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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How might you discuss different ways in which cultures exchanged ideas and information throughout Alaska history?


The young man’s name now escapes me. It was a Bible name. He was raised by his grandparents, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had a beautiful write up and photo expose in there magazine. So it was with great excitement that I learned I would be traveling to that young man’s particular village and might have a chance to meet him.
What I found when I stepped into the school and met the teen was a pivotal lesson for me in culture. Instead of a young man in full Athabaskan attire, I found someone in full Compton regalia. It was in the days of the double pipe JNCO jeans. To the casual observer which I was, he seemed almost as if he had been transplanted from Mountain View all the way to Minto. I had mixed up in my mind the difference between culture and heritage.
Heritage is history. It is fixed. Culture is the weaving together of heritages as peoples interact and  influence one another. As time passes beneath the bridge of yesterday, the braiding of cultures becomes heritage.
Whereas the frozen grass of fall was at one time the compass, today the GPS is in wide use. In fact years before most Americans had heard of GPS, nearly every man in Kipnuk, Alaska had a Garmin 45 for safe travel.
In areas where the language is still intact, the indigenous language itself is a key to the study of cultural exchange. Yup’ik has a number of Russian loan words and even more English loan words. For example, massiinaq is the word for outboard engine, based on the English word “machine”. The much older word saaralaq, sugar, comes from Russian. In the examinations of words it becomes clearer when and where the braiding of cultures occurred.

Can we experience the product of those encounters today?

This is such a great question, as it really brings this writing assignment full circle. If we experience the products of these cultural encounters, we will have to step off of the street, or off of the boardwalk and into peoples homes. We have to go beyond hellos in the store and short exchanges at the post office and build friendships across cultural boundaries. Although these things must happen on purpose, the revelation of the products of cultural exchanges often comes quite unanticipated.
I don’t about you, but I grew up in a culture that believed that mayonnaise was a rich breeding ground for salmonella, and that if open mayo got within 5 degrees of room temperature it had to be thrown out. Quite by accident I was at my friend Richard’s house and I realized that they left the jar of mayonnaise on the table all the time (they didn’t have a refrigerator, 3 freezers, but no fridge). Not only was the mayo out on the table, but the lid was long gone. It occurred to me, here is a whole village of people who are eating room temperature mayonnaise, and not a single one has died from it. It became a pivotal point in my gastronomical paradigm; I began to understand that my way is not the only way, nor is it necessarily the correct or best way.

Your story about the mayonnaise bottle reminded me of a similar encounter I had.  When I lived in rural  village,  caribou was one of the main meats people ate.  On the porch of a family I visited was a couple of  caribou hind quarters hanging from the ceiling.  It was winter  and the temperature was hovering around freezing.  When the family needed some meat, they would just take a saw and hack off a piece to cook for their meal.  The family didn't have a freezer, so this seemed to work.  Perhaps it was cool enough to keep the meat from spoiling.  Some of the outside of the meat was kind of dry and I was told that it made good jerky.  This was all quite enlightening to me.  But, it seemed to work and no one seems to have digestive problems from it.  Creative indeed.

They mention this in the Wilder series Little House in the Big Woods, too. I would think some practices are embedded into the culture through trial and error, which is of course why practices need to be handed down, saves much time.

This is a great use of personal experience to express different perspectives and clashing beliefs. I thank you for such a contribution.   

I had a similar situation with eggs. I was completely uninformed about the way that eggs should be treated. When I went to Umkemiut, some of the kids brought me an egg to try. I was very wary of trying an egg that wasn't refrigerated but then it clicked that eggs are room temperature for quite a while before they are ever put in a cooler. 

It is funny how we learn simple things in our lives later in life.  It wasn't until I was eating a sandwich when I was in college that I realized that all the nutrients aren't in the crust of bread.   Oh, how embarrassing! 

#1. What do you think the author meant by this statement?

This statement made me think of a story Father Oleska' told of his experience as a new priest in Alaska.  He said when he arrived at his first post he noticed that the houses were brightly painted and the teens wore blue jeans just like every other teenager in America. At first he thought he was in Any Town, USA, but that was short lived.  Oleska went on to describes the "colliding" cultures as playing basketball and soccer at the same time on the same field.  Though the game is being played in the same place and both require a ball, each has very different rules by which the game is played. 

#2,  Discuss different ways cultures exchanged ideas and information through history.

William Cronon talked about how cultures (particularly Alaska Native cultures in comparison to the Russian and then American commercialism) have very different interests in the local environment and in what is valued, overall.  I find this idea of environmental history to be a fascinating one.  The idea that we need to look at the value placed on resources by the interacting cultures as much as we would notice time and the events that happened brings a whole new, more qualitative feel to history.  Cronon’s keen ability to pull out the deep and enduring connection to the land from the interactions between the Ahtnas and Kennecott mine developers reveals a deeper way of understanding the subtle (and not so subtle) affects of cultural perspective. Moreover, Cronon talked about how the Ahtnas relied on their land and had a relationship of sustainability unlike the commercial activities that eventually became the Kennecott Mine.  The idea of land ownership and profit-making endeavors were new ways of thinking for cultures more inclined to sharing and gift giving. Walter Soboleff , a Tlingit elder and ordained Presbyterian minister, in his article to address AFN in 1983, titled, The Native Philosophy of Land said it plainly and with a stern reminder for Native leadership to listen to their elders:

“Land was our inheritance.

Our land is where we ate from.

Our land is where we lived on.

Our land is where we danced on.

Our land made us happy people.”

 

What do you think the author meant by this statement?

The quote made me look deeper think about my own classroom students and our classroom culture. As a teacher in Anchorage, I get to teach students from various backgrounds, that includes various native backgrounds as well. During social studies discussions or SEL connections are when out pops a tradition or way of living that is typically covered up by their “Americanized way”. Students will often share a familiar native ways of knowing that is different from the others. Per example we were reading a story about the early people of Anchorage, in a book called “From the Shores of Ship Creek”. A young Dena’ina man had just received his first rifle at a very young age. Many of my students were shocked that this boy could have a gun at such a young age. My student from Newtok, Alaska explained, that he had rifle already, shocking some of my other students. It opened up a conversation that was really enlightening to my other students. We were able to talk about how hunting is a very pivotal and important part of native culture.

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?

When talking with my second graders, we often discuss how ideas passed between the early native groups and the explorers that came to the new land. Students get to see that some interactions were calm and trade related and others were forced and hostile in nature. Students in my class can also come to know about how their modern history has changed thanks to native rights leaders working to blend the cultures. Elizabeth Peratrovich day was a prime example to show students how far the cultures have come in the last 100 years. Students were able to see via a video interpretation, how harshly natives were treated, not too very long ago. Students might not often experience native prejudices first hand anymore, but they can come (as all students can) to know and appreciate the struggle that their predecessors had to go through.

Alaska Native individual's use of modern tools, clothes, and machinery are examples of "Americanized" tools that are utilized as means by which to continue to practice and preserve important aspects of their culture and traditions.  I think it also serves as another example of how Alaska Native people have interacted and utilized resources and their environment to cultivate their traditions and culture.  That their "identity is beneath the surface," alludes to cultural traditions, beliefs, and values behind the activities that seem "Americanized" or modern.

There are several examples of exchanges of ideas and information throughout Alaska's history, including tools, technology, clothing, language, beliefs/religion, knowledge of resources and the resources themselves, economic and education systems.  The most obvious examples are interactions between Alaska Native people and Russians and United States Americans and their arrival in the territory.  Both parties offer and adopt, or adapt, ideas and information from the other through their interactions.  I think some products of these encounters are still experienced today as Alaska Natives continue to adopt and adapt new ideas and information, while preserving their own cultural identity and traditions.  I think it is unique that the Alaska Studies course educates our current students about the original inhabitants of our region and their culture.  I think it's quite special that all students can participate in activities to learn more about Alaska Native cultures and traditions, like the Yup'ik spelling bee or witness traditional events, gatherings, and celebrations that are not solely remembrances but continuations of the Alaska Native cultures.

            A casual observer has about as much chance of accurately depicting a native Alaskan as a person has of judging the size of an iceberg based on what they see above the waterline.  As we think about what the author meant, remember that only 16% of the population in Alaska are natives.  The term “Americanized” is somewhat of a misnomer also.  Alaska is part of America, so what we are really looking at is the cultural norms of the native peoples.

            When looking at life in the village where I teach, it is not like it was 50 years ago.  Students arrive for school on their four wheelers or snow-machines, they walk in with their cell phones and put on their sneakers.  That does not make them Americanized.  Take one of my students here and place them in a school I have taught in previously and they might as well be from another planet.

            I did a survey about life in the village.  Subsistence activities are still an important part of life here.  It may be easier with the improved mobility and weapons but it is still subsistence.  Respect for elders and for each other is still a very important part of the culture.  The last question was whether they have considered moving outside of Alaska to live and why or why not.  Of the 18 responses, one student said they would consider it.  The reasons for not all had to do with their ties to the land and the beauty they see around them everyday.

            To discuss the different ways in which cultures exchanged ideas and information throughout Alaska’s history can be best accomplished by taking a thematic approach.  With all the terrible things that transpired over the years, it would be easy to build fear and resentment in the student.  By presenting information honestly, as a cautionary tale, while looking for the good and admitting the bad, you can bring your students to an awareness of the past and help them be active in shaping the future.

            One way to experience the products of those encounters today would be to have the students make a list of ten things (or customs) in the village today, that were not present 50-100 years ago.  Take these things one at a time, discuss how they were introduced to the village, what their purpose is and whether it makes life in the village better or worse.

I think the author means that when outsiders first interact with today's Alaska Native lifestyle, it's easy to think of them as modern day Americans. In a sense, they are Americans because they are US citizens. However, their traditions are still very much alive. It's easy to watch someone set a gillnet and think to yourself "oh that's really modern," but what many outsiders don't see is how much work goes into harvesting the fish afterwards. They use the modernity of the gillnet but the women still use ulaqs (the Yup'ik word for ulu) to prepare the fish for drying. Modern clothes, machinery, and tools all help make the job easier, but their culture is still deeply ingrained through the generations. The speaking of English, however, has to do more with cultural exchange.

Any time cultures interact there is a give and take of cultural ideals. Unfortunately Native Alaskans were not viewed as the "dominant culture" and had to face the brutalities of colonization from both Russians and Americans. They were able to share their understanding of the land and often exploited for it. The lasting impacts from BIA schools are still massively felt in Native communities. Though it is incredibly easy for the negative to overshadow the positive on these cultural exchanges, Irish and Scottish Americans brought modern instruments, like fiddles, to the region (Huntington 122). Then again, it is difficult to weigh the positive against the negative. Positive things like the use of fiddles at funeral potlatches and sharing yurraq with teachers are great ways to build communities. However, the effects of abuse and cultural genocide can be seen among the population through substance and domestic abuse.

  • "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."

To me, this means that though Alaska Natives operate within the "rules" of American society to fit in, the culture is rich. I see this on a daily basis with my students. My students use "americanized" clothes and "americanized" technology and listen to "americanized" music. Still, I have many students who are excited for Yuraq. There is no greater obsession for some of my students than to listen to Byron Nicholai (a Yup'ik singer from Toksook Bay). When I have gone to feasts, all "americanized" food have been tossed aside for traditional foods. In short, though Alaska Natives live an "americanized" life in most cases,  the culture stays strong a long as it is still taught. Pride in ones culture is very present in todays classrooms and communities. 

 

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?

 

I believe that the best way to approach a discussion on how cultural exchanges along with ideas and information is to have a multi-generational discussion in the classroom. I live in a community where some of the eldest in the community remember life before American intervention. Their children often times went to BIA schools. Their children may be the children we have in our classrooms today. I believe setting up some guiding questions for parents and grandparents who wish to come in and share local history would help students see the differences on how cultural exchange and moods have impacted different people. 

I believe we need to come to terms, especially in an Alaska Studies class, that interactions between cultures have not always been positive. Having our students understand that will help them come to terms with the history of Alaska and why there may even be rough edges today between different cultures in Alaska.  In short, we are experiencing the product of  these encounters today...so lets talk about it so there isn't a question of where the tension comes from. 

 

I think that mainstream American culture has been and is invasive (for better or worse) to any culture that is either indigenous or that migrates into this country. It seems to take no time whatsoever for Walmart and McDonalds to make their mark on any culture once exposed. In so many ways, Americans are Americans. There are plenty of ways people seem to look just like everyone else. To see Native Alaskan students in a traditional public school setting is often no different than seeing a student from any other culture. However,  it is also true that what can be seen may well be where the “sameness” ends. Once a person moves past the blue jeans and hoodies, the culture of a person is obvious.

I think that in the past, assimilation was not only the majority culture’s agenda, but in some ways, it was also the Native Alaskans. The assumption that assimilation would bring good things was made by early Alaskans who were in awe of new technology and mesmerized by the novelty and nuances of the white people. Many Alaskan natives, at least early on, were compliant with attempts to become “civilized.” The benefits of being “white” were obvious and assimilation was their opportunity to have access to many things that were perceived as desirable.

My grandfather came from Mexico as a caballero on the Wyoming ranches. He lived in a small village of Mexicans just North of Denver, where many of his seven children were born. By the time my mother, who was the youngest, came along, he had determined to be as “white” as a brown skinned man could be. He would no longer speak Spanish, nor would his family. A Spanish accent was a societal curse that relegated people to the worst jobs and lowest status. My mother is the only child who is unable to converse fluently in Spanish. She was also the only one to marry a white man. I cannot help but imagine that my grandfather’s shift in thinking had more to do hope than desire. I do not imagine that he wanted to give up his language. After all, he still made tortillas every morning. He still ate food from his homeland (with slight changes to ingredients due to expense). He still loved the music of his people… I wonder if he just wanted more for his family and saw the path as one that included complete and total assimilation to everything “American.”

I don’t remember a lot about my grandfather. He fought in Mexican wars as a very young man, child really, and worked hard his entire life.  He seemed to be the one person from his village discontent with that life and eventually left his work as a caballero (cowboy) to become a stonemason so that he could move his family into the city. My grandfather loved the land. Even among neighbors in the barrio, his skills in growing and cultivating all kinds of plants was widely admired.

His younger children dressed like traditional American children, they liked the music that traditional American kids liked, they talked like other Americans kids, and they went to public school. Segregation in Colorado was more of a natural phenomenon that it was a purposeful practice. The poor kids (mainly African-Americans and Mexican) all went to school together because they all lived in the same poor neighborhoods.

When I look at the lives of my mother’s siblings, some of whom are now deceased, part of me grieves that my mother was the youngest. For 35 years I have seen her judged by the color of her skin. I have seen her work menial jobs to keep her children fed and the rent paid. The tragedy is that in being denied access to her culture, she lost more than my grandfather could have ever anticipated. In marrying a white man, much of her family took offense. Her not speaking Spanish was only further evidence of her rejection of them, even though it was out of her control. She was not often welcome by white people because of her skin at a time when skin color was considered a valid indicator of worth and character. My mother has faced many of the demons that plague other indigenous people, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion. Ultimately, I too feel like I’ve been robbed of much of my cultural heritage. Older Mexicans do not seem to take the same approach of older Native Alaskans. There is no camaraderie that compels elders to instill the culture of their people into younger generations. In some ways, the mindset of my grandfather’s people remains very similar to what his was in the mid 1900’s. I am grateful that many elders in the Native community dedicate their life to sharing the stories of their ancestors. I would give a lot to know mine.

In response to the second part of the prompt, I do not believe that we can truly comprehend the culture of the early Alaskans truly. Once assimilation became a goal for both settlers and natives, it changed, and it changed forever. Without a written record, the writers of what record there is became co-authors of the cultural heritage as they wrote from a personal bias and perspective that could not possibly encompass the nuances of a culture for which they had no or poor frames of reference. Any effort to recover what a culture may have been will always be someone’s best guess based on what evidence can be found, and likely early written records by non-Native Alaskans. Can anything from a culture that has been lost ever be completely restored? I don’t think so. 

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