Sunday, November 16, 2008

Nature and Culture in Alaska

We love Alaska. There are so many interesting things to learn. There are two main parts to Alaska. The larger, northern part and the narrow, lower part called the panhandle. Can you guess why it is called the panhandle? It is not possible to drive from one part to the other through Alaska. Some parts of the panhandle can be reached by road through Canada or the state of Washington. But the capital city of Juneau only has 40 miles of road and can only be reached by air or sea.

We visited several glaciers. They are huge. About 11,000 years ago glaciers covered much of North America, they melted and these glaciers are part of what has not melted. One glacial field is the size of the state of Rhode Island! The ice in the glacier is bluish because the weight of the snow has been compressed over the years making it denser causing it to look blue. We took a boat up to where the glacier meets the ocean. Pieces fall off making ice bergs so we could not go closer than ¼ of a mile. Even so it the wall of ice looks huge.
One day we went hiking on Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau. The sun was shinning so it was very warm, too warm for the way we were dressed. We had to fly up to the top of the glacier on a helicopter where we put crampons (metal things that went over our boots with spikes in the bottom so we didn’t slip on the ice) and were given an ice ax. The glacier was amazing. There are little waterfalls, streams, caves, hills and valleys. We learned how to climb up a hill by using our ice ax and sticking the toe of our crampons into the ice. It worked very well. It was an exciting day but we go very sweaty. Imagine – sweaty walking on a glacier – in Alaska.

We flew to the panhandle but took the boat back to the Anchorage area. The ferryboat took 24 hours. On the way we saw more animals – orca and humpback whales, stellar sea lions, seals, bald eagles, Dall porpoises (they look like little orca whales as they are black and white, too), and puffin birds. We loved the ferryboat. It was big and had a movie theater, a cafeteria, and small rooms for sleeping plus it carried many vehicles.

In Anchorage we visited the Alaska Native Heritage Center, where we learned about the first Alaskans. We especially liked the dance and games presentations. The dancers and players are local high school students who take classes in native culture where they can study native art, music, and/or dance. Today the Native Americans in Alaska live they same way we do so the best way for the young people to learn about their ancestors is in school. We learned that there are several different groups, only the most northern are called Eskimo. However, they call themselves Tlingit (pronounced similar to kling kit), Aleut, Inupiaq, Yup’ik, and Athabacan. They live in different areas of Alaska and have different ways of living based on the geography of the area they live in. For example the Aleuts live on the islands so their life has a lot to do with the sea, use kayaks and hunt seals.
Their songs and dances tell stories, mainly about their hunting and fishing. When they dance the females dance with their legs together, dipping at the knees and moving the hands to the rhythm while the guys dance with their feet apart, bent at the knees, stopping one foot, making stronger hand movements and making noises. They don’t move around when they dance because most of the dancing was done in the wintertime, inside. Their houses were large but often had 100 people living in it so there wasn’t much room so their dances don’t take up much room. The mother is the head of the family. It is called a matrilineal family (notice the word starts with "ma." The children take the clan name of the mother – it would be similar to a last name. We are patrilineal (starts with "pa") so we usually take the name of our father. They use a drum and some groups use a tambourine made of goat hooves. They use to use puffin beaks (a bird) but the puffin is protected, now.

No Alaskan people lived in igloos. The ones in Canada did. The Alaskans would sometime build a wall of snow to keep out the wind, though. Games are ways to train the young people the skills they will need when they get older. (Think about it… playing with dolls and trucks, etc.) They attach a ball on a string, hang it up high, then jump up and try to kick it. The skill of jumping high was used when seal hunting. During the winter, seals scratch small holes in the ice between 50 and 150 yards apart so they can breathe. The hunters station themselves near the holes. They put a feather or something in the hole, it starts to jiggle when the seal comes up for air then they try to spear it. If they get the seal they need help in preparing it and carrying it home so they jump up kicking one foot as high as they can so the other hunter can see it. If they miss getting the seal then they jump up kicking two feet as high as they can, which means "I missed and maybe the seal is coming your way so be on the lookout." They share everything with everyone in the community. They believe it is better to give than receive.

This picture is from the Native Heritage Center. We were talking to one of the guides. Looking from left to right you will see the skin of a fur seal, then a river otter, and finally a sea otter. The sea otter has 650,000 hair follicles per square inch. That is how they stays warm and can float. They roll over in the water, which traps air between the hairs and it helps them float. Some, like the Aleut, believe that when they die their spirit goes into the sea otter. That way when they are out alone in their kayak and the sea otter, who is very inquisitive, swims up to their boat, they feel a sense of comfort, like someone is watching over them. It makes them feel a home even when they are far from home. Also, when the skin of the sea otter is taken off the skeleton and internal organs are similar to humans. We have learned a lot in Alaska. It is a big, beautiful state, with many interesting things to see and do.