The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center is a place for gathering, discovery, education and celebration made possible by a cross-organizational, multi-cultural partnership built on the values lived by the late Morris Thompson. The partner organizations are housed together in the center, collaborating to offer visitor services, public lands information, cultural programs, and world-class exhibits that show the history and seasonal flow of local lifestyles. Visitors and locals gather here to discover and learn about Interior and Arctic Alaska, celebrating who we are and how we live.
Morris Thompson was a Koyukon Athabascan, born in 1939 in the village of Tanana. The son of Warren Thompson from Indiana and Alice (Grant) Thompson from Tanana, as a child he loved reading and studying. He would sometimes tell people he couldn’t go outside to play because was too busy reading, preparing to “be a big man someday.” That’s how he earned the nickname “Big,” and it stuck. Morris grew up in Tanana until he went away for school at Mt. Edgecumbe. He later majored in civil engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
He didn’t work long as an engineer before his success as a campaign volunteer attracted Governor Walter Hickel’s attention, and Morris became a trusted political appointee for the governor. When Hickel was named Secretary of the Interior under President Nixon, he brought Morris to Washington as Special Assistant for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Morris became Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Director in Juneau in 1970 and was named Commissioner of the entire BIA when he was only 34 years old. In 1981 he went to work for his Native corporation, Doyon, Limited, and by 1985 he was the CEO. Morris led Doyon to become one of the most profitable and stable Alaska Native Corporations.
Despite his prestigious career Morris always called himself “just another boy from Tanana.” People who met him describe a man who remembered your name and paid attention while he spoke to you, no matter who you were. He could be a bit of a trickster, perhaps eating half of your lunch off your desk when you weren’t looking or taking over from the flight attendant to hand out the orange juice and talk to everybody on the plane. He was devoted to his wife, Thelma, their three daughters, and their grandchildren. Younger family members remember him at family gatherings, singing and play his guitar.
“Big” now lays at rest back home in Tanana. He lives on in family and friends’ cherished memories and at the Morris Thompson Center. Or, as we like to call it, “Big’s Place.”