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My Museum Life

September 21, 2017

As a young girl growing up in the rural Alaskan community of Kotzebue, I witnessed much change. My early days consisted of many months spent at camp (ours called Ivik) enjoying the wilderness and learning the traditional Inupiaq ways of life from my grandparents - Aana Annie and Tata John Schaeffer Sr. My parents were busy working to advocate for our people, our lands and our way of life. So, this “escape” gave me an outlet to explore and open my mind to creativity. I was a curious kid who loved to draw, read, write and create. My cousins will contest to gathering sticks, rocks, shells, leaves and such to assist my building of small “villages” for each to own. Yes, our imagination was endless. We lived without running water, without television, without piped sanitation and flush toilets, but we knew no different. The local radio station kept us informed of what we thought was the “outside” world – the rest of America. Story time with Prairie Home Companion was a regular staple in our little cabin. 


In the 1970’s things began to change in our world. The Indian Health Service brought piped water and sewer to our little town. The school began local sports and travel to other rural communities. High school kids no longer “had” to go to boarding schools – that became a choice. During this time our people also struggled to transition into a world lead by Westerners – who wanted us to be more like them than like our ancestors. This was no longer called “colonialism”, but a social choice to raise us kids up to fit into a Western world that had damned our parents and their parents. New things were on the horizon. Better education. Better access to health care. Better transportation and access to the outside world. Better housing. Better everything – or so we thought. But, we knew no different. We simply evolved and adapted through this transition. 


Old identities were forgotten, new identities created.  As kids, we simply lived. We played and sang our traditional dances and songs – not fully knowing what we were singing – not fully understanding why some churches forbid it. 

During this era, our regional corporation was led by my father, John W. Schaeffer Jr. His perspective was to continue to embrace our traditions and to fight to protect the lands that fed and sheltered us. During his leadership role as first President of NANA Regional Corporation, he and the Board of Directors sought to bridge the gap between the two worlds – Inupiaq and Western. The opening of the NANA Museum in 1978 was the beginning of a sharing of our Inupiaq ways with Western tourists. This began my Life at the Museum. 


Everything about the museum was fascinating. It housed a diorama that showed our people gathering, hunting and interacting with the land we live on. It housed many animals – which transformed when sent to a “taxidermist” – into a full-mounted, life-like rendition. Some were frightening to me. Some as cute as I remember in the wild. Nonetheless, all of it was new and exciting. 


Our grandpa Paul Green was the current Inupiaq dance leader and had taught us many dances. He was also a great story teller. So, we all became “employees” of this new business attraction for NANA. It was an honor and a privilege to share our life with the outside world. I also was blessed to showcase our traditional attire – atikluks, mukluks and parky’s - as a model – a new, exciting and very scary thing for me.  


I remember meeting the tourists and welcoming them, then guiding them into the auditorium to watch the diorama. Once it was done, our story tellers shared our history, then we began the fashion show. The story teller introduced us and described the clothing we wore – some very detailed, like Aana Helen Sivik’s parky. To me, it was like playing an Inupiaq princess in fancy clothes. Ha! Then we danced in our traditional clothes – sharing the most in intimate part of who we are with strangers. This became very intriguing to many outside entities. Soon, we traveled to Canada, Greenland, Hawaii, Kentucky and Seattle sharing our dances, stories and history. Our dance group was filled with my aunties and uncles, friends, sisters, and most of all – our elders. Little did I know that one day we’d dance without them. And little did I know that this Life at the Museum would lead me to travel across the world to London, England to study fashion and architecture. 


The experiences at the museum will forever be treasured in my heart. They would carry on once I left my little hometown. But, they would dance the last song in 2002 and we’d only be left with the memories of those beautiful things. The parky’s would be passed onto family, some stories shared, some faded away, yet, the drums continue today, as do the dances and always the memories of My Museum Life. 




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