Understanding the Past is Essential to Understanding Today
Alaska Native history spans thousands of years. It includes a wide variety of complex cultures, languages and societies. Unfortunately, many Alaskans only understand this history in one dimensional, stereotypic ways. These simplistic views are often based on images from traditional Native life styles. For example, Tlingits are associated with carving and totem poles, Inupiat are thought of as seal hunters with dog teams and kayaks, and Aleuts are seen as people who hunt sea otters out of bidarka. These limited and out-dated images are inadequate for understanding Alaska Natives, either yesterday or today. A lack of real knowledge adds to racial tensions in the State, and to the negative attitudes that some people hold towards Natives.
When asked to describe Alaska Natives some high school students from the Interior said things like "they don't have jobs"; "they are poor"; "they keep us from hunting and fishing in a lot of places"; "if they don't like the way things are, they should go back"; "the government gives them free medical care"; "they are uneducated."
While some of these comments relate to some complex issues in Alaska, they also show that these students have a very limited kind of history. It might be called "white commemorative history." "White commemorative history" in the United States would begin with the European 'discovery' of America, the arrival of Protestant English men, and the conquering of the uncivilized Indians. In Alaska that term would refer to a history that begins with the Russian traders and then the advancing white American pioneers. The term is used here to remind people that a history, what is included (people, events, ideas) and what is excluded reflects the biases, assumptions and lens of the historian and his/her culture.
The history of Alaska Natives is often found in the first chapter of books that describe traditional life - cultures that existed for thousands of years before the coming of the Europeans. This information is important but it does not help people understand Alaska Native societies today. In fact such a limited understanding of Native cultures leads to the stereotyping of Alaska Natives as seal hunters with dog teams and kayaks. It also contributes to confusion about who and what an Alaska Native is today. This confusion includes a "more Native-less Native" trap where a Native living a subsistence lifestyle in rural Alaska is considered "more Native" than a Native lawyer who lives in urban Alaska. Even traditional life is distorted in the first chapter in many books because thousands of years are reduced to a few pages and the development, changes and variations of traditional societies is left out.
Integration of Alaska Native Historical Perspective
A history of Alaska that does not integrate the Alaska Native perspective after the coming of the white man is flawed and incomplete. Free health care? Yes, the federal government does provide medical care for Alaska Natives without charging individuals. In fact, the federal government provides medical care for most Native American tribes, including Alaska Natives. A person who does not know why the federal government has this policy might naturally think it is unfair. However, the policy is related to the federal government's taking of traditional Native Amereican lands. Unable and often unwilling to pay full value in cash for the land, the government promised to pay for some of the value by offering services. From the history of Federal Indian law and policies, we understand that health care is not 'free' to Native Americans, but paid for by the land that was taken.
And the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 for seven million dollars? The Russian-American treaty hands over the powers of government from Russia, but not the lands of the unconquered Native peoples. At this time about 90% of Alaska Natives were unconquered. Their land was not purchased by the U.S. government from Alaska Natives until 1971 with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Like with other land purchases from Native Americans, the government did not pay anything close to the market value of the land, and it offered partial payment through some medical and other services to Alaska Natives.
Many perceptions of Alaska Natives today are based on the assumption that Natives and whites have enjoyed the equal opportunities of this country, since the 1867 purchase. The history of Alaska Natives tells a different story. A legal social segregation by race persisted in Alaska until 1946. Desegregation of schools was not completed until 1967. Even though many Native Americans served in the United States Armed Forces during World War 1 (1917-1918), citizenship was not granted to them until 1924.
Alaska Natives make up 25% of the State's student population and 17% of the general population. Native people have lived on this land for thousands of years. Their history is important to the State. An immersion into traditional Native cultures is one place to begin. Equally important is a study of critical events in Alaska's history following the coming of the Europeans from the Native perspective. In some cases that perspective differs widely from the Caucasian settlers. Knowledge is not a silver bullet, but it is an effective way to create a climate that supports both the self-determination of Native cultures and can help deal with certain issues the state faces today. This course attempts to integrate important events throughout Alaska's history, from the Native perspective.