Discovery II & Discovery I, taken from the deck of Discovery III at the Steamship Landing and Trading Post.

I am looking out from the bow of the sternwheeler Riverboat Discovery III as we glide up the calm, khaki-green Chena River. It is mid-May, 70-degrees with a blue sky and puffy cumulus clouds; I peel off unnecessary layers while listening to our guide’s lively narration on the natural history and cultural history of interior Alaska. We are sailing to Chena Village Living Museum, a replica Athabascan Native village with spruce log cabins, bark huts, live reindeer and stretched pelts of bear and moose.

My most memorable travel experiences have always unfolded in destinations deeply rooted in indigenous culture. From Easter Island’s giant moai, to New Mexico’s sky-city adobe villages and Costa Rica’s Borucan “Diablo” villages, all have made indelible impressions and afforded tastes of our planet’s cultural diversity. My trip to Fairbanks is fueled in part to research how I might experience the same in Alaska’s Interior.

Riverboat Discovery Tour and Chena Village Living Museum

Riverboat Discovery III can handle several hundred passengers, but it feels the opposite of impersonal. A family affair, it is run by the friendly Binkleys who have been navigating the interior’s river system for generations, servicing Sourdoughs and Alaskan Native peoples alike. Their pride is evident in every aspect of the experience. Captain Wade Binkley, the personable blue-eyed 4th generation captain, invites me into the wheelhouse where the largest steering wheel I’ve ever seen guides the boat, a 60” diameter teak and oak beauty – salvaged by his grandfather from the 170-foot, 1913 sternwheeler steamship Yukon which was damaged by ice on the Yukon river in 1947. He tells me, “My grandfather held onto the wheel until 1987 when Discovery III was being built and he finally had a boat big enough for the wheel.” As an ocean sailor, I’m fascinated by the challenges of navigating a river. Captain Binkley tells me, “The rivers are always changing, you deal with it by learning to read the rivers’ different patterns.”

Historical Athabascan-style fish camp on the Chena River, where traditional ways of catching, drying and filleting fish are explained to Riverboat passengers.

Captain Binkley first pauses in front of Trail Breaker Kennels, those of the late Iditarod Champion, Susan Butcher, where we see puppies in training and sled dogs running in tandem pulling a cart. It’s hard to imagine on this snowless, sunny day, the same dogs participating, and often winning, the grueling 1,000-mile icy Iditarod race.

Hides stretched to dry at Chena Village.

We tie up and disembark at Chena Village for a captivating introduction by Native guides to frontier living as experienced by Athabascan tribes who have survived local harsh winters, sometimes as cold as -70 degrees, for over 10,000 years. Guides point out the different dangling pelts and explain how the wolf, fox, martin and beaver were used to provide food and protection for generations of Alaskan Native peoples.

Heading back, as we pass Captain Binkley’s grandmother’s house she waves a welcome from her very green lawn on the banks of the Chena River.

Finding the Culture Behind the Art

For many years I’d worked at the Arctic Raven Gallery in my homeport of Friday Harbor, Washington. Here I developed an appreciation for both Northwest Coast and Alaskan Native Art. I’d sailed Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage and was familiar with Northwest Coast Native artists and villages. With their dramatic articulating potlatch masks, monumental totem poles and big houses, Northwest Coast Native artwork reflects the once abundant salmon and the now quickly disappearing old-growth cedar forests along the southeastern coastline of Alaska and British Columbia.

Alaskan Indigenous Peoples and Languages Map

In Fairbanks, I wanted to become more knowledgeable about the vastly different cultures that created the fossilized ivory, whalebone and birchbark Alaskan artwork we also carried at the Gallery. Reflecting their nomadic lifestyle, I learned that the Athabascans of Alaska’s interior carried essential utilitarian objects, such as baskets, tools, coats, mittens and boots, from camp to camp. These everyday objects formed the foundation of their art. Willow and birch bark, fur, feathers, antler, animal hide, quill and, later on, manufactured beads feature prominently in these everyday items which are intricate and colorful.

Alaskan coastal tribes such as the Inupiaq, Yup’ik and Alutiiq artworks reflect a culture more dependent than Athabascan peoples on the sea and its mammals. Here polar bear and sea otter fur, walrus ivory, fossilized mammoth ivory, fossilized whalebone, baleen, sealskin and seal gut are the stars of the show, used for masks, clothing, children’s toys, kayak construction and items for the tourist trade.

The Morris Thompson Cultural Center’s focus is on Athabascan art. However, the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Anchorage Museum, the jewel-box Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka and the impressive new Alaska State Museum in Juneau have selections from all Alaskan Native tribes. Several of these museums also have virtual tours online.

Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center

Located on the banks of the Chena River, the Center’s Exhibit Gallery allowed me to embark on a journey through the seasons that guide the lives of Interior Athabascan Natives—11 linguistically distinct tribes—whose territory encompasses half the state of Alaska and is bigger than the state of Texas. As I walk through the life-sized diorama of a rural summer fish camp, watch a bear hunting squirrels in fall, and then see a screen with winter’s dancing northern lights, I gain an understanding of the resilience and adaptability needed to face dramatic seasonal changes that affect everything from the Athabascan diet to their art. The exhibits also convey the people’s deep respect for the land and the animals that sustain them and their belief that everything possesses a soul, even inanimate objects. Films and a theatre for live dance performances further enhanced my cultural immersion.

University of Alaska Museum of the North

The few hours I have to explore here are not enough to do justice to the art, cultural history and science galleries. All are housed in this breathtaking museum whose angular arctic white architecture evokes icebergs and the boreal landscape. I spend all my time at the Gallery of Alaska on the ground floor. The Gallery is broken up into five geographic regions, explaining the cultural and natural history of each area through a collection of carefully crafted objects and intricate artifacts. I find this an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast how geography and climate affect the lifestyles of Alaska’s distinct areas. I completely miss the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery upstairs which includes 2,000 years of Alaska art from “the functional to the fantastic” including ancient ivory carvings, whalebone, ceremonial and everyday objects. “Next time,” I tell myself.

Fairbank’s Chena Village Museum, along with the soaring University of Alaska Museum of the North and Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center provided engaging introductions to Athabascan Native heritage. Now, steeped in this knowledge, I hope to one day venture out to visit a Native village or two where this resilient culture, though threatened by climate change, continues to adapt as best it can. (see sidebars on visiting villages and climate change)

In ending, I would be remiss in not emphasizing the historical importance of dogs, which were, before the advent of snowmobiles, the backbone of winter travel for northern Alaskan Natives. My few days in and around Fairbanks afforded ample opportunity to meet and see Alaskan sled dogs in action, sans snow. I heard many times, “Our dogs are not bred for their looks but for their behavior.” I came away feeling the same way about Fairbanks. The city’s sprawling, primarily utilitarian architecture is bred for function, not form. Ah, but as for behavior, Fairbanksans seem to have been bred—for generations—to display a fierce community pride and connection to the land, which makes them the true heart and soul of “The Golden Heart City.”

“Gus” one of the Alaskan sled dogs at the Denali National Park, about an hour’s drive from Fairbanks. Dog sleds are used in the park to reach wilderness areas.


Climate Change and Cultural Impacts

At the NATJA conference, Explore Fairbanks shared the seriousness of climate change impacts in Alaska, something I wish more destinations took seriously. At the Conference, Marie Yaska, a Koyukuk, Athabascan elder born in 1938, related, “Growing up we went wherever the food was, we went from camp to camp, we all had jobs. In summer camp, salmon used to be our main food and then we would dry some for winter. Now there are no fish to fish. The water is really warm now, the water was really cold when I grew up and the outside temperature was 50, 60, 70 below back then. We could only go by dog team or row by boat from camp to camp. Just a few people could afford small 10-hp engines, we called them “tuk-tuk” engines. Our only income was from fur, there was a lot of it back then.”

Scientists from the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, related, less colorfully, that Alaska is warming 2-4 times faster than elsewhere on the planet and species are generally moving northward and upward in elevation, called “borealization.” Wildfires are more common than in the past and the boreal forest is invading the tundra, changing the migratory patterns and abundance of animals that Native peoples depend on for subsistence. In addition to the stress of food insecurities, entire Alaskan Native villages have had to be moved as storm surge gets higher eroding the banks of rivers and beaches. Extreme weather events, sea level rise and the disappearance of sea ice and permafrost create this perfect storm of climate-related disasters and psychological stress.

In the village of Huslia, which also happens to be Marie Yaska’s village, a project by the World Wildlife Federation called the Climate Witness Project has engaged elders and students in recording their observations on climate change. The hope is that by hearing stories of extreme climate change, people around the world will look at ways to conserve energy and be inspired to advocate for alternative energy systems and travel more consciously.

Visiting an Athabascan Village

At the Conference we learned from Malinda Chase, the Tribal Liaison for the Alaska Climate Adaptation Center, to not call Native villages “remote” and keep in mind that Native people may not wish to be interviewed or quoted, ask permission. The best way to arrange a village visit is through the local chief or village council, allow a lot of time for planning. You can connect with the chiefs through the Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC). Keep in mind only 9 villages can be accessed by car and 11 have access by boat. Flights to some villages can be arranged through Warbelow’s Air (800) 478-0812.

Day trips to Fort Yukon are set up for visitors. A spectacular one-hour flight from Fairbanks will take you above the Arctic Circle where a Native guide will share what it’s like to live in the Interior today and you’ll learn about the Gwich’in Athabascan Native peoples who continue to live a subsistence lifestyle here. The Northern Alaska Tour Company (800) 474-1986.

When I asked Maggie Crandall, a young woman at the Morris Thompson Cultural Center, if there was a Native village that was accessible to visitors she suggested Minto, which she considers home even though she didn’t grow up there. The village has approximately 250 people and is about a 2 to 4-hour drive from Fairbanks, depending on road conditions. Best to arrange a visit through the Minto Village Council (907) 789-7627.

Where to find Genuine Alaskan Native Art

University of Alaska Museum of the North Shop 

Anchorage Museum 

Alaska State Museum

Alaska Silver Hands Artists –The Silver Hand program helps Alaska Native artists promote their work in the marketplace and enables consumers to identify and purchase authentic Alaska Native art.

When purchasing Alaskan artwork that contains walrus ivory, polar bear fur, or sea otter fur, be an educated consumer. Only Alaska Natives may harvest these protected species and use them to make art or products. More information: Alaska State Council on the Arts.

Barbara Marrett took part in the NATJA Annual Conference held in Fairbanks, Alaska, May 2023. She wishes to thank Explore Fairbanks and the many generous institutions, tour companies, businesses, climate change experts and indigenous peoples for sharing their wisdom with conference attendees.