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Webinar #1: Migrations- Discussion Questions

Read your copy of Alaska Native Cultures and Issues.

Respond to the following 3 questions:

  • Which themes were highlighted in the Migrations lecture?
  • Which articles surprised you and why?
  • Finally, how might you utilize this information in the classroom?

(Here is an Interactive Recording of this webinar for those who missed it, or want to review)

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    AK Native Cultures and Issues.doc

  • •The main theme in the Migrations lecture was the land and environment.  It was changes in these that caused migrations and shaped the cultures of different people.  A common thread between all the traditional cultures in Alaska is dependence on the land and respect for resources.  Different cultures have different resources but their culture and traditions are all based on subsistence.

    •One thing that didn't exactly surprise me in my reading, but more reminded me of things that I hadn't thought about in a while was the balancing act native corporations have in trying to operate in a financially responsible way but still maintain the tradition values of their people.  They need to be profitable and are accountable to their shareholders but since many shareholders are not living a traditional lifestyle, there can be a big division between what shareholders who live traditionally and those who have moved to urban areas feel is the right thing to do.

    •I teach 3rd grade and the students are always very interested in the different native Alaskan cultures.  Knowing more about the migration of people to the area they settled in will give the students more information about why there are similarities between cultures and as well as differences.

    • Which themes were highlighted in the Migrations lecture?

    The lecture shone a light on the various ecoregions of Alaska. Those regions have shaped the flora and fauna as well as those who came to inhabit those regions over time. Alaskan people have come to survive and thrive based off of all that the state has to offer. The lecture furthered my understanding of how vast this “Great land” has to offer, and how it continues to be such a gem of resources for the people who reside here as well as the rest of the United States.

    • Which articles surprised you and why?

    One article that I found particularly interesting was the piece on ANCSA. I really connected with the discussion of “What Alaska Natives think of ANCSA (p. 24). I have spoken with multiple friends about this topic and found it very interesting to hear their opinions, verses what I had originally thought their feelings might have been. Both friends, whom belong to differing native corporations, stated that they agree with the article’s description that ANCSA, was a “necessary compromise to prevent all out loss of traditional lands” (p.24).  I had originally thought the settlement act was an only positive agreement between the state and the various native groups, but I was educated otherwise. CEO’s of corporations now have a great deal of power, and are often pressured to procure higher dividends for their shareholders. This pressure to preform as a corporation has caused a rift between some traditional native values and corporate economic values.

    • Finally, how might you utilize this information in the classroom?

    I teach second grade, and the topics that were covered are very pertinent to my lesson plans. We study Anchorage, Past and Present.  We study as far back as the Dena’ina people coming into the region. We also discuss why people would have settled in the region. Using the term “ecoregion”, will be helpful to explain why Alaskans would settle in this region, based on the resources that were available.

  • Question 2 - Which articles surprised you and why?

    While I can't say that specific articles were surprising/unsurprising, there were some facts & data that I found surprising, along with some ideas and perspectives that I found very interesting. The beginning portion of the book raises some very interesting philosophical and ethical issues that I found more intriguing than other sections of the text.

    Some of the statistics that surprised me dealt with the indigenous languages of Alaska. I found it very surprising that "Out of the twenty languages, seventeen have 300 or fewer speakers remaing." (6), and that the last speaker of the Eyak language died eight years ago (6-7). Has anyone picked up that mantle since then? And this all raises what I think is very rich source of discussion: Should we make a concerted effort to preserve & "save" these indigenous languages that are disappearing? Does the dominant culture have a responsibility to protect these languages, or should be entirely in the hands of the people who utilize it, even though they are often forced to the brink of extinction by an outside culture? We often lament the fact that so many indigenous languages are at risk of being lost completely, but should we? Do we mourn ancient, extinct languages such as Etruscan or Aramaic (to name a couple of fairly well-known examples)? Should we? If a language loses its apparent utility, should we make an effort to keep it around for its own sake? Personally, I'm not sure. Part of me wants to to try to save dying languages and cultures, but another part of me feels that if the native speakers no longer find it valuable enough to perpetuate (often for reasons that are not completely in their control or of their choosing, admittedly) then that's their decision to make (my caveat here is that I do think there is value in studying, researching, and recording as much as we can about these languages).

    I want to end my post with some thoughts on the article about ANCSA. I really appreciated the opening statement at the beginning of the article, on page 19. In this opening quote, Don Wright says, "We are not asking for anything.We are offering the U.S. Government 84 percent of our property." That is a really neat point of view, that seems to be under-appreciated & under-utilized. It's a humbling reminder of who was in Alaska (and the entire U.S., really) first and how the transfer of ownership of the land has taken place. I also appreciated the nod to the fact that ANCSA is not this universally loved and accepted act. A lot of economic good has come to a lot of Alaska Natives because of it, but it has come with a lot of challenges as well. One of those challenges that I think is least appreciated by many is pointed out on page 22 where we are reminded that when ANCSA first passed there was "an initial shortage of well-prepared Alaska Native people ready to operate these new and complex structures." If you give people something that potentially beneficial to them, but fail to prepare or educate them on how to use it, you really haven't done them a whole lot of good. You can't wash your hands of the situation and say, "Well, you were given all this land and money...," especially if what was given is something foreign and complex and requires some pretty deep understanding to really make use of. So, understandably, there are many Alaska Natives that are dissatisfied with ANCSA and want more done. And this raises another ethical dilemma: at which point in time are people in the present no longer responsible for, or accountable to, what has happened in the past? Alaska became the property of the United States in 1867. Does the current government and population have any obligation to amend the many injustices and oversights associated with that transaction? Again, I don't know. I think there are reasonable arguments for both sides of these issues.

    Anyways, there was more I was planning on writing about, but enough is enough. I can only take so much of myself in one sitting...

  • The biggest theme discussed both in the lecture and in the book was that of the close relationship between the land and those who inhabit it. The geographic features of a place correspond closely to those who use that space. This idea is not new; it was discussed in Myra Shackley’s “Space, Sanctity and Service” (2002) which takes Michael Foucault’s (1986) idea of heterotropia into the sacred realm, much as “Alaska Native Cultures and Issues” does. Nevertheless, nothing in this book seemed particularly indicative of Native Alaskans qua Alaskans, as most of the material can be found more articulately explained by men like Howard Vogel (2001) or Joel Brady (2000).

    Rather than being surprised by a particular article, I was most surprised by the lack of discussion about government aide in the villages, especially in the section about the potential reasons for particular social ills. In my own region, 90% of the economic flow is through the public sector (Fienup-Riordan, Tyson, John, Meade, & Active, 200, p. 16), and in my own village, 55.7% of the workforce works directly for the government. Aside from the government providing aide through such jobs, more than 47% of villagers have received SNAP (“food stamps”) in the past year, 32% of households receive social security, at an average of over $11,000 a year, and nearly 25% receive cash assistance each year (U.S. Census Bureau. 2012. American FactFinder Community Facts: Napaskiak, AK. Business by Industry, 2012 American Community Survey, Occupation by Sex and Median Earnings). In the words of one elder, “‘The government,’ it seemed, was a vague somebody with an inexhaustible money supply and one that I could call on at will” (Oswalt, 1990, p. 161). It is impossible to overstate the obvious demoralizing and emasculating effect of such patronization, and yet “Alaska Native Cultures and Issues” seems to overlook it; it seems to be a one-sided presentation of a complicated subject, and while knowing the book and the milieu from whence it arises it does not surprise me, I would have still hoped for better.

                I would use the incredible visuals in the lecture for my students. They tend to struggle with understanding the various eco-regions of Alaska, and I am sure the wonderful pictures of each region and its local fauna would help them to grasp this otherwise difficult concept.

  • Question 3 - Finally, how might you utilize this information in the classroom?

    Sorry to go out of order, but this is another question I feel confident in my ability to answer without having yet completed the reading. There were a couple of things that I found particularly fascinating from the lecture, that I think students could find equally interesting and valuable. One of these two topics is: Beringia was not merely a transportation corridor, but a place that people called home for thousands of years. It was a place where people lived long enough, and separate enough from the continents on either side of it that it can be considered a place of origin for Alaska Natives. That is an idea that I think could be incredibly powerful for my (mostly) Yup'ik students, and indigenous Alaskans (even Native Americans) everywhere. The idea that they did not really come from Asia, but from someplace different lends a really powerful nuance to their cultural and ethnic identity.

    The other topic I'd love to explore in my AK Studies class is the forces that led each Native Alaskan group to settle in their current regions, particularly why the Yup'ik people came to settle Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. I wonder how many students (even parents for that matter) have really considered the question: Why are we here? Not in the existential meaning, but in the more concrete meaning of why do we live in this place, and not somewhere else? This could be a really fun, insightful, and meaningful subject of inquiry.

  • Question 1 - Which themes were highlighted in the Migrations lecture?

    I haven't had a chance to finish the reading yet, but I can certainly get a jump on the first question. The biggest theme that stuck out to me in the lecture was theme of the interconnectedness of the people and land of Alaska (and really any place). So much of this lecture touched on the various ways that natural processes, systems, and patterns of the land & environment have affected the peoples of Alaska. Whether it be the subsistence activities of various indigenous groups, the cultural similarities and differences, or the wide array of languages, the land itself has been one of, if not the, most powerful influence on the lives of Alaskans. Natural landscapes have, at different points in time, connected or isolated groups of people. The local climates and ecosystems have determined cultures and economics for the individuals living in any given place. As much as we talk about how dramatically life changed for Native Alaskans when Europeans arrived, the physical space of Alaska has been shaping the lives of Alaskans in incredible ways for thousands of years. Compared to that, the cultural impact of Europeans is just blip on the radar. That was my big take away from this lecture - the immense power that Alaska's land has had in shaping the lives of the variety of people that have called this place home.

  • Okay, I had a bit of free time to read last night and during my planning today, so here are my initial thoughts on some of the articles.

    • ·  Which themes were highlighted in the Migrations lecture?


    Just as there are geographically many different “Alaskas” that each have their own particular resource, so too are there many different types of Alaskans, all of whom have ancestors who thrived for ten thousand years in one of the “harshest areas of the world” (1). However, while an Inuit may rely on the whale hunt, a Gwichin Athabaskan eagerly anticipates the caribou hunt, or a Yupik native makes plans for the year based on his success at fish camp, one common thread runs through all their lives: subsistence.


    • ·  Which articles surprised you and why?


    I really liked the connection between alcohol and America’s founding fathers and how “alcohol was an accepted way of life that in 1829 the secretary of war estimated that three quarters of the nation’s laborers drank daily at least 4 ounces of distilled spirits” (68). When we cover stereotypes during the Culture unit, it inevitably comes up that most kids from Eagle River only encounter large numbers of Alaska Natives when they drive through Anchorage and see homeless Natives by Brother Francis or panhandling in Midtown. I’ve always pointed out that those people don’t represent the bulk of Alaska Natives and they come to Anchorage because there are services to help them, but I’d never thought to present information regarding alcoholism and Alaska Natives with an anecdote about the early United States. The comments regarding the erosion of traditional Native society (and especially its loss of elder leadership) via colonialism and the negative feelings associated with the loss of subsistence ways and the inability to enter into a cash society were also things I knew, but which gave me new, more concrete, information I can share with my students (69).  


    • ·  Finally, how might you utilize this information in the classroom?


    I really liked the statement that “the bulk of Alaska Native identity is beyond the surface” (5). My favorite unit to teach in 9th grade AK Studies is Culture, because it’s truly an eye opening experience for students to try to experience a fragment of Alaska Native life. After I give them an overview of the regional differences between the groups, they have to create an authentic Native Alaskan artifact. That alone teaches them how much work goes into a deceptively simple item like a halibut hook, when they have to find the wood and whittle it by hand. Their discussion after we’ve shared our artifacts always centers around the fact that they have so much more respect for the various cultures and the work they put into surviving. A number of students also choose to decorate their artifacts with Native Alaskan symbols and they make excellent connections to a number of themes that underlie Alaska Native culture, most especially their deep connection to the land and its animals.


    In addition, while I definitely cover the issue of the forced boarding schools and how ANCSA was meant to avoid the failure of the reservation system prevalent in the Lower 48, I knew nothing about the Indian Child Welfare Act. This is a great example of how Congress has tried not to entirely repeat the mistakes of the past, but acknowledging that “no nation can flourish if its youngest members are removed” (71). I’ll definitely be adding that to my lecture notes!

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