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Simon Paneak Memorial Museum reopens in Anaktuvuk Pass

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Posted: Monday, September 27, 2010 4:28 am | Updated: 12:57 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

ANAKTUVUK PASS — In the middle of the Brooks Range is a little piece of North Slope paradise called Anaktuvuk Pass. On July 13, 2010 the community residents of Anaktuvuk Pass, North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta and department officials, and many guests helped celebrate the open house of the newly renovated and expanded Simon Paneak Memorial Museum.

The Simon Paneak Memorial Museum embodies the local history and cultural life-way of the nomadic inland Inupiat, with the traditional knowledge of arctic survival skills living with the mountainous landscape and wildlife. During this celebration, visitors and community members got to learn about the humble beginnings of the museum and celebrate its growth.

The first Simon Paneak Memorial Museum opened on Sept. 26, 1986, showcasing the rich beautiful history and culture of the Nunamiut, or people of the land. Over the years, visitors from all over the world have come to visit the museum and the people. This museum was the first of its kind on the North Slope.

A museum hadn’t always been there, though. Even the established community is a fairly recent occurrence. The Nunamiut culture, however, has been in the Brooks Range mountains since the elders can remember. The people of Anaktuvuk Pass pride themselves on the saying, “The last of the nomads,” which fits perfectly.

The Nunamiut people have survived traveling all over the North Slope region, Northwest Arctic region and the Canadian borders, always returning to the location of Anaktuvuk Pass for its prime caribou hunting. This way of life persisted until beginning of the settlement in 1949, and by 1962 permanent infrastructure and a community began. It is this culture, different from any other on the North Slope, that the museum showcases in its exhibits and programs.

It had been two decades since the original museum was built. Plans for expansion began in 2007. By 2010 the original 1,400 square foot building was transformed into a modern 2,600 square foot building.

The new and improved building features expanded room for educational programs and elder teachings, a modern gallery room and collections storage, and a library to research and access a multitude of media. Windows are located throughout the building to take in the grand view of the mountains. There is also a new and improved gift shop showcasing all things Nunamiut.

Cause to celebrate

This milestone called for a celebration.

The joyous occasion kicked off with speeches from Mayor Itta, the Rev. Keith Johnston, respected elder Rhoda Ahgook, acting city Mayor Esther Hugo, Inupiat Heritage Learning Center Museum Commission Chair Else Itta, acting Planning Director Gordon Brower, acting IHLC Division Manager Patuk Glenn, and last but not least, Simon Paneak Memorial Museum Curator Vera Woods. Every speech recognized the hard work and dedication of the community to keep and maintain their unique culture and place in history.

Speech after speech, anticipation grew to see the new facility. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was conducted by Raymond Paneak, son of the late Simon Paneak.

As if the day couldn’t get any better, the celebration continued with a potluck full of niqipiaq, or Eskimo food. Caribou and berries from the Anaktuvuk Pass, maktak from Barrow, and sheefish from Kotzebue were some food items, to name a few.

An Eskimo dance was held after the feast.

The swift strong sound of the drum was so very distinctive to the Nunamiut dance style, and community members showed visiting guests how it was done in the mountains. Many songs were danced, but eventually the visiting guests had to say their goodbyes.

With the celebration coming to an end, one theme stood out: respect for the Nunamiut heritage and perpetuating culture. It is truly inspiring to see a community so proud of its history and yet proactive enough to create a museum for people to visit, absorb and practice Nunamiut heritage.

And for this museum to continue to grow and improve is a testament to the values and wants of the community itself. Ultimately this newly remodeled museum building would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of museum curator Woods. For someone who started off as the blanket toss girl for Barrow tours, she has certainly come a long way to being a leader in the forefront of the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum.

The museum will have an official grand opening in May and will celebrate the installation of the permanent exhibits.

Patuk Glenn is the Inupiat Heritage Center Museum curator.

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