Understanding the Past

a man wearing a yellow jacket and green backpack holds a shovel as large mountains extend out toward the horizon.
An NPS archeologist awaits a helicopter ride back to base camp in Gates of the Arctic National Park.

NPS Photo / Dev Dharm Khalsa

Alaska Native communities and cultures are integral to the landscapes of Alaska’s national parks. Study of the environment cannot be fully understood without embracing the centuries-long relationships that Alaska Native families have with Alaska’s ecosystems. These relationships are as widespread and diverse as the cultural landscape.

Learning about and documenting Alaska Native cultures through oral history, linguistics, Alaska Native art and literature, archaeology, ecology, and biology, is critical to the management of national park lands. It requires building relationships based on trust and mutual appreciation with Alaska Native communities. In addition, the NPS Subsistence Program prioritizes local knowledge through Regional Advisory Councils and NPS Subsistence Resource Commissions, which are made up of local rural residents.

a woman standing in a field of boulders with enormous mountains in the distance bends her head over a yellow handheld device.
An NPS archeologist works on a Trimble GPS unit to take data on an archeological site in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

NPS Photo / Greg Kinman

One way we learn about and share Alaska Native history and knowledge is to record stories and descriptions of everyday life and activities through oral history interviews. A popular oral history method used by national parks in Alaska are called place name studies. Using maps, drawings, and audiovisual equipment, park anthropologists work with Alaska Native communities to record the special meanings that language and stories convey about geographical locations. Language and history help us understand people’s relationship to the environment. NPS researchers make an effort to visit special places with local cultural experts in order to better appreciate their connection to the land. How we perceive the locations of significant events, place names, or day-to-day natural resources all have deeper meaning in fulfilling the NPS mission.

Traditional ecological knowledge, often referred to as TEK, is the knowledge and expertise that indigenous groups gained of their environment over hundreds or thousands of years of observations and experiences with their lands, waters, and wildlife. TEK is passed down through generations. Park scientists work with Alaska Native communities to document TEK through interviews and focus groups. Recording the communities’ deep knowledge of the environment and observations of changes over time helps parks better understand history and nature. Listen to these observations via the University of Alaska Fairbanks oral history program's Project Jukebox.

Alaska Natives are leaders in researching their own cultural studies and cultural continuity. In the face of changes to their homelands caused by development and climate change, and as it becomes more difficult to pass down history and traditional skill sets to younger generations, Alaska communities recognize the importance of documenting cultural practices for future generations. The NPS can assist with this research and documentation.

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    Last updated: April 5, 2024