ANCHORAGE, Alaska - There may be no better single place to learn about Alaska's Native people than the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. The Welcome House is a graceful 26,000-square-foot building situated on 26 acres. Its design and programs were initially guided by a 30-member Academy of Elders representing the various groups of Alaska Natives to ensure that cultures, traditions and history were accurately portrayed. It's now directed by a 15-member board, the majority of whose members are Alaska Native.
Located 10 miles from downtown Anchorage, the Heritage Center sits in a beautiful wooded setting. Conifers fill the valley, and green-clad mountains are generally topped with snow capped peaks to form a backdrop. A small lake lies adjacent to the center, with a trail encircling the lake.
A few things separate the heritage center from most other museums and cultural centers. It shares the lengthy and rich heritage of all of Alaska's 11 major cultural groups, rather than representing just a single group or tribe. (More than twice the size of Texas, roughly one-sixth of Alaska's population is Alaska Native.) The cultures vary, but all are represented at the heritage center.
Another difference is that many of the exhibits are interactive; visitors experience live culture with numerous hands-on activities, as opposed to many museums where most displays are static and behind glass.
A large carving titled ''Raven, the Creator'' by noted artist John Hoover, Aleut, guards the entrance to the center. The spacious entry leads first to The Gathering Place. Jinnie Nims, who works in public relations for the center, explained, ''this is the main area in the building. It holds dance performances, storytelling and Native games demonstrations throughout the summer.''
To the right is the Heritage Center Theatre. Various films play all day, including some that were produced by the staff at the center. The Hall of Cultures is the most museum-like portion of the center, where exhibits and displays represent the various Native cultures of Alaska. During the summer months, Native artists demonstrate their skill in The Hall; items will be for sale. Interactive stations allow guests to try their hand at creating their own Native crafts. A gift shop on-site also sells items created by Alaska Natives, and the heritage center has a second gift shop in downtown Anchorage.
Outside is another aspect that's different from most museums. The beautiful two-acre Lake Tiulana was created; circling the lake are life-sized replicas of traditional village dwellings from each of the five regions of Alaska. Here, visitors are introduced to the traditional lifeways from those five regions - the Athabascan, Yup'ik/Cup'ik, Inupiaq/St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Aleut/Alutiq and the Eyak/Tlingit/Haida/Tsimshian.
Each dwelling site has a Native host who explains cultural and historical facts. Visitors are encouraged to participate in the ''hands-on'' aspects at each site. Interaction is encouraged throughout the visit to the center. Originally, all dwellings were built using traditional methods, but because they weren't in use - and partly because they were historically made by nomadic people - they didn't last long. Several were reconstructed last year to retain their traditional look, but infrastructure was added with plumbing and electricity to increase longevity.
Winter months find reduced numbers of out-of-state visitors, but many resident visitors make their way to the center. From early November through Mother's Day, the center is open on Saturdays and for special events. There may be visits by school groups, and ongoing master artist classes are available for credit. But for the general public, it's only open on Saturdays.
Nims explained, ''We have different programming every Saturday throughout the winter. We have a Celebrating Culture Saturday, a World Music Festival, a Native Arts Festival, a Performing Arts Festival, and a World Indigenous Film Festival among others - lots of festivals. We also have art, language and dance classes available.''
Another recent event was dubbed ''Transportation Day'' to acknowledge and share the different forms of transportation that have been important to indigenous people of Alaska - from the snowshoe and dog sled to airplanes.
The summer schedule opens on Mother's Day, and from then till about mid-September the center is open seven days a week. Special summer events have been reduced this year to focus on regular events, but there will be a ''Fish Camp Day'' in early July. Many fish will be brought in and demonstrations will show what life is like in a fish camp. Different cutting techniques will be shown, as will methods of preserving and drying fish.
The entrance fee varies, depending on one's state of residency and age, from free admission for those six and younger to $23.50 for nonresident adults.
More than 100,000 people visit annually, a high number for a state with less than 700,000 residents, but many come from ''the lower 48'' or from abroad to learn about Alaska's Native populations.