Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Real Alaska Native Myths and Legends #3 - What's a "traditional" Native?

The news about the slaughtered caribou brought out the usual - anti-Native hate, calls for an end to subsistence and "special rights", I don't know how many upstanding citizens dragging alcohol into the mix - something not mentioned in the case thus far, except by those spewing ignorance.

But one thing always gets brought up eventually, and that is the idea that "if they want to be traditional, then they need to go back to bows and arrows." One less enlightened man a few weeks ago put it as needing to go back to "making fires out of caribou dung."

Now, I will confess something. This is something that many Native people struggle with. There are many expectations about what you should be as a Native person, from without and within.

Be traditional - not "too traditional" - assimilate already! - just be "American" - why don't you dress in buckskin?

Some of the irony of the situation is that from the non-Native crowd, there is a constant mixed message. Native corporations are the most open to vicious attack for their successes - how dare they succeed? Yet corporations are the government requirement, not the Native neccessity. Hate comments about "needing to go back to the village" can be soon followed by "if things are so tough in the village, then move out!" Even the well-intentioned, friends and colleagues, can encourage this sort of dichotomy by having expectations about what a Native person should be, versus what they are.

But this kind of confusion is not something exclusive to non-Natives. This is maybe most confusing within the community. Be proud of your culture! But be more American this way... Learn your language! But don't think you're better just because you can. How come you don't know your culture? But your Western education should come first.

It's not always as clear cut as saying it so, as few few things are. It can be as subtle as a supervisor asking a group of us what we would do if an Elder gave us a very expensive gift at work. My look of panic was not the only one. You don't dare refuse a gift from an Elder! But this is not Western corporation practices.

The idea that you must succeed in two worlds is not new, nor is it going to go away anytime soon. But we can get rid of this cut and dry vision of what it means to be a "traditional" Native person.

It does not mean going back to "bow and arrow" days. If this is what someone really wants, it goes both ways. Not every great invention came from the Western mind. In fact, I'll make the next person who says this to me a deal - I will start encouraging the "old days," no snowmachines, no rifles, no electric heat - if they will fulfill two requests. Two requests for a whole lifestyle here, it's a good deal.

First, the agricultural products that we had in the "old days" are our and our alone. That means we own the patent/license/whatever to tomatoes, potatoes, turkey, rubber, chocolate! No Hershey's syrup. No peanut butter and jelly, because no peanuts. And it might literally mean the shirt off their back, because no cotton.

Second, if we don't receive the benefit of Western invention, we take back the benefit of our invention. Here in Alaska alone, that means no kayaks, snowshoes, moccasins. Not to mention popcorn.

Now, this isn't a serious claim, it is only meant to highlight the absurdity of demanding people "turn back the clock". I don't want to take back tomatoes (especially since the Tlingit and Athabascan people didn't have a lot to do with that) and I don't think that my wanting to honor my traditions means I need to do away with the Internet.

Bottom line is, the learning and invention and benefit went both ways. We were not a "primitive" people, who would never have survived without Western intervention. But the history of American would be much changed - in fact quite a bit briefer - with the knowledge and skill of the "First Peoples."

As to what a good "traditional" Native person is, the minute you spot one, let me know. The most honorable, respectful Native people I know drive cars and speak English as good or better than traditional languages. It is their drive to keep traditional lines open, to remember the values of ancient times and apply them to a modern world that makes me - and others - admire and respect them.



Our ancestors did not sit and dream of a world in which everything stayed exactly the same (despite some TV movies that say otherwise). They were innovators themselves. They dreamed of children, and grandchildren, and grandchildren's grandchildren that were healthy, that knew the Earth for what it was and respected it, that treated others with respect due to them. And this is how we respect them - by pursuing just that, fighting for it, expecting and hoping that it will come.



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4 comments:

Dale said...

Paul Ongtooguk makes some incisive points in an article at Alaskool.org
=================================
The only real Natives are pristine and pre-European according to many Americans. Environmentalists just seem more bitten by this bug than others. Yet few people would argue Americans are less American because they don't drive buggies or have slaves and today perform surgery with anesthesia, and recognize the right of women to vote. I've never heard people complain or consider the Japanese to be less Japanese because they are no longer politically divided into samurai, merchants, artisans, peasants and royalty. The Japanese are not seen as less Japanese because they now manufacture cars, stereos, and use western medicine. Alaska Natives however are commonly viewed as no longer Native if we look any different than 'Nanook of the North' or the photographs of Edward Curtis. American and Japanese society can modernize and still be American or Japanese. By such a narrow view, Alaska Native society can only freeze in time like the Amish or be considered less Native. It is time to consider why this is so.
http://www.alaskool.org/projects/Ancsa/ARTICLES/ongtooguk1990/anwr_ongtooguk.html

kodiakgriff said...

Wow, well said. Growing up in New England; I was partly raised by Great-Grandmother who had moved down off a Canadian rez in the early twenties.My other Grandmother was Swedish Immigrant, so the ethnic background was not immediately evident in my generation.
I remember being taught many wonderful things, but never around non-family. I also remember being scolded for letting the sun expose parts of my heritage that grandmother wanted to keep out of sight.
Looking at her pictures I am impressed, this was a woman who raised two generations of children, ran three successful businesses, and spent over half her life in a wheelchair while she did it.
With all that she believed the world would allow a woman to accomplish this, but not one who was half Lakota. So she kept it quiet and "passed".
I hope that she looks down with pride now, as my family shows pride in their heritage.
As for going back to the old ways, I could not agree more with what you wrote.
So I guess I'll wait for the Great Plains & Ireland to be deeded back and then I can snowbird between the two.
Or I can accept the world and what it requires, just as I was taught. Cherishing my family's traditions while moving forward at the same time.
Peace,
Griff

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