Juneau home to southeast Alaska Native research center

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JUNEAU, Alaska – The Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau recently opened its doors to the redesigned and expanded Special Collections Research Center. The center holds extensive archival recordings of traditional Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian ceremonies as well as historical documents, photographs and cultural objects.

Renewed interest in the facility has brought with it an increase in donations. “We have a small but growing ethnographic and archaeological collection. Now that we have the facility to care for these objects, we have noticed that more people are starting to come to us with donations,” said Rosita Worl, SHI president.

“Perhaps the most exciting is our manuscript material. The center has unpublished documents and recordings of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, the oldest Native organization in the country who advocated for civil rights and land claims for southeast Alaska Native people.”

More than 3,000 publications, 20,000 photographs, 300 cultural objects, 2,500 video and audio recordings and manuscript material document the rich history and culture of southeast Alaska Native people in the archives of the center.

A collection from Alaska Native lawyers who pursued land claim settlements can also be viewed at the center.

The late Judson Brown and Walter Soboleff, who will be celebrating his 100th birthday this November, have donated extensive personal collections pertaining to the Brotherhood and the history of the area. “There is a lot of valuable material in these collections that we plan to use almost immediately for a research project on the Alaska Statehood Act from a Native perspective,” Worl said.

A three-year grant-funded project, the research into Native perspectives during the Statehood Act in the 1950s is important from an educational as well as archival standpoint, she noted. “Publications from a Native perspective are very important because we need this material to develop curriculum that can be integrated and used by schools. Our intent is this will happen with our current research once it is published.”

Since its opening in mid-July, a steady stream of Native and non-Native people have accepted the center’s invitation to view its archives. “We are really fortunate to have a professional archivist who has done a fantastic job in organizing our material,” Worl said.

“The real exciting thing is that people can come in here now and do research. We are simultaneously developing an online searchable database of our collections. We believe in using all the technology that we can so people can have access to our material. For example, we are teaching our Haida language online and have more than 200 people that are taking the course from as far away as Iraq.”

SHI is also researching the Alaska Native Land Claims Act and the Alaska Native corporations that were adopted in 1971 by Alaska Natives in place of today’s reservations. “We are currently affiliated with an international study on intellectual property rights and Native people. Native people are making greater claims to their intellectual property rights; we are trying to look at what possible regimes there are to protect those rights.”

The collections can be viewed on the third floor of the Sealaska Plaza, which also includes an extensive library collection of southeast Alaska Native populations.

SHI employs 25 people and works with 30 Native Alaskan contractors. Worl, who is a member of the Tlingit tribe, said: “Alaska Natives claimed all of Alaska as ours. We went to Congress and only got a portion of our aboriginal lands back. Today we are building a new heritage by partnering with mainline institutions to get our material into schools to teach our younger generations.”

The project was funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Sealaska Corp. and SHI. “Our hope is to build an archival research facility at some point in time. We had a budget request in this last Legislature, but unfortunately it was vetoed. We are not giving up. In the meantime, we have really marvelous collections that are available now at the center.”

For more information, visit www.sealaskaheritage.org or call (907) 463-4844.