FAIRBANKS — Alaska Natives make up roughly 16 percent of the state’s population. In urban centers they make up a sizable chunk of the residents, while in many rural parts of Alaska they outnumber other races by a significant margin.
Their status in the state is something of a conundrum. On the one hand, they comprise a large voting bloc actively courted by politicians, especially in statewide races. Many of the Native corporations that emerged as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) are major players in the state’s economy. And after a long period of discrimination and cultural suppression, their arts, dances, traditional knowledge and practices have not only been revived, but are also now frequently sought out by white people whose own forefathers ignored Natives, at best.
On the other hand, discrimination against Natives continues to persist in subtle ways. Poverty and homelessness are disproportionate among Natives, despite the successes of their corporations. Life expectancies are heartbreakingly lower than those of whites. And for all the progress they’ve made toward equality, many Natives still feel deeply misunderstood by white Alaskans.
Two recent books, both quite brief, seek to help nonnatives better understand the state’s first people. “Native Cultures in Alaska: Looking Forward, Looking Back” is a newly updated version of an Alaska Geographic volume originally published in 1996 that offers a brief overview of the history and current standing of all the Native groups found in Alaska. The similarly titled “Alaska Native Cultures and Issues: Responses to Frequently Asked Questions” comes from University of Alaska Press and examines challenges currently facing Natives across the state.
The Alaska Geographic book, edited by Tricia Brown, opens with a short summary of Native history in Alaska before moving to chapters that individually introduce readers to each major Native group. Like all Alaska Geographic books, this one is lavishly illustrated with lots of beautiful photographs. The text itself is somewhat simplified and suitable for younger readers, making this a good volume for school libraries.
The individual chapters tell of people ranging from the Aleut people of the state’s western islands, to the Iñupiat of the Arctic coast, and then the Tlingit of the Southeast, and all the others in between. Because there are no written records prior to the arrival of Europeans, what is known of the early history of all Native Alaskans comes from oral lore, archeological exploration and the work of linguists who have sorted out some of the relations between the different groups.
The stories in each chapter generally follow a common theme. First comes a a quick synopsis of the group’s geographical location, environment and subsistence activities. This is followed by a short discussion of the impact of the arrival of Europeans, which varied greatly — from the Aleuts, who were enslaved by the Russians, to the Yupik, who were hardly touched until modern days, owing to their homelands lacking resources that Westerners were hungry for. Most chapters close with stories of efforts at cultural revival, which again varies from one region to the next. The overall effect is mostly on the “feel good” side, with major controversies sidestepped.
Longtime Anchorage musician and activist Libby Roderick explores numerous current issues facing Natives in the UA Press book, which is part of a larger integrated effort by the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University at shedding greater light on the challenges facing Native Alaskans and bringing awareness to nonnatives.
More of a source book than a stand-alone text, what Roderick does here is introduce readers to various aspects of Native life, ranging from tribal government to education, health care to the effects of being a colonized people. Brief chapters are followed by lengthy lists of additional readings where much more can be learned. Despite severely limited space, Roderick does a good job of presenting differing views on these issues and leaving readers curious to learn more.
The two areas that get the most ink here are the ways ANCSA and its attendant corporations have altered Native life, and the always contentious issue of subsistence. On both these issues Roderick does exceptional work. On the corporations she presents differing viewpoints without editorializing, while the section on subsistence clearly explains to readers why it is vital to the survival of Native communities, as well as why most Natives believe they should be given a preference in this area. Whether one agrees or not, the argument is made thoughtfully and with a solid cultural framework.
In both books the best sections are written by Natives themselves. In Brown’s book, most chapters end with an essay from someone within the featured culture and active in its ongoing revival. Barbara Svarny Carlson writes movingly of rediscovering her Aleut background and working to pass it forward to the next generation. Fairbanks resident Velma Wallis brings her usual clarity to the story of her Gwich’in home on the Yukon Flats. And famed Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson amicably recounts his career.
Even better are the essays in Roderick’s book from Inupiaq educator Paul Ongtooguk, St. Paul Aleut Larry Merculieff, and Yupik Native and CIRI executive Margie Brown, who bring three perspectives to the importance of Native lands and Native corporations. Though differing in some areas, all three agree that Natives should be making crucial decisions about these issues for themselves.
Neither of these books is in any way comprehensive, but both point readers in directions that will help them learn more about Alaska Natives. Roderick’s book, with its extensive listings of resources, is especially helpful. Both are good starting points for immigrant Alaskans who can always stand to learn more about the people who arrived here long before we did and still remain.
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.
Native Cultures in Alaska: Looking Forward, Looking Back
Tricia Brown, editor
Alaska Native Cultures and Issues: Responses to
Frequently Asked Questions
Libby Roderick, editor
University of Alaska Press • 2010