ANUAH Discussion Forum

Leading By Example, in the 21st Century...

In Alaska Native Cultures and Issues, in the section titled, “What is important to know about Alaska Native cultures?” The author points out that,

"To a casual observer Alaska Native individuals appear to be “Americanized” in that they use modern tools, clothes, machinery, and speak English. But the bulk of Alaska Native identity is beneath the surface."

What do you think the author meant by this statement?

 

How might you discuss different ways in which cultures exchanged ideas and information throughout Alaska history?  Can we experience the product of those encounters today?

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Replies to This Discussion

#1: After that quote the author goes on to say that “each village has different relationship and communication protocols, different customs and traditions, and different worldviews with a single region of Alaska” (5). So while Alaska Natives may wear Levi jeans and be able to buy white bread (albeit at an exorbitant price if they live in the Bush), their daily lives are still infused with traditions that have been passed down by elders over the decades. One example might be the dances that each group performs, telling their stories and histories through music and movement. To my knowledge, these differ based on the various regions of Alaska, which makes sense if you think about the environment the groups inhabit. It wouldn’t make sense to have the northern Inuit telling the story of Keet Shagun, as sea lions are found mostly in the Southeast.

#2: I like to think that Alaska has absorbed the best of the cultures it has encountered over the years, but that simply isn’t always the case. The Russians often brutalized the Aleuts and Tlingits via their wars and the promyshleniki’s enslavement of the Natives, but they also left behind a rich culture of Russian Orthodoxy which has become embedded in Alaska today. So while there have been benefits, there have also been detriments to Alaska’s original peoples. One of the core struggles throughout the state’s history seems to revolve around the culture clashes of western v. non-western beliefs. According to Alaska Native Cultures and Issues, “Alaska’s Native peoples have a deep understanding and wisdom about fish, wildlife, habitat, weather, climate, and geography that could benefit all peoples” (6). However, throughout history, those same Native peoples have had their rights steamrolled and been discriminated against, starting with the Russians and continuing with the Americans. I think we do continue experiencing those encounters today; for example, that’s why we have ANCSA and all the native corporations, to safeguard Native lands and rights. Hopefully in turn that will also protect their cultural heritage and traditions.

Thank you for your post, Stephanie. I wish I had more real-life experience to speak to this topic. I can see why it continues to be a challenge to not project mainstream American values and expectations on people who, for all intents and purposes, seem to exist within the status quo.

I have to imagine this is a common occurrence whenever a group of people are somewhat isolated, either geographically or socially. I know that I am extremely egocentric. It is easy for me to assume that others think as I do because I see them as part of my social cohort. Widespread access to the internet makes it easy to assume that everyone is inundated with the same messages about current events and what is trending that it seems justified to assume that our worldviews are more similar that not. Even individuals who do not engage in social media or watch television are exposed indirectly by those in society who do. So it is with Native Alaskans. While there is an awareness of what is happening across society, there is a deeper awareness of who they are as people who continue to live much of what could be considered a traditional lifestyle. Subsistence practices, geographical separation, and their unique history, makes any attempt at making assumptions, especially given the diversity among Alaska Natives, absurd.  

            Cultures are living, breathing organisms. Every time I hear someone say some well-intended platitude about “preserving [Yup’ik] culture,” the anthropologist within cringes and I want to point out the remains of a preserved piglet on my science shelf. Do you know how it was “preserved?” It was killed. And soaked in noxious formaldehyde. I want nothing to do with that!

            Culture? That, on the other hand, is quite alive, and like all living beings, responds to the environmental stimuli in which it finds itself. I will never advocate for the preservation of Yup’ik culture, but only for its continual renewal and rebirth. When Yup’ik culture encountered Russian culture, it did not die, but was given new life. It adapted and adopted both materially and socially: Yup’ik re-incarnation was baptized by Russian Orthodox saints names; shamans became Christian readers; rites for the dead became an elaborate system of pannikhidas. Gerontocracy was preserved; patricide was prohibited (an unsustainable combination, ironically – the American answer was only titular acceptance of gerontocracy in favor of democracy). The Qasgiq/Ena relationship was maintained under the Russians, but bigamy was outlawed (the relationship was destroyed in the 1950s with the VISTA program push for nuclear familial housing in the YK Delta). Levirate marriage was present in endogamic Yup’ik culture when the Russians came, but Native interpretations of the Scriptures reinforced it; interestingly, American culture is ambivalent to it, but it still holds enough cultural value that it remains remarkably high in modern Yup’ik society. Material and social expectations with the Russians, but Yup’ik culture lived.

            How has Yup’ik culture interacted with modern American culture? Each Friday, my high school students yurraq (Yup’ik dance) in the gym. The boys who write the songs have lyrics and moves such as “cell phone” and “hootchy-cootchy dancing,” both of which are products of early 21st century America. And yet, watching the boys bounce on their knees raising their hands to their ears as if making a call reminds me that no, American boys don’t do that. Yup’ik boys do. American culture has offered much, both positive and negative, to Yup’ik culture. In many ways, government welfare has emasculated Yup’ik men, taking away their need to work and provide. Yet things like the Internet have enabled the rapid transit of knowledge and ideas, as well as previously unprecedented collaboration opportunities amongst those interested in living their culture. Although significantly hindered by its modern culture of alcohol abuse (I know that is controversial, but I would argue it is also strongly provable by both classic and modern anthropological definitions of culture.), Yup’ik culture is far from dead, and although it is in a currently precarious situation, I believe that it will not truly die, but only continue to be morphed from one living form to another.

I'd never thought of the negative connotation of the word "preserved" in regards to Native culture, but I really like the preserved piglet analogy. I wonder if perhaps a positive spin on the word might be in regards to parts of Native culture--like language and dancing--that was almost eradicated during the era of boarding schools? It's obvious that like any culture, Native culture is constantly reworking itself, but I do appreciate the movement toward revitalizing parts of cultures that might have otherwise been lost.

I recently read an ADN article (http://www.adn.com/article/20151016/inupiaq-woman-joins-movement-re...) about a young Inupiaq tattoo artist who is revitalizing traditional Native tattooing practices. I showed it to my very Western-oriented students as a way to demonstrate the cultural diffusion and they thought the blending of the Native visuals with some more modern Western tattoo technology was totally awesome. This is just one example, but perhaps instead of preserving culture, culture is revitalized?

I'm glad you mentioned the yurraq practices, because I've witnessed the same thing - the younger generation creating new songs that reflect on current trends and lifestyles. The style of the music and dancing is very traditional, but the subject material is vastly different than the old songs. Another good example of the interaction between cultures.

I do wonder at your apparent disdain for the idea of "preserving" culture. Many things are preserved without first needing to be killed/destroyed (think wild spaces and important habitats/ecosystems, historic sites & buildings). I can certainly see there being some cynicism over the reasons WHY cultures may need to be preserved, but preservation does not need to be preceded by total, or even near destruction. The best preservation efforts are those that recognize the need for preservation well in advance to any serious threat to something's survival (maybe not applicable in the case of Yup'ik/Native cultures). What my concern over the preservation of culture revolves around is having too fixed of an idea of what a culture is. Like you said, cultures are living, evolving "organism," so preservation does not have to mean freezing it in one state forever and ever, unchanged.

It is important for all of us to remember that Alaska Native cultures have been changing for thousands of years. It would be foolish to think that Alaska Natives lived in the exactly the same way from when they crossed Beringea until the Russians showed up. I think our responsibility in the so-called "preservation" of cultures is to allow cultures to change, but at their own pace, without forcing undue changes upon it (or, many instances, attempting to wipe it out completely).

I really appreciate your take on the "preservation" of culture. It seems as though part of the issue with preservation is, as you say, that it only happens when it is absolutely necessary for the survival of the culture. Rather, the term "preservation" might be better replaced with "practice".

What people actually pass on to (and develop in) the next generation becomes that generation's true cultural heritage.  This is the living culture, often very different from the artifacts we describe or portray to outsiders as "our culture".

Question #1

I think it comes down to values. People see the natives hunt with motorized boats or with iron dogs without realizing they are doing so as a way to preserve important aspects of their culture. Modern technology is a way for them to keep those principles alive. For instance, Barrow incorporates cultural skills like ice fishing into their formal curriculum. 

For example, a person with a jigging stick or hook is lowered into a hole. When the fish bites, the line is lifted out of the water. The fish is then stunned with a club or stick. Language skills like simple phrases for ice fishing, or words for tools and equipment (like tuuq, or an auger) are taught. Weather and geography (dressing warmly in cold weather, and where to go fishing), cooking (how to prepare food, and knowing about the nutritious value of fish), science (recognizing if the ice is too thin or thick for fishing), and math (measuring the length of fishing line and using their feet and hands as measuring tools). Again, although Native Alaskans may be seen using modern technology like fishing rods, snow-machines, and rifles, etc., they are doing so in a way that preserves and in some cases enhances their cultural values. 

Question #2

When the Russians first came to Alaska in the eighteenth century, they considered Alaska Natives to be uncivilized savages. In no time the fur traders did not hunt the animals; instead forced Aleut hunters to do the work. The Russians also brutalized Aleuts and spread their disease killing many natives.

The Russians also prohibited animistic celebrations of dance and songs by the Aleuts. Soon the Russians had them embrace Orthodoxy and to accept Christian names and baptism. Once again, intolerance and injustice prevailed among them.

When the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, the Natives were viewed as being the bottom of the ladder of civilization. The United States government proclaimed the Aleuts “freemen” and were receiving slave wages for long and demanding hours.

Then you had the Federal Government (BIA) forcing the Alaska Natives to be educated with American culture and values. The goal of many educators at the time of were mandatory boarding schools designed to give struggling students support or to set high expectations. However, the cost for many was physical or sexual abuse, forbidden to speak their native language which resulted in the loss of their language, culture and identity. Many of the students who returned home were not accepted. These natives missed out on learning important traditional skills which led to drugs, alcohol, and suicide.

Today, the past is almost forgotten. It is so sad and painful to know how these first inhabitants have been treated throughout time. These are all example how Russians have forced their opinions and beliefs on another culture. Within the last 50 years (With the signing of the Native Land Claims Act) Alaska Native finally have the power to express their own beliefs and values as a culture.

Attachments:

I agree that modern tools are utilized as a means by which to continue traditions and are prompted by underlying and enduring cultural values.  The traditional culture is very much alive and transferable through modern means.

#1:

Honestly, I think the quote is fairly self-explanatory. If I use the example of Yup'ik people that I interact with regularly if you were to see many of them walking down the street, or have a brief interaction with them, you would think they have been pretty well assimilated into mainstream American culture. They do often speak English, they often wear "normal" American clothing, and often have the expected accessories (smart phones, headphones, tablets, etc.). But there is quite a lot that is not readily noticeable. There are plenty of aspects of a "normal" Yup'ik person's life that are quite a bit different from mainstream America, but not always easy to see if you only have casual contact with their culture. The obvious ones are the subsistence lifestyle - most of my students and their families gather, hunt, catch, and harvest a large portion of their food. Furthermore, they gather and harvest other important materials in their lives (such as wood for their steam houses, and then other materials for crafts, clothing, etc.). You can look at the predominantly (in the villages I have lived) Russian Orthodox religion which is far from the mainstream church experience for most Americans. Many of my students spend a good amount of time speaking Yup'ik. The social interactions are also quite different, especially the feasts and throw parties. These are all things that are quite a bit different from what we think of as mainstream American culture, but not things that you would ever pick up on just walking through the grocery store and seeing a Yup'ik family doing some shopping. In fairness, the bulk of most people's identity is below surface regardless of their ethnic background, but I get the point the author is making, trying to point out that even though Alaska Natives have been "conquered" and colonized by outside cultures, they have still retained large and important aspects of their native cultures.

#2:

I think when you're looking at exchanges of ideas between cultures, you start with the big ones - Trade, Conflict, Colonization/Domination. Initial knowledge of new culture is generally gained through these experiences. After that, then you get things like religion, education, anthropological study, and so on. Throughout their histories, Alaska Native groups have traded and fought with each other spreading ideas, tools, technology, genes, and countless other cultural characteristics. When Europeans arrived, the same sort of things happened, though Europeans focused more on the colonization and domination of the natives. We can experience these products today all over - and not just in Alaska. Some obvious examples are religion (we can see how Alaska Natives adopted - maybe a mild term - and adapted Christianity), clothing (Natives adopting western clothing, and Europeans utilizing many native styles & manufacturing/materials practices), language (the prevalence of English, native place names, both sides borrowing words), and technology (the use of western technology such as guns, motors/engines, and the adoption of native technology by Europeans - I'm thinking of the kayak, in particular). But that's just how things go - when groups of people meet no matter who proves to be the "dominant" culture, both sides borrow and adapt ideas from the other.

You are absolutely correct when speaking of the fact that you cannot assume ones cultural identity by just watching them walk down the street. Differences can be seen within the Alaskan native cultures and expectations of childrens behavior or even cultural norms when hosting guests within your home.

The quote that keeps coming to mind is "you can't judge a book by its cover." Just because you see people doing or using modern materials does not in anyway indicate their values and concern for their cultural heritage and beliefs. Modern discoveries and technology are for any one who chooses to use them to make their lives easier or quicker it has no bearing on how they view their cultural identity or activities. I read an article about the whale hunting of the Inupiat's and how the job was completed with a "ancient forklift, loader and exploding harpoon." Although afterwards the people continue with the traditional uses and celebrations of the animal. For which the spirit and traditions were not sacrificed but shared joy in the materials of the white to be used for their sustenance for all. Plus those traditions are still being passed on to the next generations. 

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