On Saturday, a large crowd of elders, scholars, and artists gathered in Quinhagak to celebrate the opening of the Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Center. Quinhagak’s new museum is home to 60,000 artifacts, the largest collection of pre-contact Yup’ik artifacts in the world. Its opening was the culmination of nine years of back-breaking work, and the result of a unique partnership between Quinhagak’s village corporation and archaeologists.
"I almost broke down," said Warren Jones when asked about the museum opening. The CEO of Quinhagak's Qanirtuuq Corporation, this project was in many ways his idea. The opening was emotional for him and many other residents who attended.
Quinhagak elders had always known about the ancient village near their community, and residents chose to begin excavating it after much discussion in the late 2000s. The Qanirtuuq Corporation owns all of the artifacts that archaeologists have found there, and they’ve chosen to keep every single one of them in Quinhagak.
"It’s our culture," said Jones. "It’s priceless to us. And they will be here with us forever. When I’m gone, when we’re gone, they’ll be in the village. And future generations can come at any time and look at them, and never forget where they came from."
At the museum's opening, Quinhagak children huddled with world-renowned mask-makers around the collection’s ancient dolls and ulus. According to University of Aberdeen archaeologist Rick Knecht, the dig’s summer volunteers find hundreds of artifacts a day at the Nunalleq site. Knecht says that he’s gotten very little sleep in the past few days. The museum’s opening didn’t quite feel real.
"I think this is really the highlight of my professional career, what just happened," he said. "And of Warren [Jones'] too. And we looked at each other and shook hands. Because we’d done it."
The Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Center doesn’t have a curator yet, but it is taking some visitors. If you’re interested in flying to Quinhagak and seeing the collection, please contact Warren Jones at 907-556-8713.
Katie Basile contributed to this reporting.