At the turn of the century, Edward Anton Rasmuson arrived on the Alaskan border, a Swedish-born missionary there to teach Tlingit children at a time when many small villages had no public schools.
Before he died in 1949, Rasmuson would go on to become the area’s largest bank, the National Bank of Alaska, but he would never lose interest in Alaska’s native culture.
He and his family collected some 6,000 artifacts, textiles, and tools, most of which ended up in a bank-established museum in downtown Anchorage in 1968.
But that museum, which was acquired by Wells Fargo when it acquired the National Bank of Alaska in 2000, closed its doors in 2020, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now much of this historic treasure has been turned over to the Alaskan Native Heritage Center, a museum that focuses on Native culture and is managed by Native Alaskans. Wells Fargo’s donation of more than 1,700 objects nearly doubled the center’s collection and enabled the museum, which opened in 1999 as the only statewide center dedicated to celebrating all of Alaska’s native cultures. to revise its programming.
“These items will help us share our cultures with people around the world, but they will also help us interact directly with our community,” Emily Edenshaw, the heritage center’s president and chief executive, said in an interview.
Edenshaw joined the heritage center in 2019, motivated by her own experience of being thousands of miles away from her Yupik and Inupiaq heritage. Her mother was part of a 1956 forced adoption program in Texas, but Edenshaw returned to Alaska to study and eventually took the Yupik name Keneggnarkayaaggaq, meaning a person with a beautiful personality, spirit, aura, and friend.
“For a long time I was ashamed that I didn’t know my own culture,” she said. “So much of my journey is based on reconnecting with who I am.”
The theme of reconnection was central to the heritage center’s programming with workshops on indigenous food, dancing and singing; there are also community initiatives, such as one aimed at helping Alaskan Native men struggling with homelessness.
Now the museum will also be able to use many of the new objects to transform its exhibits, which have not changed in two decades. Much of that work will come into the hands of Angie Demma, a curator at the Wells Fargo Museum, who has now come to work for the heritage center. She had only been working at the bank’s museum for a few months when Wells Fargo decided to close not only the Anchorage Museum but also 10 of the other cultural centers across the country, leaving only the San Francisco location, which focuses on the origin of the company’s gold rush story.
Demma, who had joined the institution with a plan to revive Wells Fargo’s programming, now became the manager of its disbandment.
“It was a logistical nightmare,” Demma said.
In her new role, Demma said, she is eager to showcase masterpieces of Indigenous craftsmanship, such as a 1900 argillite box by Haida artist Charles Edenshaw (a distant relative of Emily Edenshaw through her husband’s family), with a carved statue of a bear and sea lion locked in battle. There is also a robe of a chief of the Athabascan people with floral motifs, a rawhide fringe and red felt ties from the 1950s.
Unexpectedly, however, were hundreds of other donations that Demma said have come in over the past year, as private collectors and public institutions consider the ethics of holding onto artifacts likely stolen or unfairly traded by indigenous groups.
“We’ve always been a place where people drop things off at the front door, but there’s definitely an increase,” Demma said. “We’re having a hard time keeping up.”
The influx of artifacts has fueled the ambition to upgrade the heritage center building and the board kicks off a $10 million capital campaign. It’s the kind of long-term planning that seemed unfeasible a few years ago when the organization was about to close.
But the Ford Foundation named the center as one of America’s cultural treasures, alongside such institutions as the Apollo Theater and the Japanese American National Museum, in a program designed to help organizations recover from the pandemic. With the title came a four-year, unrestricted grant of $3 million and another $100,000 for strategic planning and technical assistance.
Museum officials said the grant was a godsend for a small nonprofit that doesn’t regularly receive government funding and relies on a combination of federal grants and private donations to keep its doors open.
Art financing was a battleground of sorts in Alaska, where Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy used his veto power in 2019 to sanction the Alaska State Council on the Arts. The state legislature eventually voted to overturn the decision and reinstate the agency.
Today, the state provides the council with about $700,000 — about 20 percent of the council’s total budget of $3.88 million. The rest comes from federal grants and charities such as the Rasmuson Foundation, one of the largest art funders in Alaska.
“We had a near-death experience when we were almost non-existent, but those dark days are now behind us,” said Benjamin Brown, chairman of the arts council since 2007. He noted that several heritage centers in Alaska receive funding from Native companies, such as the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau and the CIRI Foundation in Anchorage.
Brown described the Alaska Native Heritage Center as an “important part of the state’s artistic and cultural infrastructure.” Museum experts also said the nonprofit stands out as one of the few tribal unaffiliated arts organizations run by indigenous people. And by serving everyone, the center has become a meeting place for different tribes and people outside those indigenous communities.
Monica Shah, deputy director of conservation and collectors for the Anchorage Museum, which also received part of the Wells Fargo collection, described the heritage center as essential.
“Without their partnership, I don’t think we could fulfill our mission,” Shah said. She credited the center with helping to bring Native culture to the forefront of Alaska’s identity.
Edenshaw, who is also a member of the state’s tourism commission, said Alaska, which has one of the highest percentages of Native Americans in the United States, needs to do more to promote the cultural significance of its indigenous groups.
Governor Dunleavy’s administration said it has provided significant funding, including a recent $10.5 million federal grant, to the Alaska Travel Industry Associations, which is incorporating indigenous tourism into its promotion. The governor’s office said another grant of nearly $1 million for tourism promotion has been given to Kawerak Inc., a regional nonprofit in the Bering Strait region populated primarily by Native Alaskans.
But Edenshaw said too much of the state’s marketing focuses on “brown bears, Denali, and fish.”
“Where are the native people?” asked Edenshaw. “Our stories, when they’re told, aren’t even told by us.”