Why the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum Matters
“I know who that is, it’s my great grandfather.” So began the journey of a young student who visited the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum (SPMM) with her fourth grade class. The museum curator told a story about a great hunter, one who looked out for the people in the band he traveled with. The hunter’s skill made him enormously valuable to the group and his wisdom made them seek his counsel when a problem arose.
For the little girl, the description, and the name of the story’s subject, led her to recognize a family member, one she had never met. Her family talked of Maptiġaq (Map-te-rak) Morry, but their memories were fading, especially since her parents knew him only as an elderly man, not the great hunter who led the Killik River Band of Nunamiut as they traveled in pursuit of caribou, their main source of food, shelter, and clothing. Fortunately, the museum had gathered stories, the memories of Maptiġaq’s own generation, and of the hunter himself. Those stories told of a younger man, one who led a part of the Nunamiut across the forbidding Arctic region.
Prior to settlement in Anaktuvuk Pass, the Nunamiut led a life where several generations of a family lived and worked together, where storytelling and passing on memories of the past was a part of daily life. In that context, this young girl might have learned about Maptiġaq Morry from those who traveled, hunted, and worked with him. A similar body of knowledge greeted her at the museum, and was available in tape recordings of Maptiġaq’s generation, photographs, maps of routes they traveled across the Arctic in all seasons and a computerized listing of sites important to the Nunamiut during their travels.
For this young girl, the museum became more than a place to learn about the past, it became a place where she could connect her life to the very different lifestyle lived by her grandparents and earlier generations of Nunamiut. The museum became the place where the Nunamiut culture of nomadic hunters traveling the land came to life for her.
In a very special way, the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum has become, as the Nunamiut elders intended, a storehouse of data about the Nunamiut and their way of life. Even more, it has become a cultural wellspring, where people can go to learn about their ancestors or strengthen their knowledge of traditional Nunamiut culture. The Nunamiut depend on the museum and it needs to be there so other children can say, “I know who that is!”
Mission Statement & Institutional Values
The mission of the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum is to collect, preserve display, and interpret objects and associated materials such as photographs, written documents and audio and video recordings relating to the history, culture, and lifestyle of the Nunamiut Inupiat.
The Simon Paneak Memorial Museum:
- Reinforces and supports the Nunamiut sense of cultural identity and awareness by serving as a resource and visual focus for community elders and educators to pass traditional knowledge, skills and values to our young people.
- Is the primary resource center and clearing house for information gathered by visiting scientists about the Nunamiut Inupiat.
- Serves as an educational resource for visitors unfamiliar with the Brooks Range environment or the historical and cultural traditions of the Nunamiut Inupiat.
- Leads village based development of tourism related businesses for which the museum is the focal point.
History of the Museum
For more than one hundred years the Nunamiut of Anaktuvuk Pass has attracted the attention of many world class scientists and researchers for their extensive knowledge of the Brooks Range and their unique subsistence lifestyle. The Nunamiut generously worked with these individuals to record their traditional knowledge and provide information for books and papers on their practices, but came to realize that for all they offered and shared, they had little tangible evidence to show for it.
The Nunamiut are, by their nature, highly adaptable people, a necessity for survival in the demanding environment of the Arctic. In the 1950’s, the Anaktuvuk Pass Nunamiut were still nomadic hunters, living in caribou skin tents and traveling by dog team and sled in winter and backpacking in summer. By 1960, people had largely settled in Anaktuvuk Pass, living in log and sod houses, with a school, church, trading post and weekly air service. By 1970, dog teams were being replaced by snow machines, and oil-heated plywood houses became the norm. In the 1980’s, they had transitioned to a fully modern village with satellite TV, a health clinic, fire station, modern ranch style houses, all-terrain vehicles for traveling the wet summer tundra, and a school, complete with a swimming pool. While the Nunamiut were quick to seize upon the many things that made their lives easier, modernization came at a cost—the increasing influence of western goods and values.
At this time community leaders paused to take a hard look at themselves and their community. The adoption of modern western culture led to a fear that knowledge of traditional Nunamiut culture might be forgotten. Without the intergenerational living conditions that promoted passing of knowledge, children lost contact with their traditional culture. The elders determined that a museum might fill in for the oral traditions that served to transmit Nunamiut culture in the past. Unlike museums elsewhere, its purpose would solely be to gather, preserve and pass on the words, works and memories of the Nunamiut elders, the last generation to lead a totally nomadic lifestyle.
In the spring of 1980, a successful funding request to the Alaska State Legislature gave birth to the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum. The community worked closely with the local government to find additional funding for the design, engineering, and construction of the museum. Construction of the building and exhibits began in 1985 and the museum opened to the public for the first time in September of 1986, culminating years of dedicated effort by a community fighting to preserve their history. A continuation of these efforts led to a complete renovation and expansion of the museum beginning in 2009. The museum reopened for the second time to celebrate its 25th anniversary in September 2011.
In the 30 years since its opening, the museum has worked hard to live up to the community’s expectations of it as a vital part of their cultural life and an ever growing repository of traditional knowledge for future generations to draw upon. The museum’s role in the community continues to grow as it sponsors heritage events, develops educational materials for the school, provides and outlet for local craftspeople, serves as a major attraction in drawing visitors to the village and its people, and is the focal point for tourism related economic development within the village.
Photo by Kaare Rhodahl
Contribution to Education
Since opening in 1986, the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum (SPMM) has worked with local village elders to record their traditional knowledge on a wide variety of topics, ranging from traditional technologies and hunting practices, to the practical skills of survival. In the early 90’s, in close collaboration with the North Slope Borough School District, the museum made the transition from being a repository of this fascinating information, to one of helping to bring the data into the local school curriculum.
The key to this transition is Project Sivunmun, an initiative funded by a federal Alaska Native Education Project grant written specifically around SPMM resources. The purpose of the grant is to improve student academic performance through the development and integration of a standards based, culturally specific curriculum that infuses aspects of traditional knowledge throughout the entire school curriculum.
The first unit, titled Immiuġniq Ukiumi or Winter Sources of Drinking Water, was written for 4th through 6th grade levels by Dr. Patricia Partnow, a widely hailed curriculum writer. She drew upon SPMM research to weave an entertaining tale of an extended family on a springtime camping trip. Along the way the children are taught by their elders about the local landscape of place names, resource areas and old camps, while being introduced to a variety of ancient and traditional ways of making drinking water from snow and ice. A number of other units have been created on topics ranging from traditional cooking and sewing skills to the flora and fauna of the tundra.
The museum staff and the entire community are quite proud of these materials. We believe they represent the fulfillment of the potential and responsibility of the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum—to serve as a repository and a source of cultural renewal and continuity, thereby living up to the expectations of the village elders who worked so hard to bring the museum into existence.
Museums are institutions of learning. The lessons they impart are varied, but perhaps their greatest value in today’s world is to help us reconnect to the strong historical relationship between man and environment. It is a relationship of inestimable value as noted by Barry Lopez, who wrote:
It is often assumed that historical museums preserve artifacts. More fundamentally, they preserve a way of knowing. The Simon Paneak Memorial Museum at Anaktuvuk Pass is a repository for photographs, papers and objects of material culture which represent the record of a discourse between Nunamiut Inupiat people and their traditional homeland in the central Brooks Range.
That record says: “This is how we know life.”
The museum collections, however, also address eloquently the pressing issues of contemporary North American culture—the role of a physical place in human society, human adaptation to harsh circumstances, and the advantages of intimacy with the natural world.
To sojourn in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve without spending a few hours at the museum would be to miss half the book of life in this region. To lend your support to its future existence is to help maintain a monument to the human imagination.
Few environments worldwide have proven to be as challenging to human ingenuity as the beautiful Brooks Range Mountains of Arctic Alaska and few people are as well adapted to its underlying rhythms and often capricious nature as the Nunamiut Inupiat, the inland Eskimo of Anaktuvuk Pass. Having lived in the region for hundreds of years, the Nunamiut are superbly adapted to the extremes of this demanding environment. They have a complete understanding of the nature of the land and its resources, what it provides for them, and the respect they owe it in return.
Susan Ruddy, Trustee and past State Director of the Nature Conservancy states:
The maxim that ‘every time a person dies we lose a library’ is particularly troubling when we think about losing Nunamiut elders without having captured for posterity the volumes of knowledge that will disappear with them. Through its oral history program, the museum is building this library. The traditional ecological knowledge thus documented will not only help perpetuate the transmission of this knowledge from generation to generation, it will also provide scientists with valuable baseline information that cannot be found from any other source. As climate change becomes a greater concern, information from northern latitudes will be essential. The Simon Paneak Memorial Museum is one of the few institutions in the world today with both the opportunity and the responsibility to preserve this knowledge, this wisdom. As past State Director and current Trustee of The Nature Conservancy of Alaska, I know how important this knowledge is. What was once dismissed as anecdotal is now recognized as essential.
There is no question that the mission of the museum is inherently important as the repository of the culture and knowledge of the Nunamiut. Nor is there any question that the work of the museum is applicable to critical issues of today and tomorrow. The only question is where the resources for this important mission will come from. The people of Anaktuvuk Pass are not people of financial means. They must rely on those who recognize the value—indeed the necessity—of the work they are undertaking through their museum. That is where we come in. I ask you to join me in doing what you can to advance this noble effort.
John Schoen, Science Advisor Emeritus, Audubon Alaska agrees:
I am writing to express my strong support for the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska. For centuries, the Nunamiut people have lived in harmony with the land and the wildlife in Arctic Alaska. I believe there is great value in recording traditional environmental knowledge and perpetuating that knowledge among young Nunamiut people of Alaska. The history and knowledge of the Nunamiut and their relationship to this land is part of Alaska’s heritage and of immense value.
I strongly encourage everyone who cares about Alaska’s wildlife and wildlands, and its unique cultural heritage, to help support the Simon Paneak Museum so it can continue its important work, as envisioned and directed by the community elders, to preserve this rich history and cultural knowledge for future generations.
The author and anthropologist, Richard Nelson, adds:
The Simon Paneak Memorial Museum is an Alaska cultural treasure, created by the Nunamiut people of Anaktuvuk Pass as a place to celebrate their traditions, honor their elders, commemorate their history, and educate their children. Among its greatest values, however, is as a repository of Nunamiut environmental knowledge and subsistence technology. The Nunamiut of Anaktuvuk Pass are among the world’s greatest authorities on the arctic environment. They know every aspect of their natural surroundings—landscape, weather, flora and fauna—in minute and sophisticated detail; and they have inhabited this environment so responsibly that their homeland has been designated one of America’s premier national parks.
Helping to sustain this museum means helping to preserve one of the most essential and most fragile resources in all of Alaska today—the Native tradition.
Support From Our Congressional Delegation and Local Leadership
The Late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens:
I am writing to express my support for the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum of Nunamiut culture. I attended the opening ceremonies at the Museum in 1986 and am aware of the importance the Museum holds for the people of Anaktuvuk Pass. It is a uniquely valuable resource for the Nunamiut people and for the American public as a whole.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski:
The Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in Anaktuvuk Pass is a priceless storehouse of traditional knowledge and the heritage of the Nunamiut Inupiat of the North Slope of Alaska. Few places in Alaska can rival the geographic crossroads location of the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, which earns its status as “Gate of the Arctic” the real way. The history of the nomadic Nunamiut — which can be found in the exhibits and resource materials at the museum — can best told by the Nunamiut themselves, who continue to live and breathe it. Locally managed and curated, the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum is a national treasure.
U.S. Representative Don Young:
Having lived and taught in rural Alaska, I know firsthand the importance and unique value of an institution like the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in Anaktuvuk Pass. The museum is an integral force in helping young Nunamiut maintain pride in their heritage and ensuring the continuity of vital traditional knowledge wedded to bedrock cultural values.
I offer my strong support to the effort to save the museum for the people of Anaktuvuk Pass and encourage your support as well.
- For more information on how to donate money to Simon Paneak Memorial Museum, please go to The Alaska Community Foundation or use the search words “Alaska Community Foundation and Simon Paneak.”