in "native Alaska." That four-week trip, taken in May and June 1968, was intended to investigate not only the cultural center idea but to "examine the present state of preservation among the native villages and recommend courses of historic preservation which could result in greater understanding and appreciation of the native cultures by visitors and the native Alaskans themselves." The trio visited several of Alaska's largest population centers, including Barrow, Kotzebue, Nome, Juneau, Wrangell, Ketchikan, Fairbanks, and Anchorage. The team also visited six Eskimo (Inupiat) villages, two Siberian Yup'ik villages, and two Athapaskan villages. It made no attempt to visit any Central Yup'ik villages, and it opted not to focus on Aleut culture because the Aleuts "retain very few of the old cultural traditions." [44]

The team's report, written shortly after its return to San Francisco, was quick to point out that "It is not a foregone conclusion that the National Park Service is the most logical agency to spearhead this study, or to 'carry the ball' on the cultural center concept. But a first step must be taken by someone if the goal of cultural preservation is to be achieved." Having said that, the team recommended the establishment of three centers, all located "near the larger cities and readily accessible to the tourists": an Eskimo Native Culture Center in Nome, an Athapascan Native Culture Center in Fairbanks, and Southeast Coastal Indian Culture Center in Ketchikan. Regarding preservation, the report recommended that "some of the most representative native villages" be designated National Historic Landmarks "to give them proper recognition and encourage local preservation efforts." Finally, it recommended that Congress designate a commission "to investigate establishment of cultural centers and their effect on the state and the nation." The commission would be composed of representatives from a variety of federal and state agencies, native groups, and tourism organizations. [45]

It is difficult to ascertain the immediate reaction to the issuance of this report, but it had little practical effect. During the next few years, no one—neither the NPS, Native groups, nor tourism organizations—stepped up to adopt any of the report's recommendations. The report, however, was nevertheless valuable because it signaled the NPS's interest in Native preservation issues, both in the identification and analysis of structural preservation (which had been the NPS's traditional role, as evidenced by Sitka and Old Kasaan National Monuments) but in broader cultural preservation issues as well. The agency stepped gingerly into the latter theme and made it clearly known that resolving such issues was best handled by Native groups themselves, but the agency's concern over the loss of traditional cultural elements motivated the agency to both present the issue to a broader public and suggest possible solutions.

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003