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Regional History
Alaska's Cultures
Alaska Natives Continue to Challenge Status Quo

Do Alaska Natives, as peoples, have a right, and does Alaska have a place, for Native cultures to continue to be distinct cultures and peoples in the same manner as they have existed here for thousands of years? This is the critical question that faces all Alaskans. Alaska Natives have fought long and hard since the purchase of Alaska by the Americans in 1867. The struggle has carried Natives from legally, socially, economically and politically marginalized peoples to recognition as citizens of the United States who are accorded full protection under the law. Some of the key victories of the struggle engaged in by Alaska Natives over the last one hundred years include: United States Citizenship (1924); federal recognition of Alaska's tribes beginning in 1936; legal recognition of Alaska Native land claims (Tongass Case, 1967); the closing of the last segregated school in Northway (1967); the settlement of Alaska Native land claims (ANCSA, 1971); and the right to local educational opportunities for grades 7-12 (Molly Hootch, 1972). These victories were achieved because of the determination, tenacity and ability of Alaska Native peoples who adapted to the 'new' Alaska that began in 1867 and who, at the same time, sought to preserve their cultural distinctions.

The economic successes of the Native owned Regional Corporations established under ANCSA have far exceeded anyone's expectations and these corporations have become economic engines for the entire State. Health care for Alaska Natives, as administered by Alaska Natives, has led to superior customer satisfaction and a commitment to excellent and innovative service. Tourism has become a significant industry to the State and Alaska Native cultures are important in the imagination of the travel industry and in the minds of the tourists who seek the Alaskan experience. Alaska Native art is collected internationally and displayed in museums around the world.

However, despite these varied and significant achievements the future of Alaska's Native cultures is in question. Government assimilation policies, the increased mobility of society, interracial marriages, the tensions related to cultural change and modern society have all contributed to the decrease of traditional tribal cohesion. Tribes have lost lands, as well as the ability to practice a subsistence life style. Native languages are used by fewer and fewer people and in some cases have been lost. New structures, such as the Native Regional Corporations, have been created and must be reconciled with older structures, such as tribal governments. Native cultures, as is true for all cultures, must evolve and change over time, if they are to remain viable. How will this occur in Alaska? Do nonNative Alaskans recognize and support the right of Native peoples to maintain their cultural identities and to determine their futures? It seems clear that decisions made by Natives and non Natives over the next decade in Alaska will be critical in determining whether or not Alaska Native peoples continue as distinct cultural groups.

Subsistence is a key issue. Tribes and communities in rural Alaska must be able to participate in subsistence activities in order to sustain village life. The costs of importing electricity, heating oil, food and supplies have risen substantially over the last decade for 'off-road' Alaskans and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Alaska Natives have traditionally hunted and gathered from various waters and lands and their ability to continue to do so, in modern ways and in this modern era, is vital to the continuance of tribal and cultural lives.

This issue has divided the State in some very uncomfortable ways. In 1980 the federal government (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act or ANILCA) affirmed the right of Alaska's 'rural residents' to continue customary and traditional subsistence practices. However the State of Alaska has held that its Constitution does not allow for a distinction between urban and rural residents. In other words the State holds that regulations concerning fish and game and hunting and gathering will be the same for all Alaskans. This argument is appealing to many. Why shouldn't fishing regulations apply to all people in the State equally and in the same manner? The federal government's position is that rural Alaskans live in different circumstances, have a different history, including patterns of traditional and customary use, and that different regulations should apply. To date, Alaska and the federal government have been unable to reconcile their positions and the federal government moved in 1990 to reestablish control over the management of fish and game on federal lands and waters in Alaska. The State thus has two sets of fish and game regulations: one for State lands and waters and the other (with rural subsistence preferences) for federal lands and waters. It is unclear how this issue will be resolved. What is more clear, however, is that Alaska Native cultures need the flexibility to hunt, fish and gather in order to live in the remote locations that have sustained their lives for thousands of years. Without this ability many of the tribes and cultures will disappear as members are forced to move to the urban environments and assimilate to the urban Alaskan way of life. A key argument in this issue is that people have to wrestle with the question of 'sameness. ' 'Sameness' must be weighed against 'difference', as in traditional and unique cultural groups. The resolution of the subsistence issue will depend, in great part, on the degree to which Alaskans value the continuation of the distinct cultural heritage of the State.

Alaska Native peoples also seek 'Indian countries' or lands where tribal jurisdiction is paramount. The State opposes the recognition of Indian country. The Indian Child Welfare Act (1978) established the rights of tribes to participate in decisions related to the adoption of Indian children, however, the education of children is an area where government policy may be at odds with tribal communities' views. For example, as cultural camps become increasingly a part of Alaska's life, the public school calendar may be at odds with the cultural camp calendar. Or, as State assessment in basic skills becomes a policy priority, Native language immersion programs may be eliminated to allow more focus on basic skills. Who gets to decide and what are the consequences of the decision?

No one predicted in 1867, or even in 1967, that Alaska Natives would accomplish so much economically, socially, and politically. The remarkable success in transforming opportunities via modern organizations has gone further than anyone had prepared for or anticipated. Alaska Native cultures are a unique and distinct part of the fabric of this State. Millions of people read about and tens of thousands of people come to Alaska each year in part because of the rich cultural heritage. The goal should be that Alaska, as a State, will understand, appreciate and support Alaska cultures in a way that the rest of the world already does.



     


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