Windows to the Land

FAIRBANKS - Following on the heels of its first volume — which collected the accounts and personal histories of Native activists who paved the way for resolutions during the Alaska Native Land Claims battles — Judy Ferguson’s “Windows to the Land: An Alaska Native Story, Volume 2” expands the focus to the broad new topic of Alaska Natives’ relationship with the land itself, their personal and cultural histories, and their long-standing ties with sled dog events such as the Iditarod and Yukon Quest.

Whatever one’s feelings toward the first volume (and I certainly can’t speak for it), it’s an undeniable fact that “Windows to the Land” is doing important work. Each of the 45 chapters feature a transcribed interview with a different Alaska Native person, from Iditarod winner and Eskimo-Indian Olympians to tribal leaders, elders, activists, and their descendants. There are no questions, no prompts, just stories, flowing histories of times, cultures, lives and competitions past.

All too often, accounts such as these would be ignored, lost or outright erased by a western approach to history. And that is precisely why “Windows” is so valuable.

Though each chapter features an introduction written by Ferguson herself, she acts here not as an author or even an editor but as a curator, an archivist of other voices that are left more or less in their purest form. These stories don’t fit the western sensibility for narrative or memoir. They haven’t been cleaned up to polish the sentence structure, provide direct citation for quotes, or fill in holes in the “plot.”

And yes, this does mean that some things get lost in the cultural translation, or that timelines get muddled until it’s hard to tell the order of events, or that the occasionally idea gets introduced and left to dangle without a full explanation. 

But that’s all part of the charm and the value, as though readers were listening to these stories told live and passed down like the treasured family histories they are.

Nor should this be taken to mean that the finished product feels at all sloppy. Rather, it’s a remarkably complete work, resonating on a broad theme and yet pulling together as a cohesive whole.

At first glance, the choice to focus on two apparently unrelated subjects — first the relationship with the land and second the traditional sports, particularly dog-mushing races — threatens to fragment the message before it begins, but a full review soon proves the two to be explicitly intertwined.

If there’s a flaw, it’s less in the writing than in the formatting and placing of the articles. Italics in particular are over-used to the point of inducing headaches, particularly when the slanted photo captions are mixed with Ferguson’s introductions.

There is also a slight but noticeable favoritism toward Athabascan contributors, who make up over half the book, likely due to the collection being built from Ferguson’s personal contacts and experiences. If there are future volumes in the works, it would nice if possible to see one or two more voices from the groups who were otherwise overlooked.

While it is an enjoyable read, the ultimate value of “Windows” is not as a source of entertainment or even information, but of preservation and history. It is an undeniable treasure that these voices have been saved for future generations, and one can only hope that they continue to be heard in the years to come.

“Windows to the Land: An Alaska Native Story, Volume Two: The Iditarod and Alaska River Trails”

By Judy Ferguson

© 2016

$28

Addley Fannin is a freelance writer and graduate student in Northern studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She can be reached at addleyfannin@gmail.com, on Twitter at twitter.com/addleyfannin or on Tumblr at adelinecappuccino.tumblr.com.