By Jeff Rebitski, Staff Writer

Hank Overturf stands with one of his masks he collected during his years serving in Alaska. Photo by Jeff Rebitski

Riverton- The Riverton Museum hosted famed former Alaskan resident, William “Hank” Overturf on Wednesday evening to demystify the migrations of Native Alaskans during the establishment of their current geographical boundaries. 

Hank is a longtime resident of Alaska having served as an educator and school leader for many years in the “bush” all over the state. He shared stories of his years as a firefighter, pilot and smoke jumper and with his experiences, he brought humor and vast amounts of information about the customs and traditions of one of the most mysterious places on earth. Hank, now retired, lives in Riverton with his wife and dogs, thriving in the wilds of Wyoming. He serves on the Fremont Museum Board and supports the efforts of the Fremont County Museums in Dubois, Lander and Riverton.   

In his discussion, Hank talked about how, during the population of Alaska, the respective tribes like Inupiaq,Yup’ic, Cup’ic, Athabaskan and the southern tribes like the Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit followed the food sources south, after possibly migrating over the Bering Strait during the land breakups of the ancient times.  So much of this is conjecture as the geologic records are subject to scrutiny by everyone. 

The different tribes and peoples developed their cultures around the foods that were available and each carries their traditions of hunting and dietary intakes. Even the way food is prepared is vastly different from region to region. Northern tribes depended more on seals and sea life including whales and some seafaring mammals, while the interior tribes consumed more red meat from caribou and moose. Trapping and opportunistic foods was an option while traveling. The flora and fauna provided much needed vegetation in the southern regions as wild berries and a generous amount of roots were available. 

The traditions that have been passed down for years throughout the native communities of Alaska are fascinating to behold. From the hand carved masks of the south east and Aleutian islands to the seal skin boats and primitive weapons still in use today for hunting seals and whales. Each identified group has their heritage that they try to pass along through storytelling and traditional events. From birth to death and beyond, groups celebrate their existence and take great pride in the old ways. Styles of dancing vary from region to region as do the sports and games played by all. Celebrated today are the Alaska Native Youth Olympics that holds regional events each year that celebrate the traditional games of strength and skill. 

The Native people of Alaska have overcome obstacles of all kinds over the millennia they have inhabited some of the most inhospitable lands on earth, but through the test of time, they emerge strong and proud of the culture and character they freely share with their neighbors. We do not want to forget their traditions and cultural identities and look to the history of this great state as an example of the strength and perseverance of man under the most difficult of conditions. 

Take an afternoon and see the display of native artifacts at the Riverton Museum and enjoy the rest of the exhibits while expanding your understanding of some of the culture in Alaska.