News | Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center

The Morris Thompson Center: the Landscape for a Learning Journey

On April 18, ten student teachers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks drifted one by one into the Denakkanaaga elders’ living room at the Morris Thompson Center. They gathered there, seated in a half-circle facing a group of people ready to share many years of accumulated wisdom about teaching and learning.  Elders Dr. Elizabeth Fleagle and First Chief Reverend Anna Frank were joined in-person by educators Beverly Kokrine and Kathleen Hildebrand. By teleconference, educator Sonta Roach joined from Shageluk.  Sharing in the experience were the Executive Directors and staff of Doyon Foundation, Denakkanaaga, and the Morris Thompson Center. Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly was excited to learn about the unique event, and took time to stop by and show his support.

Some weeks earlier, Professor Doug Cost had reached out to see if the Morris Thompson Center could host a learning journey for his students in a course called “Multicultural Education and School Community Relations.”  The course included both undergraduate and graduate students who were working on education degrees and initial licensure to teach in the state of Alaska. Few of them, however, had experience in rural Alaska or deep knowledge of the history of Alaska Natives in western education. They needed some context, and this was an opportunity for them to gain understanding of challenges faced by Alaska Natives in an education system that still struggles to acknowledge and incorporate Alaska Native languages, knowledge, and ways of being and doing. The students also enjoyed learning about the panelists’ many successes and achievements.

The well-educated, successful Native women on the panel shared stories from their own educations and thoughts on how to approach teaching today. Their powerful stories brought to life essential values that are the ingredients of successful relationships between students and educators, including connection, authenticity, and respect.  They talked about the importance of understanding how cultural context influences a student’s learning style and interests. For example, a new teacher in a village might see a boy drowsing in class. If he doesn’t realize that boy is considered an adult in his community, and that he spent the early morning hours providing food and firewood for elders, the teacher might misunderstand and not make the best decision on how to re-engage with his student.

Listening to these stories took the students on a mental adventure to Nulato, Huslia, Alatna, Minto and Shageluk to learn how teaching and learning are done in rural Alaska. They eagerly noted nuggets of wisdom on how to connect with Alaska Native students in their future classrooms. Denakkanaaga’s Sharon McConnell advised that “character is more important than cognitive ability. Teach with respect for all students.” Valuable advice to guide the young teachers in their craft – and in becoming their best selves.

This cooperatively-organized event embodied perfectly the Morris Thompson Center’s values of collaboration, celebration of diversity, and diplomacy.  As the students listened to the panelists and asked questions, they were bridging some of Alaska’s deepest divides: cross-generational, rural and urban, and Native and non-Native.

At the end of their learning journey, Doug and his students took a few minutes to walk through the exhibit hall.  Perhaps one of them stood in the Thompson Family smoke house, mind awash with new perspectives, and imagined teaching in rural Alaska in a new light:  as an opportunity to teach and to learn, grow, and connect with others by openly experiencing different ways of life.  In their culminating projects, many of the education students chose to share photos from this event and reflections on the influence this learning journey had on their preparation to become teachers in Alaska. Two of the student teachers are headed out to teach in rural Alaska; one to Nenana and another to Koliganek.

The Morris Thompson Team Helps Make-a-Wish Kid’s Wish Come True

Eight-year-old Isaac King of Rhinelander, Wisconsin is preparing to be a firefighter one day, and says the Northern Lights are “the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.”  Isaac is also battling Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.  With help from the Rhinelander Fire Department and the Make-a-Wish Foundation, earlier this year Isaac accomplished his goal of visiting Alaska and seeing the Aurora in person.

During his Alaskan adventure, Isaac also asked to learn about Alaska Native culture and traditions. On March 11, the Morris Thompson Center welcomed Isaac and his family for a special visit.  Denakkanaaga Executive Director Sharon McConnell brought together elders and the Fairbanks Native Association Youth Dancers in the elders’ living room.  The youth introduced themselves in their Native languages, shared traditional songs and dances, and explained the significance of their traditional clothing, jewelry, and instruments. The Denakkanaaga elders presented Isaac with a kuspuk they made for him in a bright Aurora Borealis print. Everyone remained together in the living room for a long time, talking and sampling Native snacks including salmon, blueberry jam, and pilot bread. Hearts and tummies full, Isaac and his family then explored the Center’s exhibits and took in a film about the Northern Lights.  Finally, Explore Fairbanks and APLIC provided a goody-bag full of information and souvenirs for Isaac and his family to take home enjoy.

According to “Wishful Thinking,” the official newsletter of Make-a-Wish Wisconsin, during his visit “Isaac was able to spend time with his family, relax, have fun, and experience something he had never seen before. He came back with a new sense of strength to push through treatments and continue battling Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and live life to the fullest. He and his family agreed that it was the trip of a lifetime!”

Celebrating Ten Years of Sharing Cultures

2018 marks the tenth anniversary of the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center – can you believe it? If you haven’t been by in a while, consider taking our tenth year as a good reason to stop in for a visit, either before the summer rush starts or once the days are long and the exhibits filled with visitors from far away: whichever suits you.  Remember that we are here to welcome visitors, and also as a place for the community to gather together and share with each other.  If you have a meeting or event, our classroom and conference room and the elders’ hall are available for reservation year-round.  The auditorium and lobby can be reserved for evening events in the winter.  And you’re always welcome to simply peruse the exhibit, catch a film in the nook, borrow a book, or eat lunch in the park outside.  We look forward to seeing you here soon.


Welcoming New Executive Director Sara Harriger


The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center Board of Directors is pleased to announce the hiring of Sara Harriger as the new Executive Director for the Center.  As Executive Director, Harriger is charged with managing and promoting the Center’s facility and overseeing fundraising to build the Center’s cultural endowment. Harriger brings to the position extensive experience in public diplomacy, management of multi-stakeholder projects, and cross-cultural collaboration.  A graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, she previously served as a Foreign Service Officer and speaks French, Japanese, and Arabic. Harriger succeeds Cindy Schumaker, who was instrumental in the vision for and construction of the Morris Thompson Center. Harriger began her duties in December.

“We’re excited to welcome Sara to the Morris Thompson Center as our new Executive Director.  She brings a unique perspective and a lot of energy to the job.” – Board President Audrey George




Cultural Program Endowment Fund Supports TCC Cultural Programs


On December 13, 2017, the Morris Thompson Center presented our first-ever contribution from the Morris Thompson Center’s endowment for cultural programs to the President and Executive Board of the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

In the months and years to come, we look forward to working closely with our supporters to grow the endowment for cultural programs, ensuring that we can continue to work with partners like TCC to provide visitors and residents of Interior Alaska with access to plentiful, high-quality opportunities to share and learn about the cultures and history of interior Alaska.

ExxonMobil Makes Gift to Cultural Program Endowment Fund

Pictured here (l to r) are Tiffany Simmons, NPS employee Adia Cotter, MTCVC board member Dawn Murphy, Executive Director Cindy Schumaker, and ExxonMobil's Kimberly Jordan.

Pictured here (l to r) are Tiffany Simmons, NPS employee Adia Cotter, MTCVC board member Dawn Murphy, Executive Director Cindy Schumaker, and ExxonMobil’s Kimberly Jordan.

ExxonMobil has donated $25,000 to the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center Cultural Program Endowment Fund.  “ExxonMobil is committed to engaging with Alaska Native communities in a manner that is respectful of their cultures and customs,” said Karen Hagedorn, production manager for ExxonMobil Alaska. “We take pride in supporting the cultivation and preservation of Alaska Native traditions.”

The purpose of the endowment is to provide a long-term revenue stream for Alaska Native cultural programs within the Center.  “Our ultimate goal is to grow the endowment to $2 million to help ensure the Morris Thompson Center is filled with educational programs that preserve our cultural heritage.” said Morris Thompson Center Board Member Tiffany Simmons. “Exxon’s gift will help keep our fiddlers fiddling and our dancers dancing until the last jigger wears a hole in their moccasins! Thanks ExxonMobil!”

Sumitomo Pogo and Kinross Fort Knox bring Capital Campaign to a Close


Lorna Shaw (far right), External Affairs Manager with Sumitomo Pogo Mine presents the Mining Match gift to Morris Thompson Center representatives.

Lorna Shaw (far right), External Affairs Manager with Sumitomo Pogo Mine presents the Mining Match gift to Morris Thompson Center representatives.


Anna Atchison (far right), Government Relations Manager, presents Kinross Fort Knox's mining match gift to the campaign.

Anna Atchison (far right), Government Relations Manager, presents Kinross Fort Knox’s mining match gift to the campaign.

Thanks to the help of more than a thousand generous donors and dedicated volunteers, the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center has successfully completed a capital campaign that raised $29.3 million to build the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. After nearly two decades of planning, the effort officially came to a close today with the fulfillment of pledges made by Sumitomo Pogo and Kinross Fort Knox. Last Summer, Fort Knox and Pogo gold mines challenged the community to come together to raise the final $175,000 necessary to complete the campaign – promising to match each donation that came in until the goal was met. Today both mines made good on that pledge, presenting a total of $87,500 ($43,750 each) which amounted to their half of the mining match challenge.

“Both Pogo and Fort Knox wanted to jump in at the end to help complete this great project,” said Lorna Shaw, External Affairs Manager with Sumitomo Pogo. “We felt the Mining Match was a way we could encourage the community to get involved. Everyone I know believes the Center is a real jewel for our community, and both companies are very proud to have played a part in making it happen.”

It was a $25,000 gift from ConocoPhillips presented last month that actually took the mining match campaign over the top. Scott Jepson, VP of External Affairs at ConocoPhillips presented the final mining match gift to Morris Thompson Center President Charlene Marth at the Doyon annual meeting. “This was a special milestone for us because in 2004 Doyon made the first major gift to the campaign,” said Marth. “At the end, it was ConocoPhillips made the final gift that took us over the top.” 

Marth, who is the late Morris Thompson’s niece, said, “This facility really does embody my Uncle. He was a bridge between cultures, this facility provides that. He brought people together, this center does that. He talked about being world class, this building is that!”

A Leadership Team made up of 28 volunteers from across Alaska was committed to raising funds to complete the building with zero debt, which is what makes operating costs affordable to the lease-holding partners. The $29,334,112 raised for planning, land purchase, construction and exhibit installation included a combination of federal ($16.7M), state ($7.6M), Fairbanks North Star Borough ($250,000) and private ($4.7M) funds. The project required a small line of credit during the construction phase, but that has been paid off and the Center is now debt free.

It was the late Senator Ted Stevens who first challenged the project partners to show how they could afford to operate the building once it was built. “The Senator always told us that we shouldn’t rely on state or federal funds to operate,” said Executive Director Cindy Schumaker. “The high cost of energy makes it tough, but with nearly five years under our belt, we’re doing it.”

ConocoPhillips Makes New Gift to Help Complete Exhibits

ConocoPhillips Alaska presented a $25,000 donation to the Morris Thompson Center in March 2012. This was the oil company’s third gift to the Center, and brings ConocoPhillips’ total donation to $105,000. Jarrot Handy, Vice President of North Slope Operations (center) and Mary Gibbs, Director of Philanthropy (left) presented the gift to Morris Thompson Center’s Board President Charlene Marth (right). Handy said, “I can see why the Center is such a source of pride to your community and a tribute to a beloved leader.”

Wells Fargo Donates $50,000 to Close the Gap

Wells Fargo presented a check for $50,000 today to help complete the final phase of our exhibits. Darren Franz, Wells Fargo Northern Alaska District President, presented the check to MTCVC Board Treasurer Brian Ridley during a Tanana Chiefs Conference board meeting.

“Wells Fargo is thrilled to support the Morris Thompson Center in its mission to celebrate Athabascan culture, promote economic development and foster cultural understanding in the Interior,” said Franz.  “This is an investment in the future of Interior Alaska. We believe we’re only as strong as the communities we serve.”

In 2010, Wells Fargo gave $5,000 directly to support the creation and growth of Alaska Native Cultural programs within the Center. This new gift demonstrates support for the continued growth of these programs that celebrate and preserve the rich Athabascan heritage of Interior Alaska’s first people.

The majority of the Center’s exhibits opened in 2009, however one section was put on hold due to lack of funding. “As a partnership of three non-profit organizations, we’ve taken it slow and moved forward when funding is secure,” said Ridley. “This gift from Wells Fargo is extremely important because it jumpstarts the final effort to complete our exhibits,” said Ridley. According to Ridley, the exhibits that are already installed tell the story of ‘how we live’ in Interior Alaska. The next phase continues that story with a focus on the visitor to Alaska – helping them experience how we live and what we do.

The Wells Fargo donation brings the total raised for the MTCVC project to $29,055,000, with an estimated $200,000 still needed. Construction of the MTCVC facility and Phase I of the exhibits was funded with a combination of federal ($16.7M), state ($7.6M), and private ($4.4M) funds. The project required a small line of credit during the construction phase, but that has been paid off and the Center is now debt free.

More than 100,000 people visited the Center in 2010, and 2011 is keeping pace with last year. According to MTCVC Executive Director, the positive response is overwhelming. “Visitors rave about the friendly staff that help them plan their trip, and Alaskans love the exhibits,” said Schumaker. “It’s music to our ears when a local resident tells us we’ve gotten it right.”

Wells Fargo invested $186,000 in more than 30 nonprofits and schools in Interior Alaska in 2011.  In addition, Wells Fargo team members in Fairbanks pledged $24,000 to local charities during the company’s annual Community Support Campaign in September.  Each year, Wells Fargo invests $1.5 million in more than 280 nonprofits and schools in Alaska.  Wells Fargo’s Alaska team members logged a record 10,100 volunteer hours in 2010.

Lettuce and Cabbage and Kale, Oh My!

The Morris Thompson Center has delivered more than 100 pounds of fresh, healthy vegetables to the Fairbanks Community Food Bank so far this summer. Facility Manager Jason Faris doubles as a ‘master gardener’ to care for the Center’s flowers and historic garden. “Since the garden sits next to our historic cabin, all our vegetables are ones that were grown in Fairbanks in 1915,” says Faris. “If you didn’t find it here then, you won’t find it in our garden now.”

Kale, lettuce, cabbage, turnips, sage, thyme and potatoes all go to the Food Bank. The beans are held back, however. Dixie Alexander, the cultural program director at the Center, pickles the beans and uses them throughout the year in her ‘Taste of Alaska’ program. Nothing like eating from the garden all year long!