Alaska Native Cultures and Issues: Responses to Frequently Asked Questions

Alaska Native Cultures and Issues: Responses to Frequently Asked Questions

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by Libby Roderick

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Making up more than ten percent of Alaska's population, Native Alaskans are the state's largest minority group. Yet most non-Native Alaskans know surprisingly little about the histories and cultures of their indigenous neighbors, or about the important issues they face. This concise book compiles frequently asked questions and provides informative and accessible


Making up more than ten percent of Alaska's population, Native Alaskans are the state's largest minority group. Yet most non-Native Alaskans know surprisingly little about the histories and cultures of their indigenous neighbors, or about the important issues they face. This concise book compiles frequently asked questions and provides informative and accessible responses that shed light on some common misconceptions. With responses composed by scholars within the represented communities and reviewed by a panel of experts, this easy-to-read compendium aims to facilitate a deeper exploration and richer discussion of the complex and compelling issues that are part of Alaska Native life today.

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"A valuable contribution to the literature on Alaska Natives that libraries should acquire for use by students doing research."—Choice

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University of Alaska Press
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Responses to Frequently Asked Questions

University of Alaska Press

Copyright © 2010 University of Alaska Press
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ISBN: 978-1-60223-091-0

Chapter One

Identity, Language, and Culture

Who are Alaska's Native peoples?

What is important to know about Alaska Native cultures?

How many Native languages are there? Is it important to save them?

"First, who we are ... we are Iñupiaq, Yup'ik, Cup'ik, Siberian Yupik, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Eyak, Athabascan, Aleut, and Alutiiq. We are the indigenous people of Alaska. For over ten thousand years our ancestors have lived and thrived in one of the harshest areas of the world. We are the last remaining indigenous people in the United States to have never been forcibly removed from our homelands and settled in reservations. We have more than 230 small villages scattered in the largest land mass contained in one state of the union. The residents of many of these Native villages depend on subsistence hunting and fishing to sustain their bodies as well as their traditions and cultures."

Sheri Buretta

Who are Alaska's Native peoples?

The term "Alaska Native" is used to describe the peoples who are indigenous to the lands and waters encompassed by the state of Alaska: peoples whose ancestors have survived here for more than ten thousand years.

Distinct cultural groups. Alaska Native people belong to several major cultural groups-Aleut /Unangan, Athabascan, Eyak, Eskimo (Yup'ik, Cup'ik, Siberian Yupik, Sugpiaq or Alutiiq, Iñupiaq), Haida, Tlingit, Tsimpshian-and many different tribes or clans within those groupings. Each of these cultures is distinct, with complex kinship structures, highly developed subsistence hunting and gathering practices and technologies, and unique and varied languages, belief systems, art, music, storytelling, spirituality, and dance traditions, among many other attributes.

Common values. What these cultural groups share in common, however, are deeply ingrained values, such as honoring the land and waters upon which life depends, having respect and reverence for fish and wildlife, valuing community over individuality, sharing with others, and respecting and learning survival skills and wisdom from elders. Alaska Native cultural worldviews are holistic. Native cultures accept that everything in creation is connected, complex, dynamic, and in a constant state of flux. Alaska Native peoples have a deep and sophisticated qualitative understanding of the environment in which they live. This understanding comes from stories passed down for generations; it also comes from life experiences, learning from mentors beginning at a young age, observations of others in the community, and the guidance of elders.

Geography. The different Alaska Native cultural groups today inhabit the lands they have occupied for more than ten thousand years. The Iñupiaq people live in the Arctic; the Yupiaq live in Southwestern Alaska; the Unungan live in the Aleutian Chain and Pribilof Islands; the Athabascan live in the Interior and Southcentral part of the state; the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimpshian live in Southeastern Alaska; and the Sugpiaq and Eyak occupy the lower Southcentral region, Kenai Peninsula, and Kodiak. Many now have moved to urban areas, because of economic pressures impinging on the villages and because opportunities for jobs and education are greater in cities. Although it is difficult to estimate the overall Native population in early history, stories and archeological investigations prove that Alaska Native people used and occupied virtually all inhabitable land in the 586,412 square mile terrain we now call Alaska.

Population. Today more than 100,000 Alaska Natives live in Alaska, with many more whose ancestry includes some strand of Alaska Native heritage. Until about 1930, Alaska Native people are estimated to have accounted for between 50 percent and 100 percent of Alaska's population. Due to the influx of non-Natives, however, Alaska Native citizens now represent approximately 16 percent of the state's population. Most live in small rural communities accessible only by air or boat. Roughly 6 percent of Anchorage citizens (approximately 17,000) are of Alaska Native descent. Nearly one-quarter of Alaska schoolchildren from kindergarten through twelfth grade are Alaska Native.

Politics and economics. Alaska Native people are vitally involved in the political and economic landscape of modern Alaska. The Alaska Native Brotherhood (founded in 1912), the Tlingit and Haida Central Council (1939), Alaska Native Sisterhood, the Tundra Times newspaper (1962), the Alaska Federation of Natives (1966), the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (1975), and many other organizations, tribal leaders, Native legislators, and individuals have helped shape key political issues including subsistence, land claims, civil rights, education, cultural and language preservation, energy costs and alternatives, and climate change. Map courtesy of Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Following passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971 and establishment of 13 regional and over 200 village corporations, Alaska Native peoples collectively have become among the most powerful economic forces in the state (see pages 19-26). According to the Calista Corporation Report of 2006, Native corporations have combined revenues of more than $4 billion, pouring huge sums into the Alaska economy through job creation, business investments, dividends, and charitable contributions. However, many corporations are still struggling to realize financial gains for shareholders, and many rural Alaska Native people live near poverty levels and depend upon hunting and fishing to survive. Alaska Permanent Fund dividends and government aid are significant sources of income in many rural households.

As history has shown, an understanding of Alaska Native histories and cultures is vital to making wise decisions about Alaska's environment, public education, and economy. Readings in this section help explain some aspects of Alaska Native identities and cultures and the role they play in shaping Alaska today and tomorrow.

What is important to know about Alaska Native cultures?

An attempt to answer this question fully has engaged many scholars, elders, and educators for hundreds of years. Here are some fundamentals:

Alaska Native cultures:

* have developed over thousands of years in response to environmental conditions among the most challenging on earth.

* are many and varied, representing at least seven major groups across the state-Aleut/ Unangan (Southwestern Coastal Alaska), Iñupiaq (Northwestern and Northern Coastal), Athabascan (Interior), Tlingit (Southeastern), Tsimpshian (Southeastern), Haida (Southeastern), Eyak (Southeastern), Yup'ik, Cup'ik, Siberian Yupik, Sugpiaq/Alutiiq (Southwestern), with many different tribes or clans within those groupings.

* are distinct from one another, with unique and varied languages; complex kinship structures; and highly developed art, music, storytelling, belief systems, spiritual practices, educational systems, dance traditions, and subsistence hunting and gathering practices and technologies.

* share key values, such as honoring the land and waters upon which life depends; respecting and sharing with others; respecting and learning from elders; living with an attitude of humility and patience; honoring the interconnections among all things; being mindful in word and deed; and knowing one's place within one's history, traditions, and ancestors.

* are completely rooted in and tied to the land and waters of a particular region and the practices and customs necessary to thrive in that region.

* have been hard hit by myriad forces over the past two centuries, including diseases brought by European immigrants and traders; enslavement and/or oppression by colonizing powers (including the United States government, territorial government, Russian government, and religious organizations); a huge influx of non-Natives, which has altered access to subsistence foods and resulted in restrictive regulation; the arrival of western technologies, religions, economic systems, industrial development, and educational systems; and climate change.

Despite these obstacles, Alaska's Native peoples not only continue to survive, but also help define Alaska's economy, politics, and future.

It is important to note that traveling to the remote villages where most Alaska Native people live is, for non-Natives, like traveling to a foreign country in every sense of the word. A casual observer may note that 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. Each village has different relationship and communication protocols, different customs and traditions, and different worldviews even within a single region of Alaska; these differences are magnified when considered against other indigenous cultures and mainstream society.

Alaska Native peoples have had intimate contact with their immediate environments for hundreds of generations and thus have a profound understanding of place. Development of oil reserves on Alaska's North Slope in the 1970s introduced a new tension when Alaska Native aboriginal land claims impeded construction of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Most Alaska Native land claims were extinguished by congressional action in 1971, a solution that remains a topic of dispute today (see section on ANCSA, pages 19-26).

Alaska Native history is fraught with stories of conflict with western legal systems (particularly over land) and with western theories about land, fish, and wildlife, as well as individual versus communal rights-struggles some Native people believe may only heighten as Alaska continues to attract newcomers who know little, if anything, about Alaska's first peoples.

Alaska's Native peoples have a deep understanding and wisdom about fish, wildlife, habitat, weather, climate, and geography that could benefit all peoples. As environmental issues grow ever more daunting-even threatening the survival of all life on this planet-Alaska Native cultures, worldviews, knowledge, and wisdom offer alternatives for living in a respectful and sustainable relationship with the natural world.

How many Native languages are there? Is it important to save them?

Alaska is home to twenty Alaska Native languages, along with a multitude of regional dialects. In Native cultures, as in every culture, language serves as a vessel for entire ways of thinking and relating to the world. It is a storehouse of accumulated knowledge, wisdom, information, beliefs, history, and identity; it reveals its speakers' philosophical views, sense of place, social relationships, political organization, learning styles, and attitudes about everything from food to land to marriage to spirituality. Language expresses the unique cumulative experience of a group of people over generations and offers the rest of the human race another view of how to live in the world.

From the perspective of indigenous people, language is birthed from the land in which the people themselves live and contains the vibration of these lands in the sounds of the words used. Each spoken tongue is unique: the result of thousands of years of living in a specific area. An adopted or second language can never replicate what a particular indigenous language can communicate.

Alaska Native words and languages are multidimensional in meaning. Some words or phrases communicate not only information, but also spiritual and emotional dimensions reflective of the holistic worldview of Alaska Native peoples. This is why Alaska Native elders often speak in their own language rather than in English in group settings, even when speaking to an English-only group. To them, the English language cannot convey the depth of meaning their own language can.

The destruction or erosion of the languages of Native peoples all around the planet is of central concern to indigenous nations, anthropologists, linguists, and people of all backgrounds who understand the value and necessity of preserving cultural, linguistic, and intellectual diversity on behalf of the human future. Of the 6,000 languages spoken around the globe, linguists fear that up to 90 percent could disappear by the next century.

Native languages in Alaska are suffering some of the greatest losses. Out of the twenty languages, seventeen have 300 or fewer speakers remaining. Marie Smith Jones, chief of the Eyak nation and the last surviving speaker of the Eyak language (a 3,000-year-old language from Southcentral Alaska), died in January 2008. Although she and others worked very hard to pass the Eyak language on to the next generation, there is now no one alive today for whom Eyak was a primary tongue and fundamental way of understanding the world.

Native languages have been endangered or eroded by the forces of colonization for the past several hundred years. Beginning with their arrival in the 1700s, many missionaries, government officials, and educators actively promoted policies and practices aimed at destroying or marginalizing the languages spoken by Native peoples, acting on the misguided belief that forcing Alaska Native peoples to abandon their traditional ways and become like "white" people was a progressive act. With a few notable exceptions, most mission or boarding schools (including those once attended by many living Native adults), forbade Native children from speaking their own languages and harshly punished them if they persisted. By breaking the linguistic bonds that tied children to their cultures and elders, a chasm opened up between many Alaska Native elders and youth. Much vital knowledge and wisdom was lost.

Unlike immigrants to the United States who gave up their original languages to assimilate, indigenous peoples of the United States have no country of origin to which they may return and in which their native tongue is still being spoken. Italian-Americans may return to an Italy in which their traditional language is still actively used; Chinese dialects are still alive to Chinese-Americans who wish to reconnect with linguistic and cultural roots. Without denying the losses and struggles that descendants of immigrant groups face, it must be acknowledged that Alaska Native peoples are in a very different position. Alaska Native peoples are living on their ancestral lands; if they lose their cultures, lands, or languages, there is nowhere else to return to. Those languages, and the ways of living, connecting to, and viewing the world they represent, will be lost forever.

In spite of efforts to marginalize Alaska Native languages (such as the "English-only" laws passed overwhelmingly by voters in 1998, which sought to require that all official businesses in the villages take place in English alone), many efforts have been underway for the past few decades to document and pass on Alaska Native languages. Many schools throughout Alaska now offer bilingual programs. The Fairbanks-based Alaska Native Language Center and a host of other sites offer online resources. A few university-level language classes are offered throughout the state.

Many oral history projects seek to document the speech of elders from various regions, and Alaska Native elders and leaders throughout the state are encouraging young people to learn to speak their original languages. Being able to speak both English and traditional languages is a strength that will allow these young people to walk in two worlds and retain a valuable heritage for their children and the rest of humanity.

"Languages ... shape thought and epistemological modes of learning. Take this Iñupiaq term: aavzuuk. First, it is a complete sentence meaning 'constellation consisting of two stars which appear above the horizon in late December, an indication that the solstice is past and that days will soon grow longer again.' ... Structurally polysynthetic, the Iñupiaq language allows the speaker to economize on sound to maximize meaning with simply inclusion and replacement of key morphemes. Such morphemes are explicit in terms of direction, number of speakers, number of listeners, height from the horizon line, and time. Second, in this example Iñupiaq epistemology makes use of language to impart astronomical knowledge of the constellations, calendric data, and patience about the presence or absence of light. Implied within the term, aavzuuk, is the suggestion that the Iñupiaq speaker will learn what to expect of the environment and other creatures in it at this time of year. Thus, the Iñupiaq sense of a maturing self grows with knowledge of the language."

Dr. Phyllis Fast


Excerpted from ALASKA NATIVE CULTURES AND ISSUES Copyright © 2010 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Libby Roderick graduated from Yale University and has worked as a television and print news reporter, radio consultant, and writer on Alaska Native issues.

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