By Robin Thompson
The Alaska Native Heritage Center recently announced that Emily Edenshaw, longtime Alaskan and Alaska Native, will be joining their leadership team as their new Executive Director.(
The Heritage Center, a 501©(3) non-profit organization, is a long-standing educational and cultural institution created by a unanimous vote at the Alaska Federation of Natives in 1987. Located minutes from downtown Anchorage, the Heritage Center serves Alaskans and tourists alike through sharing permanent Native collections and offering year-round programs.
Edenshaw, originally from Emmonak Alaska, received her formal education through UAA and APU and has worked as a leader in both public and private sectors throughout the State for over a decade. Most recently, Edenshaw departed the Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and shared her excitement in her new role with helping to perpetuate the mission of the Heritage Center.
“I’m in awe of the work that has already been done this far and I feel it’s an incredible honor to be stepping into this role,” said Edenshaw. “I not only want to grow our programs and share our work with the world, I also really want to help develop the people behind the Heritage Center. I’m a huge believer in developing people and so for me, I’m really standing on the shoulders of giants — they’ve done incredible work.”
Assuming her post in early December, one of Edenshaw’s goals is to focus on expanding the programs the Heritage Center offers to Alaskan students.
“I think there is such a huge opportunity knowing that kids throughout Anchorage and Eagle River have this gem — this resource — that’s literally in their backyard,” she said.
While the Heritage Center is not currently operating within the schools themselves, Edenshaw hopes to establish its first formal MOU with the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, a Pre-K to 8th grade Title 1 public charter school that operates within the Anchorage School District. “There’s an opportunity to see how we can get the Heritage Center into schools,” said Edenshaw. “I want to meet our students wherever they’re at — whether they’ve grown up in a rural village or grown up in Anchorage, or they’re Native or non-Native.”
As the new Executive Director, Edenshaw will oversee communications, finances, community engagement, management and development and “promote ANHC through cultural tourism to both Alaska and the tourism industry,” as stated in a recent Heritage Center press release.
As tourism continues to be a major source of revenue for the state, the role the Heritage Center provides through cultural education plays a significant role.
“It’s a fact that tourists who have these indigenous experiences are staying longer and spending more money than those who do not,” Edenshaw said.
Edenshaw believes that the key to partnering lies within the tour operating companies within the State.
“We know this as a Native people, we know that when people come here we often hear the RDC [Resource Development Council] and Southeast Conference and all these State economic reports saying ‘tourism industry’, ‘tourism industry’, all these great numbers — but that dollar isn’t getting back to Kasaan, Alaska, that dollar isn’t getting back to Quinhagak, Alaska,” said Edenshaw. “We cannot be marginalized on our own territory anymore, and I say that with love and respect. We’re here, we want to partner. It’s so much more than tourism dollars for us — it’s so much more.”
Edenshaw recognizes the assumption of some that the Heritage Center operates for the sole purpose of tourism, more so than a resource for Alaska’s indigenous communities.
“That’s absolutely not true,” said Edenshaw. “What we do know to be true is millions of tourists visit our state each year and they get a very geographical experience, when they should have an indigenous experience. I want to figure out what those intersections are and build on it.”
Getting a seat at the table on a statewide level to build partnerships is the current challenge at hand according to Edenshaw.
“If our state cares about cultural tourism, then why isn’t one penny allocated to its programs?” she said. “Now is the time that we need to be holding up these mirrors and having a really critical conversation. The end goal in my mind, is we either have a solid seat on the ATIA board that is dedicated to cultural tourism or have our own state agency.”
As Edenshaw prepares to transition into her new role in December, she is hopeful to find solutions that can combine the business and economy of tourism with the service of public education to Alaskan people. “When we talk about coupling it with our education system, our history is not being accurately told, so we are using cultural tourism as a way,” said Edenshaw. “We know the knowledge base of our visitors; we’re meeting them really at ground zero, so why not use cultural tourism as a lever to help educate the public AND as a way to help heal our own community?”
While tourism and policy are well established ongoing objectives for the Heritage Center and its Board, Edenshaw welcomes the Alaskan community to continue to embrace the Heritage Center as a place of learning and celebration of Alaska’s diverse Native cultures and traditions.
“It is a place our vibrant traditions are alive and you see our youth actively engaging,” said Edenshaw. “I think it’s really breaking down these stereotypes of what a Southeast person looks like or ‘this is what an Eskimo looks like,’ because people in Alaska only think there are Eskimos and Indians — it’s just these two. The living cultural center piece is where people can come and they can taste our foods, they can hear our music, listen to our stories and find an education that’s not grounded in ‘oh you can only find it in a museum’ — it’s living, it’s breathing, it has a heartbeat.”
Edenshaw and the Alaska Native Heritage Center invites the public to join them on Mother’s Day 2020, to kick off the season, enjoy food, songs, dance, and stories and help in celebrating their 21st anniversary.
“If the community is really looking to come and experience the Alaska Native Heritage Center, really experience the heartbeat of the Native community, it’s on Mother’s Day,” said Edenshaw. “We are here and want to tell our history.”