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Teacher's Guide

Regional History
Alaska's Cultures
A View from the Inside: Traditional Cultural Literature

Textbooks and other resources that describe traditional Alaska Native cultures usually use information written by anthropologists. Their descriptions are third person accounts, meaning that the anthropologist wrote descriptively, usually as someone who is 'outside' the culture. While these descriptions are often very rich and informative, it is important to remember that an outsider will never understand a culture in the same way as an'insider'. Individuals from outside groups have different degrees of insight, sympathy, understanding and talents, which will color their observations. From anthropologists we often learn more about the arguments and ideas of anthropology than we learn about a particular Alaska Native group being studied. After all, anthropologists can only explain what they see by using concepts, words, evidence, and vocabulary that comes from their own culture.

Another way to think about anthropologists' descriptions is to imagine a telescope examining the moon. If the telescope is pulled back too far, important details are missed. If the telescope is focused too closely, the observation is limited to a particular detail like a crater, and the larger perspective is completely missed. Different telescopes have strengths and weaknesses; no one is better than the others. Its important to keep in mind their different functions and their limitations. This same point needs to be kept in mind as you read outsider accounts of Alaska Native societies.

A danger for outsiders observing a group is that a group may change its behavior if it knows it is being watched. Here is one example. This story is called the Komukmuit.

So, an anthropologist visited the village when people were about to go walrus hunting in the 1930s. He and his assistant brought huge and heavy cameras; one was a big black camera. They had charted a plane that flew them into the village. Surprisingly, the anthropologist speaks Inupiat. People were impressed by that, even though they think that he speaks it 'funny.' It turns out that he had learned Inupiat in Canada and that was why it sounded funny to us. The second person was a photographer, a camera person. The leader of the two hired an umiak, a skin boat, and a crew to take him out. So that boat followed the first walrus hunting crew. The first crew got a walrus and cut it up on the ice and butchered it and put it into the boat. As they pulled away, they watched the anthropologists' skin boat land where they had just been and saw those people collecting the few parts of the walrus that had been left behind. The people in the first boat, the hunting boat, had a long discussion about this as they headed off to the next ice floe. They realized that, of course, this man would like to get a walrus but it seems that he doesn't know how to hunt. They like this man because he speaks Inupiat. They don't want to embarrass him for being an adult and not knowing how to hunt walrus. So they decided that with the next walrus and the next ice floe they would leave the choice half of the meat behind for the anthropologist. This way he would have something good to eat and to share with his family.

How the anthropologist wrote about this behavior is not known. The person who told this story was a young adult at the time and a member of the first boat. He remembered that the anthropologist asked lots of questions. "How do you go to the bathroom?" "What do you eat?" When was this tool invented and how do you use it?" In this person's mind the anthropologist was an individual who didn't know even simple things like how to find fresh water on sea ice. The questions were not all harmful, just a little distracting. That is why the name "komukmuit" was used - "Komukmuit" means head lice. Head lice are not deadly, but they are distracting. They are there always bothering you. That was his opinion of the anthropologist. It is a good reminder to us that there are always two sides to a story. The story told by the insider may be different than the story told by the outsider.

The perspective from those inside the culture must be considered in order to gain a more complete understanding of a society. Luckily, there are some sources of information that came from people who were 'inside' the culture. Folk tales are stories, myths, and legends that were told by insiders and handed down over hundreds of years. Traditional Alaska Native cultures had rich oral traditions that were passed from generation to generation. Some of these stories survive to the present day.

The stories, as told and retold by the people provide direct information about beliefs, customs and world views. The ways that beliefs are communicated in stories through symbols, characters, plot and action is very different than the way a description is written in third person. Insider stories allow us to hear the voices of the people. They build images and connect to people, places, and events. We need both inside and outside points of view to better understand Native Alaska cultures through history.

There are many mouse stories. They are told to children.

A mouse comes upon a great lake. A huge lake. He can't even see to the other side. And he boasts and brags to his friends. I am the strongest, bravest, best swimming mouse that ever lived. There has never been such a mouse as me. I will show you. And he jumps into the lake. He swims and he swims and he swims and he disappears from sight. His friends are running along the shore trying to find him. "Oh, he is going to drown, he's going to drown." When they finally get to the other side of the lake, they find the mouse. He is tired and breathing hard, but he says, " I am the best swiminng mouse to cross this huge lake. I am the strongest mouse that crossed this huge lake."

And the lake? A bear had stepped on soft ground and its footprint had filled with water. That was the huge lake that the mouse had crossed.

This is a very short story, but it says so much. This "simple" event is rooted in a view of the world and a view of society. It is remarkable to be able to visit that world through the adventure of the mice.

Reading literature like this from traditional Alaska Native cultures is a window with another view. Through this window we can be drawn across cultural borders into the beliefs, customs, and world views of people who lived long ago.


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