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Webinar #2: Cultures Collide- Discussion Questions

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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  • We have a picture of my late father-in-law on our wedding day in a tuxedo, a handsome man, his summer tan setting off the white of the shirt collar. If they have a GQ magazine for elders, this would be a great cover photo, his legs crossed, leaning back in the sunshine, hands clasped around one knee. He might as well have been on the deck of a cruise ship in the Caribbean and not on the porch of Diane’s Cafe in Bethel, Alaska.
    A picture might be worth a thousand words, but there are thousands more that a picture will never tell. Having worked across his life as an ATG soldier in the Aleutians, a health aide (he resharpened the needles when they got dull), a school teacher, and a supervisor of maintenance men for the school district, he was conversant in English and in Western ways.
    To casually observe him, you would see that he had two roomy, well-built houses, one in the village and the other in Bethel, both the same color of green with white trim. If you stood on the street outside of his Bethel house, even today, you will see the truck in the driveway, and the water/sewer hookup. The only thing that would tip you off to the ethnicity of the owner is the VHF antenna. And although he is gone now, the footprints of his life remain. But if you never step from the street onto the property, if you never saw behind the house where the legyaq, the freezer van, the dog yard, the cache, the qasgiq, you would never see anything more than an Americanized version of domesticity; you would be a casual observer.
    It is possible for one to live their entire life side by side with another culture and still be nothing more than a casual observer. Those who casually observed my father-in-law would never know that as a boy, he had to bail out the sod house in the spring time when the snow melted, that he split his own wood, and as a widower, cut his own fish, and lived a subsistence lifestyle into his 80’s when he had a heart attack while getting ice.
    How I have wished that I could take those who say, “If they want to hunt or fish whenever they want to, let them do it without outboards or guns”, and grab then gently by the scruff of the neck and hold them beneath the surface of their casual observation.

  • 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? As many have posted, it seems to be a statement that is self-explanatory, and in fact might be true of many cultures in America, although Alaska natives are not immigrants, and in fact, have survived many attempts to have their culture(s) extricated or obliterated  from them—I recently viewed some artwork in the Anchorage Museum entitled, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” (Nicholas Galanin)


    As we have noted, cultures evolved in accordance with the environmental demands. It is interesting to note that while the westering movement of the lower 48 states also confronted environmental response to their presence, the latter attempted to bend the environment to their often ill-conceived demands—farming and ranching past the 100th meridian—Alaskan native cultures did not bend the environment as much, or view it as something to be dominated—as the westering cultures did.  While teaching in Stebbins, I had my students examine cultural practices which many of them take for granted—we had a potlatch coming up—and we found a book written by elders that delineated over 26 different practices that were reinforced through the practice of the potlatch, some of which they (and of course, I) were unaware—including introducing youngsters to their “teasing cousins” who are supposedly the only ones who can redirect or correct their behavior. Of course the expected ones, like familiarizing people with each other (from distant villages) so they are not seen as strangers or enemies when traveling or hunting, making people aware of kinship lines, etc. And also, reinforcing cultural practices such as sharing wealth and gently emphasizing the work it takes to accumulate and share such wealth. Clearly, a lot going on.

    That movie, Nanook of the North, that was produced by Robert J. Flaherty, is kind of an indication of the idea that native Alaskans using tools and guns and newer technology are not real natives. Flaherty had the natives pretend to be living in ways without those tools, although it is pretty clear in some scenes that they are familiar with them. (He did the same thing with the coastal Irish community in Man of Aran) But a culture is a living thing, and adapts to changes. A community without these new technologies would be some kind of archaeological preserve or something. Often though, people do not have time to evaluate the effect of some of these new technologies on the culture. Elders are reporting that the young seem disconnected, and bereft, communicating through iPhone screens and such. The “profound understanding of place” mentioned by the author in this section of the book is revisited when one considers the experience of the Aleuts who were relocated during the war—and how “oppressive” they found their new environment which was populated by thick tall trees blocking out the sun and unfamiliar plants that they did not recognize (medicinally or otherwise).


    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 would say that the history of native Alaskans is that they have co-opted a lot of legal and civil rights strategies, and in some cases, pioneered them.  After the transfer, there are letters written in complaint to the president of the United States regarding missionary practices, and even to the Russian Ambassador, in an attempt to involve Russia, who the native Aleuts figured should be interested in how the new government was treating her “former subjects.” Certainly the “duck-in” in Barrow, to protest hunting regulations, and the sense that subsistence was a dwindling food security need only, and not an activity integral to the native culture, shows a willingness to overwhelm the government system (1961) akin to the protests in the lower 48 occurring at this time. This was also a protest to get the government regulators to recognize different migratory times of birds, and a protest against the regulations, period. One misconception about that “duck in” is that it was a “spontaneous” event, which tends to undermine the level of agency involved in such protests. I think possibly to contrast past and present systems of redress and change would assist students in seeing how natives co-opted some practices in order to achieve the desired effect. Now of course there are further restrictions on endangered birds, and the desire for revenue from non native hunters and hunting licenses. The debate over “subsistence” hunting is still described as a “philosophical one”—(Ralph Anderson of the Alaska Migratory Bird Council) . It might be interesting to have students debate the “pro and contra” of this, and the issues with state-owned v. federal owned land. I have to say this is why Alaska native students need their history and government classes, to make them aware of current issues—redistricting, land regulations, when the federal govt. might be more receptive to native claims than the state government.

  • I think that the author is saying that many traditional aspects of the culture are still observed. Some are not. Many do not make their own clothes. Some do, but most use modern fabrics. Many subsistence activities are still practiced, and in practicing these activities replacement technologies are employed. People use rifles, snowmachines, and chainsaws, yet many of the subsistence activities that were practiced traditionally are still practiced today.



    When missionaries came to spread the Gospel in my region, they taught that the spiritual beliefs of the indigenous people were evil. We have a hill near the village that is named Devil’s Hill where shaman practiced. Today many in the village identify as Christian, while I don’t know of a single person who practices the old spiritual ways in an orthodox form.


    Many would say that this encounter has been entirely one-sided; however, some traditional spiritual beliefs are still encountered. There is a taboo about wasting. People still give their first catch away. There are some who are aware of old practices but don’t acknowledge them, like the bladder festival. Some react against the naming of the hill by calling it Heaven’s Hill, and there are some who believe that they have inherited gifts of the shaman, but they don’t practice rituals. They believe that they have premonitions.    

  • 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?


    A person’s culture and heritage runs deep through the blood of the people. Their use of modern tools, and clothes, machinery, and the use of the English language is not an indicator of how much they have continued to keep and use through out their lives. For example, when the annual native whale hunting expeditions take place they have used a wide variety of tools to accomplish the task. Do the people value the whale and what it can offer their people any less because modern tools were used? I don’t think so. Traditions are continued and the people rejoice in the bounty of their hunt.


    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?


    In third grade our focus is based on a few of the Alaska Native People and how they lived and moved throughout the various areas of Alaska. We discuss how with hunting, traveling, languages and cultures were affected by one another and ultimately shared and exchanged with the European visitors. Through their religion, the land, commercial fishing, oil and mining, forestry, tourism, the diverse society of Alaska is mingled with many different cultural aspects to learn from. Within each of these groups we look at how these changes and items altered the way the culture was expressed or completed. At the end of our study we bring the students to the Alaska museum and the Alaska Heritage Center where they are able to see for themselves how the cultures have preserved and held on to. We also get to see and hear from the new generations and how they see and use their culture in a modern world. 

  • The author was more than likely referring to the concept of culture illustrated through the iceberg model. To most people, culture is an amalgamation of surface "things". But identity, which is shaped by the society you live in and is perpetuated by the process of living and reproducing in it, has more to do with your attitudes, behaviors and beliefs. Even something as common as humor is culturally situated. The way you say a word in a language is culturally situated. The way that one carries one's self in the presence of certain people is culturally situated. The way you eat and handle food is culturally situated. And the only way to really know and understand those things is to either be a member of the group that perpetuates those types of behaviors, or to live amongst a particular group of people for a really long time and be open to learning and understanding deeply about the subsurface "stuff."

    I would start a discussion about the ways cultures exchange ideas and information by looking at how it's still done. There's nothing that resonates with students more than finding out that we are not too different from our ancestors; we're just products of our times. Cultural diffusion is also one of the key concepts that should be an explicit lesson in every social studies class.

    Early groups traded amongst themselves. Riverways were basically highways of information and commerce in which inland groups traded for food, clothing and technology items absent from their resources but plentiful in coastal areas. And vice versa. The products of these encounters can be studied in traditional place names, as well as English, Russian and Yup'ik loan words still used today. Primary source document from the Bering expeditions as well as the Spanish explorations into southeast Alaska could be used for students to generate questions and turned into research of secondary works by which students could articulate their own conclusions.

  • Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote of the African American experience:

    Why should the world be over-wise,
    In counting all our tears and sighs?
    Nay, let them only see us, while
           We wear the mask.
    Many Native Americans have expressed similar feelings after forced assimilation (as opposed to voluntary immigration.)  The American expectation of the Native community is contradictory.  We expect Native people to relate and measure up to the dominant culture.  At the same time we expect Native cultures to maintain an ancient and traditional culture untainted by modernity.  We cheer and elevate those few extraordinary individuals who are able to successfully navigate walking in both worlds.  But most people (and not just Alaska Natives) end up wearing the mask when they encounter unreasonable expectations from outside their real culture.  It is simply too difficult (futile?) to educate every casual observer.  The reality is that people have had to adapt to their current situations as best as they can and each village has established it's own successful or unsuccessful cultural norms.  Alaska Natives do not (necessarily) consult outside anthropologists, theologians, or educators to help them evaluate that success.
    We tend to focus on the negative, violent and poignant interactions between the cultures but many exchanges of ideas and information were probably more mutual, mundane and practical.  These interactions, which usually don't show up in the history books, are the foundation of the progress we see in the understanding and acceptance of each other as individuals and individual cultures today.  A willingness to show grace to each other and to listen can go a long way in bringing healing and an opportunity to lay aside the masks that we use to protect ourselves.
  • Just like any other culture, Alaska Native groups are more than just what someone can physically see. The culture of Alaska Natives is the driving force behind how they encounter the land, animals and other cultures around them. I think that maybe the author could also be referring to perhaps the suppression of Native Alaskan culture when people were coming to Alaska and forcing them into western religion and languages, thus pushing their ancient customs and traditions below the surface. 

    The story is still being told and this exchange is still evolving. For many, the initial encounter turned into the submission of one group to another and the forced assimilation to an unfamiliar culture. We could also look at the exchange of knowledge of the land from the Alaska Natives to the Russians and later Americans. Although, I can't see where anything was received, at least initially, for this knowledge. These encounters shaped the state of Alaska in both positive and negative ways. I think a lot of progress has been made since passage of the Anti-Discrimination and the Native Claims Settlement Acts, but the wounds are still fresh and distrust still exists, rightfully so.

    I am thankful for the chance to be able to encounter these cultures through families at school and community events. For five years I lived in Delaware. Never did I see a single reference, memorial or event linked to the first people of the region. This was deeply saddening to me, it was as if they had never existed.  

  • #1 I would argue that to a casual observer much of any culture in the United States is beneath the surface.  Yes, many cultures have "traditional" dress and ways of doing things but that is not the bulk of their culture.  Culture includes much more than surface traits.  Modern Alaska Natives may dress differently than their ancestors did and they may use modern tools, machinery, etc. but they may use these things in a way that reflects their traditional culture.  Subsistence, respect for the land and animals, respect for elders are some of the important parts of Alaska Native culture that are still valued today.

    #2 Cultures have exchanged ideas and information since the beginning of time.  Before European people even set eyes on Alaska the different Native cultures here undoubtedly met and exchanged goods, ideas, and information.  European influences were both positive and negative for Alaska natives.  There was much harsh and cruel treatment but there was also an introduction of new tools and weapons that made many aspects of daily life easier.  The United States influence also had both positive and negative effects.  Many things were done in the name of education and assimilation that were unconscionable; taking children away from familiar surroundings and often mistreating them, forbidding cultural traditions like dancing, forbidding students to speak their native language, just to name a few.  Over the years however, many changes brought about by Western lifestyles have made living in a harsh environment in some ways much easier for Native Alaskans.  We see the effects of past encounters today in the strong Russian Orthodox influence we still see in many communities.  We see the use of modern materials in traditional Native artwork.  The blending of cultures is all around us, not just among Alaska Native and European/US culture but between all the the vast variety of cultures that exist in our very diverse state.

  • I think a person’s cultural identity is underneath the surface because outside appearance can be deceiving.  The clothing one wears, or tools one uses, or to a degree the words one uses can be a superficial form of identity because it doesn’t necessarily show what one’s beliefs are, which is the “beneath the surface” identity.  Is the use of an outboard motor boat vs. a traditional kayak to catch fish/hunt seals an abandonment of Native culture?  Or is it more important for the hunter/fisher to practice a subsistence lifestyle passed down from generation to generation?  I believe the hunter’s identity is more connected to subsistence than the type of vehicle/tool used to accomplish subsistence.

    Another facet of beneath the surface cultural importance is the reverence the Native Alaskans give to the land they have lived on for generations.  As an outsider to Alaska it’s sometimes hard to understand this.  Native attitudes are hard to see.  But if I take the time to talk to Alaska Natives about the attitudes about place I quickly find out that land is sacred and has to be protected for perpetuity.  

    The Native Alaskan cultures are revered today for the ways they adapted to a challenging environment in order to survive.  Early Europeans relied on this knowledge, gleaned from Alaska Natives, for survival as well.  Even today many Alaskans use the experiences and knowledge of the elders to thrive in a sometimes harsh environment.   This exchange of cultural practices has made Alaska what it is today- a state that honors “living off the land.”

    I think it is also important for educators to include the detrimental impact of cultural exchanges in their instruction.  For example, when the Russians needed the hunting skills of the Tglingits to kill the sea otters they threatened the lives of the Tlingit hunters’ families if the hunters did not comply.  This type of exploitation was common throughout the history of Alaska but also influenced cultural exchanges.

  • Question 1:    Whether it is the AK Native identity or the identity of any other culture, so much lies "beneath the surface. "  Each of us are a compilation of the values, traditions and culture in which we have been taught and found important to our lives.  The Alaskan Natives have adapted their lifestyles, clothing and ways of surviving to best fit their needs.  Snowmachines and four wheelers may have replaced dogsleds, but the desire to hunt and gather food for ones family is still important to many AK Natives as well as other people who have lived off of the resources of the land.   A person's identity comes from what they find important in life and how they act and react to society's "norms."  When I lived in  a small bush village I saw many AK Natives adapting to westernized ideas while still carrying on their traditional ways of hunting, fishing, dancing and a myriad of other activities.  Our identity as a person whether we are AK Native or another race comes from what we place importance in and how we live out our lives in the environment we are placed in.  Sometimes it is harder to practice what we feel is important to us because of governmental control or differences in beliefs.   This is a constant challenge for  Alaskan Natives and other cultures as well.

    Question #2

    In teaching AK history to third graders I hope to show how different cultures reacted to each other when they encountered each other.  I want my students to identify some positive and negative results of these encounters and then take it one step further and talk about how we are affected by our encounters with others around us.  What do we experience and learn from these encounters and how do they broaden or challenge our way of thinking?  Alaska definitely has a large mix of different cultures and people with many different ideas and beliefs.  I hope to share and explore with my students how Alaska's history has been full of cultural encounters and how it has affected the people who have lived here throughout time.


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