In Alaska, you don’t have to do everything Alaskans do, but knowing what is important and predominant in the lives of Alaskans will certainly enhance and enrich your experience.
Sourdough bread, pastries, and pancakes are a local tradition, dating back to the gold-rush days. Prospectors and pioneers carried a stash of sourdough starter so they could always whip up a batch of dough in short order. The experienced miners and those who survived the harsh winter became known as sourdoughs, a title that later came to define old-timers—depending on who you talk to, anyone who has lived in Alaska for either five consecutive winters or at least 20 years. Either way, eat enough sourdough pancakes for breakfast, smoked salmon spread on sourdough bread for lunch, and a dinner of fresh halibut and wild-berry and rhubarb cobbler, and you can consider yourself an honorary Alaskan sourdough.
Subsistence is a very important way of life, not only for Alaskans living in remote parts of the state, but for urban dwellers as well; moose, reindeer, halibut, and salmon are common meals. Salmon fishing is best in the summer months, and Alaskans all over the state take to their boats on rivers and shorelines to catch their year’s supply. Though many people stock their freezers with fillets, many more pull out their smokers. Smoked salmon is not like lox; it is steeped first in brine and a variety of different spices or sugars. It comes out as a moist, oily jerky and is either air packed or jarred and can be found in shops everywhere.
Alaska's rich Native culture is reflected in its abundance of craft traditions, from totem poles to intricate baskets and detailed carvings. Many of the Native crafts you'll see across the state are the result of generations of traditions passed down among tribes; the craft process is usually labor intensive, using local resources such as rye grasses or fragrant cedar trees. Each of Alaska's Native groups is noted for particular skills and visual-art styles. Inuit art includes ivory carvings, spirit masks, dance fans, baleen baskets, and jewelry. Also be on the lookout for mukluks (seal- or reindeer-skin boots). The Tlingit peoples of Southeast Alaska are known for their totem poles, as well as for baskets and hats woven from spruce root and cedar bark. Tsimshian Indians also work with spruce root and cedar bark, and Haida Indians are noted basket makers and carvers. Athabascans specialize in birch-bark creations, decorated fur garments, and beadwork. The Aleut, a maritime people dwelling in the southwest reaches of the state, make grass basketry that is considered among the best in the world.
Alaska Native culture is also evident in music and dance. It may seem simple when you first experience it, but the mukluks, kuspuks (Yup'ik overshirts), robes, and headdresses worn are embedded with rich stories and symbolism, and each region’s dance and music varies. You may hear young men cry out during a song—listen carefully: they are imitating the sound of the seal, the walrus, or the whale.
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