Roadtrippin’ 2023: Touring the Iñupiat Heritage Center at the top of the world

The IHC, a staple in Barrow, was created as a place to preserve local culture and share it with others
Roadtrippin' 2023: Visiting the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Utqiaġvik
Published: May. 17, 2023 at 4:04 PM AKDT|Updated: May. 18, 2023 at 1:59 PM AKDT
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UTQIAĠVIK, Alaska (KTUU) - Within the walls of a nondescript building in the town of Utqiaġvik — the community formerly known as Barrow — is a hidden gem that houses an abundance of culture, history, and opportunity, not only for those from the region but for those visiting it as well.

The main purpose of the Iñupiat Heritage Center is to help promote and preserve Iñupiat culture and history, with the hopes of keeping it intact for the future. That includes but is not limited to language, traditional foods, art and design, and archives and records.

“Our mission for the Iñupiat culture and history department is to protect, preserve and perpetuate our history, language and culture,” said Iñupiat Heritage Center Director Colleen Akpik-Lemen. “So that really encompasses a lot of things that we do here [...] passing on the knowledge and the skill of the things that our ancestors did long ago to be able to sustain our way of life.”

The entry to the heritage center stands tall, dotted with features ranging from old photographs to custom artwork to animal replicas, and welcomes locals and visitors alike during its open hours.

Venture a little further into the building, and you’ll find vast gathering spaces, a miniature gallery with temperature-controlled cases, a small museum with artwork, historic tools, detailed replicas and more on display, and a space like a wood shop to make traditional arts and crafts that can be sold, given away or used out in the field.

“Being able to survive in one extreme to another is very important,” Akpik-Lemen said. “The skill and the knowledge that they had to have in order to sustain themselves, and to survive. If they didn’t have that ingenuity, we wouldn’t be here today.

“So we do a lot of educational kinds of classes for all of the subsistence activities that we do,” Akpik-Lemen said.

It’s all in the name, in short, of sharing — language, food, fellowship, and tradition — and trying to keep the past as part of the present.

“It’s important for us to be able to teach the knowledge and pass down the skill of how our ancestors were able to survive in this area,” Akpik-Lemen said. “Before winter really sets in, we’re helping folks to learn how to make jackets, warm Eskimo jackets, fur-lined parkas. We are helping to teach how to cut and create a pattern that fits the person that will be wearing it.”

“And clothing is just one piece of it,” she continued. “We also have classes for tools, the weapons needed to be able to hunt the various animals that we are hunting.”

The North Slope Borough has taken the reins on running the heritage center, which was dedicated in 1999. However, according to the National Park Service, the center also has a relationship with a popular museum in the Lower 48.

“Many Alaska Natives, particularly Iñupiat Eskimo people, participated in commercial whaling,” the NPS wrote. “In addition to crewing on the ships they hunted for food for the whalers, provided warm fur clothing, and sheltered many crews that were shipwrecked on the Alaska coast.

“The Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska, was designated as an affiliated area of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park in New Bedford, Mass.,” it continued, “to ensure that the contributions of Alaska Natives to the history of whaling is recognized.”

For hours and visitor ticket prices, click here. To learn more about the center, you can visit this NPS website.

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