Saturday, July 4, 2009

Real Native Myths and Legends - Revisited #3

I'm going to be out of Internet access for a few days. I'd like to start revisiting somethig I paused when the Palin stuff came out last fall - "Real Native Myths and Legends." I started it because there's so much stereotyping, misundestandngs and common beliefs about the Native people of Alaska, and America in general. I meant the posts to shed some light, as well as start some conversations, or even some questions. I'm going to do some new posts about this, but first, since it's been so long, I'm going to be reposting the old ones to revisit.

Real Native Myths and Legends #4 - Indians and Eskimos - August 12, 2008

Indian. Eskimo. Native American. Tribe. Clan. People group. FirstNations. First Peoples. American Indian. Indigenous.

It's dang confusing sometimes, I know, and I've grown up with allthese terms. I have some sympathy for every (non-Native) friend I'veever had who has worked up to (usually unsure of how to approach it)asking me, "So… what do you call yourself?"

There are actually many different forms of this question, but it boilsdown to, "How on earth do I say what you are?" I know there are thosewho will argue we should be "color-blind" and not look at a person'sculture. I disagree. I think we should honor and celebrate a person'sculture, we would be robbing them of a huge part of who they are notto – we just don't have to judge a person by their culture. It's alsojust a reality – having to define someone's background is not goinganywhere.

Kind of reminds me of a discussion I had about this topic in highschool, and my "African-American" friend was asked how to address hisrace. He said, "We're 'Black' now. But I'll let you know if itchanges."

If you ask the government, they would consider me from the "Indian"people group (as opposed to "Eskimo" or "Aleut". On a federal documentI am "American Indian or Alaska Native." On my Certificate of IndianBlood, I am from the Tlingit "tribe."

If you ask me, I will tell you I am Tlingit or Alaska Native,depending on where I am and who you are. I will not say the Tlingittribe – no such thing. There's also no "Tlingit Nation". I won't tell you I am Indian – as far as I'm concerned, Indians are from India. Iwon't tell you I'm Native American, and I won't tell you what tribe I'm from – as far as I know, I have no tribe.

Much of the problem stems from trying to group an entire continent'sworth of culture into one identifiable group. Even here in Alaska, thecultures are incredibly diverse. I have a Yup'ik friend that I share values and experiences with as an Alaska Native woman, but when itcomes to so many other cultural values, she seems to be speakinganother language (though, often times, she quite literally IS speakinganother language.)

There is also the problem of Native people only just being able todefine how they were called by the general public in the lastgeneration or two, and so it seems quite changeable, and no two peopleagree on the perfect way yet.

Last year at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics (WEIO,) one of theassistants came to get our dance group, "We need the Indian groups!" Adozen sets of furrowed brows and he quickly answered, "Hey, if I haveto be Eskimo, you have to be Indian!" Fair enough. Point is, even ourown institutions are outdated in the terms we use.

But all the background and why and how aside, there still remains theissue of, "What do I call you?"

The simplest answer I can say is, "Just ask."

I have often wondered if this is not a very "polite" thing to do outside of Alaska Native cultures. Maybe the sensitivities of being PC or a Western etiquette – but generally when I am asked it is with anembarrassed tone, usually an apology. A "I'm sorry if this is rude, but…" Recently, a friend of mine described a non-Native woman who was offended when a Native woman asked her race.

Although I am generally loathe to group such diverse cultures into one"group think," my own experiences in my culture and other Nativecultures in the state is that the first thing you want to do is get toknow someone's background. As an example, a dialogue of me meeting another Native person:

"Nice to meet you – so where are you from?"


"That by Fairbanks?"

"Bethel area."

"Cool – you know John James?"

"Yeah, he's my cousin."


And we switch. I threw in my own lack of geographical awareness inthere for realism. But basically, I now know where he's from (and can deduce his 'people group' from that,) and who his general family is.

Actually, if it were really real, we would find out all the differentpeople we know and/or are related to in common. Many times we will askand talk directly about what racial background we are from.

In short, the "polite" or friendly thing to do in the culture I know is to introduce and let your own background be known. Many Native people who are born in urban areas will identify themselves as being"from" whatever village or rural area their family is from. I was delighted to meet a man "from Klawock" last Summer, very near where I was born, but then he said, "Oh – but I've never been there." I have a feeling as more and more Native people are born in Anchorage, thiswill become even more common.

I believe the Tlingit people have elevated introductions to an art. My Yup'ik friend is fond of telling me that "Tlingits complicateeverything!" Maybe true, but there are some pretty solid reasons behind it.

Do you know that scene in "Lord of the Rings," where the trees are talking amongst themselves all day, and when they finally talk to the Hobbits, you find they've only just introduced themselves? I believethat this must have been based off of a traditional Tlingit celebration. You introduce pretty much your whole background andgenealogy. Basically, when I begin my speech, you should know my name(or names,) my parents, my teachers, my grandparents and great-grandparents, my moiety, clan and sub-clans, where I am from –or my family is from, and where I live now. And that's the short version.

Although I cannot tell you what all Native people would like to bereferred to as – even between my siblings and I this would vary – I can tell you it doesn't hurt to ask. Of course, basic politeness applies here too. I don't suggest a "So what's your racial make-up?"or questions at times that would be ethically inappropriate - job interview anyone?

A few tips:

-Start with asking where they are from. It wouldn't hurt if you knew(in general) where people groups were from.

- Don't ask anyone if they are "Eskimo." Really. I mean it. The few people who are okay with being identified by others as such will let you know in good time, but this will lose you more respect than it will gain. And don't assume because one person of that background prefers to be called "Eskimo" the next is. A friend and I will joke around, calling each other "Eskimo" and "Indian," but I made a mistake thinking I could joke like that with another coworker - she did NOT appreciate being called Eskimo, although from the same background as my friend.

- As an Alaska Native person, the above also applies to the word "Indian." From what I understand, in the Lower 48 this can be a pretty common identifier, but not so popular up here.

- Don't attach a "tribe," "clan," "nation" or other grouping word when asking. I get asked a lot if I am from the Tlingit tribe, or what tribe I am from. Federally, this is correct. There are people groups in the U.S. which embrace the word. But no Tlingit person I know identifies themselves this way. Likewise, there is no Tlingit clan. I DO belong to a clan, as well as a house and a moiety, but the same will not be true of every Alaska Native culture.

Basically, just see how the person identifies themselves, and treat them with respect. You do not have to do things "traditionally" - most Native people do not address or introduce traditionally, unless in a formal setting, and do not expect that of you. But to "gain friendsand influence Native people," showing a respect for their individuality as a person, and within a culture, will go far.


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