Until recently, Anchorage’s first people have been all but hidden from history. Aaron Leggett, and the Anchorage Museum, are working to bring Dena’ina history and language to the forefront.
When Aaron Leggett was a kid, the Broadway musical Cats came to Anchorage.
“People were genuinely excited, like ‘We have culture in Anchorage!’” he recalled. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But our frame of reference for culture was always somewhere else, usually Seattle. We were always comparing ourselves.”
Aaron’s yearning for Anchorage to overcome what he calls its “identity crisis” has guided his work with the Anchorage Museum, where he has curated exhibits that celebrate indigenous history and culture since 2011. For much of that time, CITC has provided support for the museum’s Alaska Native exhibits and projects, including Aaron’s efforts to revitalize the Dena’ina language.
The Village of Anchorage
When Aaron worked at the Alaska Native Heritage Center as a 19-year-old, people would ask him, “Where is your Native family from? Which village?”
“That’s when I first realized that even other indigenous people had no idea that [Anchorage] was a Native place,” he said.
Southcentral Alaska, including Anchorage, is the homeland of the Dena’ina Athabascan people. But in 2005, the city didn’t reflect its Native heritage.
As Aaron began asking questions about why Dena’ina history wasn’t more well known and what he could do to fix it, he looked to his Elders. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, former CITC Board chair Clare Swan had worked to tell the story and history of the Dena’ina people through her position as the head of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.
Aaron found inspiration in Clare’s efforts to make the Dena’ina people’s legacy more visible.
“She was the first person I encountered who had a similar level of passion about wanting to change things,” Aaron said.
Through an early position as the assistant historian at CIRI, Aaron, with the help of his boss and mentor AJ McClanahan, did what he could to raise awareness around the history of the Cook Inlet Region. At CIRI, and later at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, he provided education about the traditions, language, and culture of the Dena’ina people.
But his first opportunity to make Dena’ina language and history a part of the Anchorage landscape came when CITC decided to build a new home for its programs and services.
Our Special Name
Before 2005, if someone wanted to check out CITC’s programs, that person would have to roam the city. CITC’s departments were spread out across several buildings.
When organizational leadership decided to construct a single home for all its programs, CITC President and CEO Gloria O’Neill shared with Aaron and AJ that she wanted the new building to tell a story. Wall murals would depict the history of the Dena’ina and the villages of southcentral Alaska.
“And we said, why not give the building a Dena’ina name?” Aaron recalled. He had faced nothing but rejection trying to convince city committees to name area landmarks in honor of his people; in years prior, he had lobbied for a local high school to be named with a Dena’ina word. The effort wasn’t taken seriously. “Since we own the CITC building, though, there was nothing stopping us.”
In 2006, CITC opened the Nat’uh Service Center. Named for the Dena’ina Athabascan word meaning “our special place,” Nat’uh became the first building in Anchorage to have a Dena’ina name.
That same year, Aaron was asked to testify before the Anchorage Assembly in support of giving the newly constructed convention center downtown a name that honored the local people. Members of the Assembly voted unanimously to name the Den’ina Convention Center for the indigenous people of southcentral Alaska.
“Overnight, people were suddenly like, ‘Who are the Dena’ina? Who do we talk to, to learn more?’” he said. “There was a flood of interest coming in. And I was positioned to be that person.”
Weaving Dena’ina words into the fabric of Anchorage is part of a greater undertaking to acknowledge the indigenous history of the land the city occupies.
Today, bold letters adorning the Anchorage Museum proclaim, “This is Dena’ina ełnena.” This is Dena’ina homeland — it’s an acknowledgement that honors the indigenous people who have taken care of the land upon which Anchorage sits for thousands of years. And it’s an outgrowth of the work Aaron has done, along with Museum Director Julie Decker, to put the focus on the Anchorage’s first people.
“That’s when I first realized that even other indigenous people had no idea that [Anchorage] was a Native place.”
In 2013, the museum launched Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi, the first major exhibition ever presented about the Dena’ina Athabascan people. Sponsored in part by CITC and co-curated by Aaron, the exhibit spotlights the Dena’ina people through film, images, life-size recreations, and activities. Since its initial opening, the exhibit has traveled across Alaska.
“It just kept building from there,” Aaron said of the momentum behind public interest in the Dena’ina people ignited by the exhibit.
Over the last ten years, as the senior curator of Alaska history and indigenous culture, Aaron has curated collections and collaborated on projects for the museum that emphasize Alaska’s history, heritage, and uniqueness, including the Alaska Exhibition; the Without Boundaries exhibit; City Limits; and We Up, a hip-hop documentary that focuses on Alaska Native and Circumpolar North culture.
“Aaron’s work preserves and promotes indigeneity and indigenous knowledge and leads the museum field in conversations around decolonization and indigenous curatorship,” said Julie Decker. “Through his work, he supports Native artists and communities and highlights historical and contemporary narratives and visions for the future.”
Acknowledging Our Place
Anchorage isn’t Seattle. In his recent work, Aaron connects Alaska to other neighbors around the globe — communities and cities that share our state’s landscape and climate: Reykjavik, Tromsø, Rovaniemi, Oslo, Arkhangelsk.
“There are threads of history that connect us that we’re now discovering,” he said. “So much of that history is tied to being a northern place and valuing that.”
Through CITC-supported events like the North x North Summit, the Museum has focused attention on the indigenous origins of these northern lands. Whereas the early 2000s saw people rejecting Native naming of local landmarks, today the focus has turned toward recognizing and appreciating the indigenous history of a place.
Aaron’s own work is rooted in the scholarship of Native scholars who came before him. Starting in the 1970s, writers and storytellers like Peter Kalifornsky and Shem Pete did “a lot,” Aaron said, “to not just get information about culture and language out there, but to make it breathing and living and to use it in interesting ways.
“A lot of these Elders whose writings I’m constantly referencing, I’ve never met, but their enthusiasm for revitalizing Dena’ina language lives on to this day,” he said.
“Aaron is a true history buff — you can ask him a question about pretty much any esoteric detail of Alaska history or culture and he will have an answer,” said Anchorage Museum’s von der Heydt Chief Curator Frencesca Du Brock. “His curiosity about this place is endless, and his enthusiasm is infectious.”
Being the go-to person for land acknowledgements, scholarship, and blessings is “deeply gratifying,” Aaron said. But his main hope is that future generations will take the foundation of work he has built and run with it.
“We’ve made huge progress in the twenty years that I’ve been doing this,” he said. “But I want to see us keep working in the community and the schools to gain a proper education about the history of this place as a Native place.”
For more information about land acknowledgement and the history of Dena’ina people in southcentral Alaska, visit the Anchorage Museum’s website. Or go to citci.org to learn more about CITC’s programs and services.