Historical Spotlight: The Alaska Native Heritage Center Celebrates 20th Anniversary and Honors BSNC Shareholder Paul Tiulana

This past spring, the Alaska Native Heritage Center celebrated its 20th Anniversary and honored BSNC shareholder Paul Tiulana, who was the original visionary for the Center. Opening its doors in 1999, the Alaska Native Heritage Center is a renowned cultural center and museum in Anchorage, Alaska where all people can come to expand their understanding of Alaska’s indigenous people.

Tiulana was born on King Island in 1921 and was taught at an early age how to hunt, read the weather and ice floes and stay physically fit among many other survival skills. Tiulana started going to school on King Island when he was nine years of age. That same year, his father died, and his uncle, John Olarrana, became his mentor. With Olarrana as his mentor, Tiulana grew up to become a leader in the preservation of Inupiat traditions. He made the perpetuation of the culture and heritage of the King Islanders a major concern and devoted much of his life to this work.

Tiulana was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was honorably discharged as a disabled veteran after losing his leg in an accident. The loss of his leg left him feeling completely dissapointed and frustrated/ “All my preparation to be a good hunter was los. I had lost everything. I could not go out hunting in the moving ice any more. The Bering Sea ice moves all the time – north, south, east and west- and it is very dangerous. It is a very dangerous place to be even with two legs.”

The people of King Island were forced to leave their island in the 1950s and in 1956 Tiulana, his wife Clara and their children moved from Nome to Anchorage. Life in Anchorage took a huge adjustment. He missed traditional dancing so much, he formed the King Island Singers and Dancers of Anchorage dance group in the 1970s. Tiulana taught the group the songs and dances that were passed down from generation to generation for as long as King Island people have existed. The group has traveled to places such as Paraguay, South Korea, New York, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Sante Fe, Seattle and numerous places throughout Alaska.

Tiulana was an accomplished ivory carver and mask maker and taught carving classes and workshops for the Alaska Native organizations that serve Anchorage. He spearheaded a project to build a traditional skin boat, or umiak, in 1982 and he played a key role in the revival of the ceremonial Wolf Dance, which was finally performed in 1982 for the first time in more than 50 years.

In the late 1960s he told Vivian Senungetuk about life on King Island in the 1930s and 1940s. Senungetuk transcribed his account and published it as “A Place for Winter. Paul Tiulana’s Story.” In 1983, Tiulana was named Citizen of the Year by the ALaska Federation of Natives for his work in promoting cultural heritage. Rarely had a civic award of this nature been presented to a practicing artist. In 1984, he was recognized by the National Endowment for Arts as a National Heritage Fellow.

Tiulana’s son and BSNC shareholder Eugene Tiulana and BSNC shareholder and receptionist Esther Koezuna have been teaching BSNC’s interns traditional dance lessons throughout the summer.

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