Protect and Preserve
Warding against the incalculable loss of Alaska Native culture
Sealaska Heritage Institute sponsors Baby Raven Reads, an award-winning program that promotes early-literacy, language development and school readiness for Alaska Native families with children up to age five.
Sealaska Heritage Institute
In the 49th State the Alaska Native population accounts for 15.2 percent of Alaska’s 731,449 residents, according to July 2017 data from the United States Census Bureau. Alaska’s Native population is dispersed among 229 federally recognized tribes, nearly half of the 562 Indian Nations recognized in the United States.
Alaska Native culture is diverse and deeply rooted, and there’s a strong movement throughout Alaska to protect and share Alaska Native heritage, culture, lifestyle, and traditions.
Dozens of organizations and groups are driving preservation efforts, everything from public education programs to sharing tribal traditions with younger generations; cultural events highlighting Native heritage; ensuring tribal languages are not only kept alive but are expanded; and the development of a memorial park addressing historic and current issues regarding ancestral remains and archaeological sites.
Alutiiq Museum | ©Patrick Saltonstall
Volunteers at the Alutiiq Museum work with museum archaeologists to study Alutiiq history.
A Park with Purpose
The Alutiiq Ancestors’ Memorial park project is led by the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving and sharing the cultural traditions of the Koniag Alutiiq branch of Sugpiaq (the ancestral name for Alutiiq). It’s slated to open next fall on a one-third acre lot in downtown Kodiak situated next to the museum.
The memorial space will feature four interpretive signs introducing the Alutiiq people and their heritage as well as historic preservation messages. The park will also feature a circular planter with bench seating and a pathway. The circle is an important symbol in Alutiiq culture as it represents the universe in Alutiiq art, and circular holes can act as passageways between the human and the spirit world. A circle is also symbolic of vision and awareness.
Groundbreaking is planned for late May with the official opening slated for September. The primary goal is to acknowledge the contributions of the Alutiiq and other Alaska Native communities to the cultural fabric of Kodiak and encourage respectful treatment of ancestral sites and burials.
“It’s one of the things our director has wanted to do for a number of years—create a very visible presence for the Alutiiq people in downtown Kodiak. A place people could easily, freely gather to think about Kodiak’s past and how the Alutiiq people have impacted the fabric of the community,” explains Amy Steffian, the museum’s chief curator.
The park is also a way to return a sense of dignity to the tribal population and acknowledge its history—the difficult parts as well as the celebratory parts—notes Steffian.
“It’s an acknowledgement to those who shaped Kodiak with blessings and remembrances,” she adds.
The interpretive signs, she explains, will also offer visitors insight on the need to care for ancestral sites.
“Kodiak has more than thousands of archaeological sites and they are threatened by erosion and by vandalism as [human] remains are sometimes taken, not as much by researchers anymore but by people who don’t understand what they’re finding,” says Steffian. “By sharing historical preservation messages, and teaching people to enjoy Kodiak archaeology, it’s a way to promote the preservation of Alutiiq heritage and promote respect to the tribal community.”
As of late March, the museum had raised $110,000 toward its $179,000 funding goal, and Steffian is confident the project will remain on track.
“It is one example of the way the Alutiiq museum works to uplift community awareness and to create a dialogue on Alutiiq heritage. It’s a way to create a space we hope is inviting to many people,” Steffian says.
The Alutiiq Museum opened in 1995, and since then has engaged in many projects that serve its mission to preserve and share Alutiiq heritage such as reparation efforts and having Alutiiq collections returned to Kodiak.
Alutiiq Museum | ©Patrick Saltonstall
Rebecca Pruitt holds a burning oil lamp, a symbol of cultural pride and endurance, during a program at the Alutiiq Museum.
“Our motto is celebrating heritage through living culture, to not only tell people about Alutiiq traditions but to help the Alutiiq community live their culture,” says Steffian.
The Alutiiq community, she explains, is one of the least known Alaska Native communities, so the museum works to reacquaint residents in and out of Alaska with Alutiiq traditions. There are about 1,800 Alutiiq descendants on Kodiak and thousands living in other state regions and the Lower 48.
The museum also boasts an active language program in which elders teach younger generations and the young generation helps in developing new words for the language.
“Language is a living thing. If you don’t have a word for computer a word must be created. We do a lot of work with the culture bearers of many different ages,” explains Steffian. “We really do invite all and anybody to come and join in our programs and enjoy our events and exhibits. It is a way for all people to learn about the deep history of the Kodiak region.”
According to the state labor department, English is the top language in Alaska, spoken by 86.3 percent of the population; Alaska Native languages are spoken by 5.2 percent. According to “Language Relationships” authored by Gary Holton and published by the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, there are at least twenty Alaska Native languages that belong to four distinct language families.
Language Preservation Is Critical
Preserving Alaska Native language is important to Bering Straits Native Corporation (BSNC), the regional corporation for the Bering Strait region.
BSNC Vice President of Media and External Affairs Matt Ganley explains that language immersion, along with technology and social media, are a few of the methods Alaska Natives are using to preserve heritage.
“Facebook and other social media platforms are great tools to share how to videos of how to hand-spin musk ox wool, or qiviut; how to make a kuspuk; or how to quickly cut a pike fish with an ulu, for example,” says Ganley, adding that educational apps that make use of the special characters needed to text in Alaska Native languages are helping to increase language learning.
Ganley views the potential loss of Alaska Native language as a significant risk to culture preservation, but organizations are making strides in reducing that risk, he says. One good solution, he believes, is having the revitalization of language become part of formal education as well as being a part of everyday living environments.
“Historically, the assimilationist stance of churches, schools, and the government sought to extinguish Native languages and customs. Some institutions were more accepting of indigenous practices and languages than others, but ultimately cultural loss occurred in every area of Alaska,” he says.
Alutiiq Museum | ©Christina Thompson
The Alutiiq Museum on Kodiak on a winter morning.
Ganley notes the inception in 2016 of Inuusiq, Inc., an Alaska Native organization with a mission to empower Inuit people, as a good example of language preservation efforts. Inuusiq, an Alaska Native word for “our way of life” or “life” in Iñupiaq, has opened an immersion preschool in Shishmaref and is working toward opening other locations in the Bering Strait region.
At BSNC the mission is to improve the quality of life for the region and its people through economic development while protecting land and preserving culture and heritage, says Ganley.
“The importance of the land and water and the subsistence resources there are vital to our identity and our future. We continue to advocate for protection of our lands but undertake projects that will also improve the lives of our shareholders and descendants.”
In preserving traditions, Ganley says, the greatest tradition is the actual act of handing down traditions through families, communities, and generations.
“Things have been lost, and others gained, in the last 200 years or so. Traditional religious and healing practices were actively discouraged and oppressed by western religious institutions. Traditional dancing, which served communal and religious needs, was often outlawed,” he explains.
“We have seen a huge revival of dancing in villages that might have to relearn their own songs from a community they shared them with long ago. Not everything can be reclaimed, but merging our ancient traditions with our current needs and introduced innovations will continue to be a hallmark of Alaska Native cultures.”
When it comes to preserving the Alaska Native lifestyle, subsistence hunting is a vital aspect, adds Ganley, and one that could potentially be threatened by resource exploration and land development.
“There are, of course, local mining projects that can inhibit subsistence hunting or alter the migratory patterns of the animals, thus endangering traditional hunting grounds and or customs and practices of the local people,” he says. Ganley notes subsistence hunting culture is prevalent in rural Alaska as the majority of communities are dependent on it due to the nature of rural economies. However, he is not opposed to responsible and thoughtful development.
“The development of resources should be a benefit to communities in terms of economic stability and community sustainability. It is an incredibly delicate balance: continuity of subsistence lifestyle and local resource development can [in some cases] be achieved, but loss of culture should not be the cost,” he says.
Educators at the Alutiiq Museum learn to use arts and culture as a teaching tool with the help of Alutiiq artist June Pardue.
Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), says protecting the Alaska Native subsistence lifestyle as vital. She also sees risks on the horizon in preserving cultural hunting.
Worl describes the foundation of Alaska Native culture as one grounded in a physical and spiritual relationship to the land and the resources on which Natives depend.
“Natives spend extraordinary time and effort challenging the major threats that arise from management and regulatory regimes that more often conflict with or undermine subsistence practices and harvests, give priority to commercial harvests, and that fail to provide for co-management opportunities,” she explains. She adds that Alaska Natives are also “hopelessly watching as climate change impacts their environment and subsistence harvest, as they have no control over this man-made threat.”
SHI has initiated multiple and broad efforts to integrate traditional and scientific knowledge to protect and enhance Native culture with a goal of promoting cross-cultural understanding.
Projects include integrating Native culture, visual and performing arts, language, and history into schools; providing cultural orientations for teachers and school administrators; revitalizing Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian languages; public exhibitions on Native arts and history; and supporting public policy initiatives that support Native education, culture, and arts.
The organization, like the Alutiiq museum and BSNC, has a heavy focus on language revitalization as many Native languages are at risk because of historic policies aimed at suppressing Native languages, according to Worl.
Another great risk to Alaska Native heritage, she adds, is related to the ongoing challenges to maintain subsistence practices and a lack of public funding for preservation efforts.
“Alaska Natives need to be vigilant in seeking measures to stop or mitigate adverse impacts from resource exploration and development that may affect their lands and lifestyle by working closely with developers; ensuring compliance with existing environmental protection laws; and, if necessary, seeking political and legal action to strengthen and enforce environmental protection laws.”
When it comes to the most valuable traditions to be preserved, Worl speaks to the core culture and values that have helped Native societies survive through so many decades of changes.
“For example, two common values among Alaska Natives are their relationship to the land in both utilizing and honoring the land and ensuring sustainability of the resources for future generations,” she says. “Today scientific principles as well as traditional knowledge must be applied in utilizing the land in new ways to ensure sustainability.”
Judy Mottl writes about important issues country-wide with an affinity for Alaska.