Alaska Native Cultural Heritage and Artistic Sovereignty in Museums

Museums throughout the world hold important collections of Alaska Native material culture. How can museums add Indigenous stories, perspectives and voices in exhibition and collection spaces? How can community members better access the material belongings that museums hold?

The Alaska Native Cultural Heritage and Artistic Sovereignty in Museums project seeks to develop opportunities for Indigenous creative intervention in museums while supporting material culture documentation through a curatorial fellowship program.

Are you interested in a learning how to be involved in this work?
Please contact The CIRI Foundation to find out how you can partner on this new initiative.

Images courtesy of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center,
photographed by Wayde Carroll.

Pilot Project

Alaska Native Design: Parkas by Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

“For the 2020 pilot of the Alaska Native Cultural Heritage and Artistic Sovereignty in Museums Project, Amelia “Amy” Topkok was selected for the fellowship. The plan for Amy’s fellowship was first to introduce her to the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska Learning Lab site and to concepts about drawing from museum and archive collections to create free online educational resources about Alaska Native heritage, with a focus on decolonizing practices through collaboration and the primacy of Indigenous knowledge. The next stage was to co-develop a new Learning Lab education unit based on parkas, since this was the subject of her M.A. work at UAF and the focus of her planned studies for pursuing her PhD.

By the end of the fellowship, Amy and I were able to meet all of our goals and complete an education unit of excellent quality. The unit is titled “Alaska Native Design: Parkas” and presents nineteen photographs of people and museum objects with detailed captions, three essays and a lesson. There are also three additional resources, including a guide for making a qaspeq/atikłuk, written by Amy for a past workshop and now improved with additional information and editing, which she can utilize in the future. Amy and I worked together on all stages of the unit’s development and content for a truly collaborative project, resulting in comprehensive and in-depth resources.”

Dawn Biddison
Museum Specialist
Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center

Exploring Alaska Native Gut: Exhibition Collections, and Artistic Development by Alaska State Museum

All the indigenous cultures of Alaska have historically used gut, a material with unique physical and metaphysical properties, to make items such as parkas, containers, windows, hunting floats, and drums. While most museums with Alaskan collections care for these items, the material is poorly understood, often misidentified, and rarely seen in the art world today. Sonya Kelliher-Combs is one of the few artists working with gut, and will serve as the curatorial fellow for a collaborative project at the Alaska State Museum. Together the curatorial fellow and museum staff will share their respective insights and networks of relationships to enhance the understanding of gut from cultural, technical, curatorial, and artistic perspectives. This information will be used for visioning, design, and object selection for a summer 2023 exhibition about indigenous gut practices that will complement the artist’s solo exhibition scheduled in the adjoining gallery. Kelliher-Combs will expand her experience in museum curation, conservation, collections management, and exhibit development practices. Her insights about these practices will guide improvements to the museum’s evolving collaborative protocols. Indigenous perspectives on gut in the museum collection will incorporate Native voices into the object records in the museum database.

Indigenous Curatorial Fellowship

The CIRI Foundation is pleased to announce a partnership with the University of Alaska Museum of the North to support an Indigenous Curatorial Fellowship in the Ethnology and History department. The fellowship will provide an opportunity for a student to gain hands on experience in collections management and care and help the museum to incorporate Indigenous narratives and perspectives into the museum’s records.

Protocols for Working with Alaska Native Communities: A Guide for Museums

The protocols that guide how material culture is cared for within Alaska Native communities varies but are often based on principles of respect for Indigenous cultural knowledge and ways of being. The CIRI Foundation is working with an advisory circle made up Alaska Native scholars and community members to develop a guide to share best practices for museums to follow to respect Alaska Native cultural practices.

Does your community have protocols in place that museums should follow when caring for material culture? How can we encourage museums to be more accessible and welcoming to Indigenous people? What should museums be aware of when engaging in community outreach in Alaska? If you have ideas to share, please reach out to The CIRI Foundation and learn how you can be involved at

Museum Sovereignty Advisory Circle:


  • Sven Haakanson Jr., Ph.D. (Sugpiaq), Professor of Anthropology and Curator of North American Anthropology, University of Washington
  • Aaron Leggett (Dena’ina), President, Native Village of Eklutna, Senior Curator, Alaska History & Indigenous cultures, Anchorage Museum
  • Tanya Lukin-Linklater (Alutiiq), Artist and Doctoral Candidate at Queens University
  • Judith Dax̱ootsú Ramos (Tlingit, Kwaashk’í kwáan clan from Yakutat), Assistant Professor, University of Alaska Fairbanks
  • Melissa Shaginoff (Ahtna & Paiute), Independent Artist & Curator
  • Haliehana Alaĝum Ayagaa Stepetin (Unangax̂), Ph.D. Candidate in Native American Studies, UC Davis
  • Erin Gingrich (Koyukon Athabascan and Iñupiaq), Artist
  • Sonya Kelliher-Combs (Koyukon Athabascan and Iñupiaq), Artist
  • Nadia Sethi (Alutiiq), PhD, Art Historian and Journey to What Matters Program Director, The CIRI Foundation