Burke Museum curator is a bridge to an ancient world

Growing up in an Alutiiq community on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, Dr. Sven Haakanson was always curious to learn the ways of his southern coastal people. But Native language, culture and history were absent from the public school curriculum, and not readily passed down the generations.

Then in 1988, while pursuing undergraduate studies in English, he received an unlikely invitation: a trip to the Inuit Studies Conference in Copenhagen. It was this conference—and an Alaskan anthropologist he met there—that ignited his passion for preserving indigenous culture.

“Sometimes you have to go away to really come home,” says Haakanson, the new Curator of Native American Anthropology at the Burke Museum of Natural History. He made his way to Harvard for a Ph.D in anthropology, eventually returning to Kodiak to head the Alutiiq Museum. His advocacy of Native culture brought him a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2007.

Along the way, he sojourned for years with the reindeer-herding Nenet people of Siberia. “I felt really lucky,” says Haakanson, whose new position at the University of Washington affords him time to return to Russia to continue his research. “The Nenet are one of few examples of indigenous people still living in a traditional setting.”

With know-how that runs the gamut from woodcarving to hunting to digital photography, Haakanson is a bridge between the ancient world and the contemporary one. And he’s eager to make the connection for a Burke Museum audience. As he did at the Alutiiq Museum, he’ll invite other indigenous people to help breathe life into the tools, masks and other artifacts. “Although they’ve been removed from a living context, these things are not really dead,” he insists.

In his jumbled office behind the exhibit walls, he presses the point: scrolling to a photo of a hatchet-toting Nenet toddler one moment; reaching for a book of Alutiiq masks the next; retrieving a student’s wood carving to illustrate a lesson in critical thinking. On an excursion into the museum’s storage shelves, he spies a miniature wigwam and pauses to snap it. Then he beelines for the original object of his quest: a traditional Alutiiq halibut hook.

The hook—clever and deadly—is just one example of the thousands of years of technology housed in the Burke collection. For Haakanson, it all goes to show “how amazing we are as humans, how ingenious!”