Alaska's Cultures

Modern and Alaska Native? Yes
Paul Ongtooguk

Are Alaska Natives becoming less 'Alaska Native?' If so, does education contribute to this? Behind these odd questions are some important issues for Alaska Native communities and educators.

"Do schools make a person less Alaska Native?" came up when I first became a certified teacher and was in the teachers' lounge. Two teachers were talking about two students - both Alaska Native. One teacher was describing or comparing the students and their academic performance, attendance One teacher said that one student was "more Native" than the other.

I knew both were Alaska Native shareholders under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Both had been raised in the same Native community. Both had Alaska Native parents. I am an Alaska Native and I could not identify one student as "more Alaska Native" than the other. I wondered aloud how one student could be called "less Native."

One teacher explained one student liked going to fish camp, while the other was more interested in modern dance and shopping malls. The other teacher nodded in agreement. These two teachers shared some sense of what it means to be Alaska Native but it was not my sense. What I had encountered was one example of a common, naive definition of what makes a person more or less 'Alaska Native' - the degree to which that person is more or less 'traditional.' This is a common stereotype.

Alaska historians Dr. Claus-M. Naske and Herman E. Slotnick in their History of the 49th State, 2nd Ed. write "Numerous conferences have been held around the state in the last few years in which participants assure each other they will be able to maintain their traditional ways and also fully participate in modern American life. The talk is illusionary, however, Natives must learn to think like Western whites to succeed with their corporations" (1994, p.208).

By defining Native as only traditional and white as modern, Natives and non-Natives do a disservice to another generation of Alaskans - both Native and non-Native. We must reject the idea that the only real Alaska Native is a museum quality, Edward Curtis photograph. The important point is to recognize that Alaska Natives are actively sorting through and discussing Alaska Native cultures in today's world. Alaska Natives have rejected the idea that to be modern somehow makes people less 'Native.' The rest of Alaska should also accept that being Alaska Native today requires respecting traditions as well as contemporary society. Modern and Alaska Native? Yes.