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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Alaska Native in Traditional Times: A Cultural Profile Project

as of July 2011

Do not quote or copy without permission from Mike Gaffney or from Ray Barnhardt at the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska-Fairbanks. For an overview of the purpose and design of the Cultural Profile Project, see Instructional Notes for Teachers.

Mike Gaffney

Chapter Two
Sharpening Our Tools: Key Concepts


Like an Iñupiaq ivory carver or an Aleut kayak maker or a Siberian Yupik whaling captain, we need the right tools to do our job properly. Our tools are the concepts we use to convey information and ideas. But we must take this notion of concepts as tools one step further. The ivory carver, kayak maker, and the whaling captain not only must use the right tools, they must be sure these tools are finely honed to precise points and cutting edges. Likewise, our words and ideas must be finely honed if we are to communicate precisely what we mean. We start by asking the question, what exactly is a concept?

Figure 2-1
North Alaskan Eskimos with harpoons and whale carcass, c. 1920
Northern Alaskan Eskimos with harpoons and whale carcass, c. 1920

Unless stated otherwise, all photos are from the online Alaska Virtual Library and Digital Archives project, a collaborative effort initiated by the Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the Consortium Library at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and the Alaska State Library in Juneau.

Words and ideas that mentally organize and give meaning to a set of facts and images are called concepts. The word “marriage,” for example, is a concept because it mentally organizes and gives meaning to facts and images about this human institution. We must also understand that what meanings are assigned to a set of social facts and images may well depend on one’s cultural perspective. Within the Hindu religious traditions of India, for example, the institution of marriage has a quite different set of meanings than marriage within Western (Euro- American) culture.

Over time, widely used words like “culture” can take on a variety of meanings. Much like bungee cords we might use to secure supplies to a sled or to the bed of a pickup truck, the concept of culture has become elastic - that is, it has been stretched to describe many things. What definition is assigned to it at any given time depends on the interests and purposes of the person using it. When watching news programs on TV, for example, we hear terms like “pop culture” which usually refers to the world of popular arts and entertainment, fashion, and celebrities. Or here in Alaska we might talk about “corporate culture” when discussing how the unique goals and operations of an Alaska Native corporation differ from conventional American corporations like General Electric or Apple Inc. This is why Chapter Five is devoted entirely to constructing a six part definition of culture to guide our later work on Native social organization, world view, and cultural products.

Tradition and Change

“Traditional times,” “pre-contact history,” and “tradition.” Traditional times refers to Native life before the invasions brought about lasting social change. Often this distant past is referred to as pre-contact Native history. But the term “contact” can be misleading because simple contact between Natives and outsiders rarely resulted in Native social change. The crews of the two ships of Vitus Bering’s 1741 expedition to Alaska, for example, made contact with several Aleut communities. Yet these encounters had no immediate impact on those communities. The outsiders quickly came and went. So we need to keep in mind the difference between what was simply an encounter between Natives and non-Natives and what was regular and sustained contact leading to social change. Regular and sustained contact, in fact, did not come to the Aleutians until 1744 when Russian promyshlenniki (fur traders/trappers) invaded Attu and Agattu Islands.

We also must distinguish between the meaning of tradition and traditional times. A tradition need not be an aspect of life lost to the invasions. It may be a social institution, including the cultural values which sustain it, that survived the invasions. An example of a Native tradition surviving to modern times is the institution of Eskimo whaling found among the Siberian Yupik on Saint Lawrence Island and the Iñupiaq along the Arctic coast. Obviously the technology used by whaling crews has changed. Yet much of the traditional social organization and cultural meaning of Eskimo whaling has survived to the present day. Edward Etta, Mayor of the North Slope Borough, has said, “the whale is the centerpiece of our culture. It holds the coastal Inupiat together. If we lose the great whale and the environment that sustains it, we lose ourselves.”1

Clearly your cultural profile assignment focuses on Native life in traditional times. But an interesting question is: When and how does an institution or big idea become a significant tradition? What do we mean when we talk about a “Native tradition?” Do we mean only those pre-invasion cultural elements surviving to present times like Eskimo whaling? Or can we find a significant tradition brought to Alaska by outsiders which was adopted by a Native group and then shaped by them to fit their own needs? Should such “cultural adaptations” be considered equally important Native traditions today?

The early acceptance of Russian Orthodoxy by Aleut communities offers a good example of a significant Native tradition arising from cultural adaptation. The Russian Orthodox church has been part of the everyday life of many Aleut communities for at least 170 years. Surely enough time has passed for the Aleut practice of Orthodoxy to develop all the cultural and emotional power of any pre-invasion Native tradition. Another cultural adaptation making a mark on modern Native social life is Athabaskan fiddling in interior Alaska.2 This is why we must make a distinction between the concept of traditional times and the concept of tradition. There exist today deeply felt cultural traditions which arose after contact and which have become part of everyday Native life and cultural identity

Figure 2-2
Russian Orthodox Bells on Atka Island, Alaska, c. 1920

[c. = circa, which is Latin for “approximately around that time.”]
Russian Orthodox Bells on Atka Island, Alaska, c. 1920

Alaska Native? Indian? Native American?

History’s lockbox: the naming of indigenous people. Those terms used most often in our work need clear definition. At the very top of the list are words historically rooted in the English language which do two things. First, they distinguish the indigenous people of the Americas from the invaders. For example, Indian versus Euro-American. Secondly, they often identify what the invaders saw as physical and cultural differences between certain indigenous groups - for example, between Indians and Eskimos.

These historically entrenched terms for naming indigenous groups are like place-names. Once the name of a place is on a map, it becomes very difficult to change that name, no matter how reasonable the argument for change may be. These place-names are stuck in history’s lockbox and there they stay. A good example is found in attempts over many decades to officially change Mt. McKinley to Denali, which means the “great one” in the local Athabaskan language. Back in 1912, Hudson Stuck, Anglican Archdeacon of the Yukon, was a member of the first climbing team to reach Denali’s true summit of 20,320 feet. In 1914 he authored an account of that mountaineering feat. In the opening page of his book, he makes this appeal:

... forefront in the author’s heart and desire, must stand a plea for the restoration to the greatest mountain in North America of it immemorial native name...It is little more than seventeen years ago that a prospector penetrated from the south into the neighborhood of this mountain...and ignorant of any name that it already bore, placed upon it the name of the Republican candidate for President of the United States at the approaching election - William McKinley. No voice was raised in protest...

There is, to this author’s mind, a certain ruthless arrogance that grows more offensive to him as the years pass by, in the temper that comes to the “new” land and contemptuously ignores the Native names of conspicuous natural objects, almost always appropriate and significant, and overlays them with names that are, commonly, neither the one or the other. 3

Today, some ninety years later, the Reverend Stuck’s plea for an official place-name change to Denali is still unheeded, with no possibility for change in sight. Likewise, historically entrenched “outsider” names for indigenous peoples are still widely used today by both Natives and non-Natives. Not surprisingly, whatever naming scheme is used - Indian, Native, Eskimo, Aleut - not everyone will be satisfied. Someone is sure to argue strongly for a different naming system. Given the available naming options and the strong feelings about them, perhaps all one can do is avoid confusion by being consistent when using these terms. The use of “Indian” in the last chapter of the book should have exactly the same meaning as when it was used in the first chapter. Now let’s tackle this problem of indigenous naming as best we can.

A indigenous naming system. We use the general term Indian to identify indigenous peoples of the Americas outside of Alaska and Hawaii. If the discussion is about Indians in Alaska, we always use specific linguistic and tribal designations. For example, Koyukon Athabaskan Indians, Tlingit Indians, and so forth. In fact, we also use Lower-48 tribal names whenever possible - Cherokee, Oglala Sioux, Chiricahua Apache. From time to time, however, a general term like “plains Indians” or “Northwest Coast Indians” may better fit our immediate purpose.

Already we have developed two basic rules for the naming of indigenous peoples. The first is consistency of use. This also includes keeping the naming rules as simple as possible. The more complicated the rules, the harder it is to maintain consistency. The second rule for indigenous naming is to be as tribally specific as possible. We want the naming process to be so clear that we never have to answer the question: But what Indians or Eskimos are you talking about? Native American is used when referring to all indigenous people living within the fifty states of the United States. Hawaii is included although at this time the indigenous Hawaiians are not a federally recognized tribal group. They do not have the special political relationship with the federal government as this principle has been historically developed in federal Indian law. Whether they have a right to federal recognition is an ongoing political and legal debate. When discussing Alaska in general, we use Native or Alaska Native.

While we can argue for the overall use of Indian when referring to lower-48 tribes, we cannot make the same argument when it comes to Alaska or Canada. In both places we must deal with the historically entrenched term of Eskimo. Again, we will be as tribally specific as possible. We use Iñupiaq, Central Yup’ik, Siberian Yupik when talking about Alaskan Eskimos. For Canada we use Inuit, usually qualified by a geographical place - for example, Baffin Island Inuit or Northern Quebec Inuit. But on occasion Eskimo is the more useful term as, for example, when discussing the general subsistence culture of Eskimo whaling. And of course we have still another distinct Alaskan cultural/linguistic group historically know as the Aleut, the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands and the western tip of the Alaska Peninsula.

A short side trip: Do we use “Aleut” or “Unangan” ? Since the time of the early invasions, the Russian word Aleut became the ethnic term used by outsiders to identify the indigenous peoples of the Aleutian Islands. In the Aleut language, however, the word that defines them as a distinct people is Unangan. Many Aleuts today are returning to Unangan as the preferred term of ethnic appellation. In so doing, they join other Native groups such as Alaska Eskimos who now prefer Iñupiaq and Yup’ik, which are the names they go by in their own language. They think of themselves as Iñupiaq Eskimos or Central Yup’ik Eskimos, or Siberian Yupik Eskimos. Yet use of Aleut cannot be avoided because it is so historically embedded in the documentation of the region and in our everyday speech. To avoid confusion we will stick with Aleut. However, from time to time we will remind ourselves of the ongoing shift to Unangan.

What about the term tribe? Some shy away from this word because in their mind it is associated with ethnocentric images of Native Americans as primitive and uncivilized.4 We do not shy away from its use here for the simple reason that it is a significant legal term used in everyday discussion of Native civic affairs. “tribal sovereignty” and “federally recognized tribes” are, for example, two legal concepts with precise meanings. Whatever ethnocentric images the word “tribe” may have once conveyed no longer apply. To be ethnocentric is to judge another ethnic group by what you believe to be the righteous cultural standards of your group and find them deficient in custom and character. Soon we only imagine that “other” group in stereotypic ways. A stereotype is an oversimplified idea, opinion, or image of an entire group or class of people. Reggie White was a Hall of Fame pro football player and evangelical pastor. Before his death in 2004, he unfortunately provided us with a very good example of stereotyping. What do you think of the following remarks he made in March of 1998 before the Wisconsin State Legislature?

Why did God create us differently? Why did God make me black and you white? Why did God make the next guy Korean and the next guy Asian and the other guy Hispanic? Why did God create the Indians? Well, it's interesting to me to know why now. When you look at the black race, black people are very gifted in what we call worship and celebration. A lot of us like to dance, and if you go to black churches, you see people jumping up and down, because they really get into it.

White people were blessed with the gift of structure and organization. You guys do a good job of building businesses and things of that nature and you know how to tap into money pretty much better than a lot of people do around the world.

Hispanics are gifted in family structure. You can see a Hispanic person and they can put 20 or 30 people in one home. They were gifted in the family structure.

When you look at the Asians, the Asian is very gifted in creation, creativity and inventions. If you go to Japan or any Asian country, they can turn a television into a watch. They're very creative.

And you look at the Indians, they have been very gifted in the spirituality. When you put all of that together, guess what it makes? It forms a complete image of God.

By now it should be evident that we take very seriously the need to be clear and specific when referring to the variety of Native American cultures and languages. Indeed, all of Chapter Three is devoted to a discussion of Alaska Native cultural pluralism.

Culture, Ethnicity, and Race

Do we mean “cultural group” or “ethnic group”? As commonly used today, “ethnicity’ refers to differences between groups based national origin, religious beliefs, language, or cultural traditions and history. Many people often use ethnicity and ethnic identity to mean much the same thing as culture and cultural identity. On TV and radio and in newspapers - indeed, in everyday speech - ethnic group has become a popular way of identifying different segments of American plural society - African Americans, Jewish Americans, Arab Americans, Irish Americans, and so forth. However convenient they may be, the use of such broad terms as ethnicity and ethnic group presents a problem. These words make us forget that within what we might categorize as an ethnic group, there can exist different cultural traditions.

Alaska Natives, for example, can be thought of as a large ethnic group whose traditions and cultural perspectives differ significantly from other American ethnic groups. This is why we emphasize the pluralism of Alaska Native languages, cultures and histories. What we must remember is that within the larger Alaska Native ethnic group there exists different cultural traditions, hence different cultural identities. For example, although identified by outsiders as Indians, the Koyukon Athabaskans and the Gwich’in Athabaskans differ on language, historical experiences and certain cultural traditions. And clearly these interior Athabaskans differ from other Indian groups such as the Tlingit and Haida of Southeast Alaska.

Whether thinking about ethnicity or culture, “distinctive” is the key word to keep in mind. Members of the group have a common ethnic or cultural identity because they share some combination of language, race, religion, history or cultural traditions that distinguishes them from others. The group’s members feel strongly that there is something distinctive about who they are, about their historical experience, and about what they value in life. Equally important, this distinctiveness and the ethnic or cultural identity it expresses is recognized by other groups.

Ethnocentrism and ethnic/cultural identity. Beware, however, that our ethnic or cultural identity can easily become a source of our own ethnocentrism. Unfortunately it is rather easy for any of us to become ethnocentric. On the one hand, it is natural to feel ethnic pride as Iñupiaq or Tlingit or as an Italian-American or as a Chinese-American. It is, after all, the traditions of a person’s cultural group which most probably organized and gave meaning to much of that person’s early life. It is also natural to have feelings of individual self-worth flow from ethnic pride. In fact a group’s ethnic, national, or cultural identity has a dim future if members do not gain emotional strength from this collective birthright. Yet at the same time it is a short, slippery slope from feelings of ethnic pride to feelings of ethnic superiority, perhaps even feelings of a God-given superiority much in the manner of the European invaders of indigenous societies throughout the Americas.

We begin slipping down the ethnocentric slippery slope by convincing ourselves that our own cultural institutions and values are universally correct. It quickly suits our purpose to find the “discovered” people to be deficient in their institutions and values. Certainly it will be much harder to justify our colonization of them, both to ourselves and to others, if we were to find them to be our equals in custom and character. And if we wish to remove and enslave them, it surely suits our purpose to regard them as a subhuman race fit only to haul our burdens and pick our crops.

A short side trip: Colonialism. Colonialism results when a more powerful outside group (the colonizer) establishes dominion over a less powerful indigenous people (the colonized). Colonial rule is maintained by military force or through economic and political control backed by the threat of force. Sometimes the term “imperialism” is used to describe a nation’s colonizing efforts. For example, the expansion of the Japanese Imperial Empire throughout much of East Asia and the Pacific during the 1930s and the early years of WWII.

The purpose of colonization (or imperialism) is to exploit the indigenous people’s land, resources, and labor for the benefit of outside government and commercial interests. Often European imperialism was organized and lead by colonial corporations licensed and supported by the government of the invading nation. In Alaska Native history the prime example of a colonial corporation is the Russian American Company. The Alaska Commercial Company and its impact on Pribilof Island Aleuts is another good Alaskan example of government sponsored corporate colonialism, this time by the United States.

Europeans have not been the only imperialists in world history. The core definition of colonialism - a more powerful outside group invading and exploiting the land, resources, and labor of a less powerful indigenous group - easily applies to the histories of many non-European nations and peoples. Since 1950, for example, the Chinese have exercised an often ruthless colonial rule over the Buddhist nation of Tibet. In 1905 Japan forcefully occupied Korea and declared it a protectorate, a colonial system lasting until the end of WWII in 1945.

Of course the ethnocentrism supporting our conquest emphasizes the most attractive images of ourselves. Through the work of our missionaries and government agents, we steadfastly advance what our cultural values declare is virtuous behavior. But of course the indigenous folks quickly notice that how we often behave in real life does not match what we say is the virtuous life. We are soon caught in the hypocrisy of “do as I say, not as I do.”

Racism goes beyond ethnocentrism. If we are ethnocentric, we can still believe the other group’s cultural deficiencies can be largely overcome by social and educational programs carried out by our missionaries and government agencies. We may believe in their eventual assimilation into our way of life, even to the point of intermarriage. But if we are racists, then we brand an entire group of human beings as genetically inferior - as biologically and intellectually subhuman. We believe these genetic deficiencies can never be overcome by the educational and occupational opportunities we ourselves enjoy or hope to enjoy. So we conclude they are fit only for the most menial tasks which we, the superior race, must assign. Our political and economic control over them must be absolute. We will not tolerate any talk of assimilation. We fear their assimilation, so we demand total social segregation from them.

Figure 2-3
Racial Segregation in Juneau, c. 1908

Racial Segregation in Juneau, c. 1908

Alaska State Library, Winter and Pond Collection, PCA 87-1050

In United States history the most obvious example of racism and its brutal consequences is found in the centuries of American slave trading and slave owning followed by nearly a century of state sponsored racial segregation in Southern and some border states. And let’s not forget that Alaska also had its own period of racial segregation when Natives were by law prevented from participating in economic opportunities such as establishing mining claims. As the photo in Figure 2-3 shows, Alaska Native were also barred from many hotels and restaurants.5

Shall we use “ethnicity” or “culture”? Our answer is that it makes the most sense to stick with culture and cultural identity, especially when working on the Cultural Profile Project. This is because Native people in traditional times had not yet been dragged into the worldwide mix of national and ethnic divisions. They were yet to be labeled as a single ethnic group - as a single group called “Alaska Natives.” This ethnic labeling would come later with the invasions when the Russians and Americans sought to define the legal relationship between themselves and Alaska Native people. What land rights, if any, did Native people possess under the new colonial regime? What measure of sovereignty would Native tribes retain? What responsibility, if any, did the colonizers have for protecting the lands and resources of Native people?

From the point of view of the colonizers, these and other legal questions did not require distinguishing between different Native cultures. The idea of a single indigenous ethnic group called Alaska Natives - all of whom were obviously different from the invaders - easily served colonial purposes.

Studying Native History

What historians value most. Historians place the highest value on what they call primary source material - the written or otherwise recorded observations by a participant or witness to a historical period or event. Societies with literate traditions have passed down from generation to generation a written record of their histories. Without doubt we have gained substantial understanding of Native life in traditional times from the written journals and reports of non-Natives, usually missionaries, exploring military officers, and traders. There is also little doubt that our knowledge of this history has been greatly increased by the published works of scholars who have painstakingly complied and analyzed these early eyewitness accounts of Native life. But the eyes and ears of those early outsiders could not be everywhere. Surely there occurred events and activities they neither saw nor heard about. Nor can we be confident that these culturally different outsiders were always capable of accurately presenting the Native perspective on events and activities they did witness. Often times they convinced themselves that what they saw and heard confirmed their views on the superiority of their own cultural institutions and beliefs.

Alaska Natives and other societies in the world without a literate tradition have also passed down a record of their histories. But it is an oral historical record. Unfortunately these Native oral histories were generally ignored by everybody outside of Native communities where people told and retold their own histories. Until recently, our understanding of Native life in traditional times came almost completely from the written observations of non-Natives. But over the last several decades this one-sided view of Native history has changed. Now we have prominent scholars using Native oral histories as a major research tool. Indeed, paying special attention to Native oral histories is absolutely necessary if we are to come close to having a complete picture of Alaska Native life in traditional times.

Two kinds of oral history. The oral history familiar to most people is when still living participants of a past event or time period orally describe their own experiences. The person writing down or taping these oral narratives then organizes what is said into a written document or audio library. We call this living oral history because the participants or witnesses are still alive to tell their stories. We are not hearing or reading these stories as they have been passed down from one generation to another. This is not secondhand information. The tellers of the oral history are actual living primary sources.

Within Native American literature, a well known living oral history is Black Elk Speaks published in 1932. Carefully using a translator, John G. Neihardt wrote down the words of Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux warrior and medicine man who was a living witness to the end of the great Sioux Nation. After describing his childhood and earlier battles, Black Elk talks of the 1876 Battle of the Greasy Grass, popularly known as the Little Bighorn River, where George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry regiment was soundly defeated by 2000 Teton Sioux (Lakota) and Cheyenne warriors led by such famous chiefs as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The Sioux call it the Greasy Grass because of the slippery texture of the foxtail barley growing along its banks. Black Elk’s oral narrative ends with the senseless and appalling massacre of Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek in the winter of 1890. He also describes the spiritual thinking of his people during those times, including the rise of the Ghost Dance movement.6

In modern times the tape recorder is most often used to document living oral history. Perhaps the modern American writer best known for developing living oral history as an area of significant research is Studs Terkel. His book, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, captures the heartbreaking realities of ordinary people’s lives during a very difficult period in American history. This collection of individual oral accounts offers the kind of up- close-and-personal picture of those “hard times” not likely found in most school books and academic research papers.7

But, alas, our interest here is Native life in traditional times. Since the living oral history approach works only for understanding more recent events, it obviously does not fit our purpose here. Therefore we must rely on another kind of oral history which we call oral historical legacy.

Oral historical legacy. Unlike living oral history which directly records the experiences of still living participants of past times and events, we now want to know about a Native group’s oral historical legacy as passed down through the generations. This means we must shift from thinking about primary historical sources to thinking about what are called secondary sources. Here is how the U. C. Berkeley Library describes a secondary source:

A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes a historical event or phenomenon. It is generally at least one step removed from the event. A recent article that evaluates and analyzes the relationship between the feminist movement and the labor movement in turn-of-the-century England is an example of a secondary source ... Textbooks and encyclopedias are also examples of secondary sources. 8

Right now you are reading a book that relies heavily on secondary source material. There is simply no way around the fact that oral historical accounts of traditional times have passed through too many voices to be considered primary source material. To know a Native group’s oral historical legacy means we must rely on secondary source material. Obviously we will not find living witnesses to, for instance, the Yup’ik warrior Apanuugpak’s exploits during the Bow and Arrow Wars of the 1700s.

The Written Historical Record. Many times all that is available to us is an outsider’s written observations and thoughts on Native life in traditional times. Unfortunately we don’t always have available Native oral historical legacies as found in Ernest “Tiger” Burch Jr.’s research on the Iñupiaq nations of Northwest Alaska.9 Or as found in Adeline Peter-Raboff’s work on interior Athabaskan history.10 Or as found in the work of Nora and Dick Dauenhauer and Lydia Black on the Tlingit - Russian battles of Sitka in 1802 and 1804.11 Indeed, much of the time we have no choice but to rely on the written observations of outsiders unfamiliar with the underlying cultural rules governing Native activities visible to them. In most cases they did not speak the Native language. So whatever they wrote about Native values, attitudes, and motivations should not be accepted automatically as accurate and complete. The prominent Alaska Native leader, Willie Iggiagruk Hensley (Iñupiaq) has expressed his frustration with written observations by outsiders on Native life:

I am an avid collector of anything involving the Inuit or Alaska, and I have scoured countless old book collections. It amazes me: most of the books written about Alaska have been by people aiming to glorify their personal brush with Alaska’s magnetism. Most knew almost nothing about Alaska Natives, even after spending a lifetime among us as teachers, missionaries, or bureaucrats. Many saw only the surface of our lives and never understood our inner world. Some focused on the bizarre or contradictory - on our tattoos, our eating habits, our nose-kissing, our smells, our anatkut (shamans). In most cases they did not comprehend our language.12

There is still another problem with the written record of Native traditional times. We have made the point that all of these outside observers were foreign to Native cultures. Not surprisingly, many of them were clearly ethnocentric, often using such terms as “savages” and “uncivilized” to describe their impressions of Natives and Native life. This raises a very important question: Can we still find value in written primary source material even when it contains what today would be considered insulting ethnocentric language? Let’s look at an example of ethnocentrism in the written historical record. The purpose is to confront offensive language and see if we can still find value in the information this documentation provides on Alaska Native life in traditional times.

From late 1842 through 1844, the Russian naval Lieutenant, L. A. Zagoskin, led an expedition which traveled throughout the Yukon and Kuskokwim river valleys of Alaska. The main purpose of the expedition was to scout the different routes used by interior Natives in their trade with the Chukchi people across the Bering Strait. Although he reported extensively on aspects of Native commerce, Zagoskin’s interests in Native Alaska were much broader. He carefully studied all Native settlements he came upon, describing their demographics, customs, and cultural products. Throughout his travels, Zagoskin kept a detailed journal of his observations and thoughts. This travel journal has provided scholars with a wealth of information on Native life in these regions.13

Among scholars who have used Zagoskin’s writings as a primary source for their own research are Tiger Burch and the Gwich’in Athabaskan historian, Adeline Peter-Raboff. Here is a sample of the kind of ethnocentric statements they found when reading Zagoskin’s journal:

It is a mistake to judge the character of the natives by their first reaction to strangers from another country. their good qualities and their faults cannot possibly be compared to the good and bad qualities of enlightened Christian people. The savage, as the man made in the image and likeness of God, is good; the savage, as a man who has fallen from grace, is evil. But both his virtue and his evil are childlike. (pp. 106-07)

And when reporting on the impact of the 1830s smallpox epidemic on several Norton Sound villages, Zagoskin says:

What became of the people? The Natives say they died of smallpox and this story was confirmed by the old timers at the fort [St. Michaels]. The infection sent to them by Providence was great, but the blessing that resulted was likewise great, as all those who are left are Christian. (p. 100)

When describing Native religion and shamanism, he says:

One cannot demand that a savage attain immediately the highest reverence for the one true God, that at the first utterance of God’s word he drop all of his superstitions, beliefs and customs which are incompatible with the spirit of Christianity. But to love God is within the savage’s power. (p. 121)

And when describing Koyukon Athabaskan warfare, he says:

Their system of fighting also is based on the surprise attack and for this reason bravery or daring in a savage cannot in any way be compared to the true meaning of courage, based on scorn of death in the service of home, fatherland, or Tsar. [Tsar or Czar: the King of all Russia and her possessions.] * (p. 247)

Obviously Zagoskin’s ethnocentrism is revealed by his constant comparison of Native beliefs and actions to his own Christian European value system. And of course he finds Natives deficient and in need of spiritual uplifting by a so-called civilized nation like Czarist Russia.

A major research question. Do we consider Zagoskin’s travel journal a reliable primary source on traditional Native life to be studied carefully? Or do we dismiss his work because we are offended by his ethnocentric views and believe it makes unreliable many of his observations? If we are to follow the lead of Burch, Peter-Raboff and others, then we must set aside the ethnocentric language and focus on those observations which, in our best judgment, seem to meet reasonable standards of reliability. For instance, is there any reason why ethnocentrism would color Zagoskin’s description of, say, hunting techniques or cultural products? But what about his discussion of something directly associated with Native values such as religious ceremonies? What we must do in such a case is carefully distinguish between interpretation and description. His interpretation of ceremonies and rituals, for example, may be tainted by ethnocentrism. But his description of these events - of what people wore and what they did and where they did it - should be accurate.

Does Zagoskin’s journal have value? Absolutely! In many cases it is the only written documentation we have on Native life back in those days and in those places. It can, moreover, provide important external confirmation for whatever Native oral accounts are available to us. The trick is to separate biased interpretations from what is still good information. To, so to speak, separate the eatable herring roe from the sea plants on which it is entangled.

And let’s not forget that even for us supposedly sophisticated modern people who ought to know better, sometimes ethnocentric feelings are hard to shake off. So perhaps we should not feel too superior when reading Zagoskin. The wise person does not say, “Oh, I can never have such ethnocentric biases!” Instead, the wise person says: “Since I have been raised within a specific culture and taught from birth the rightness of its values and traditions, I can easily develop biases and stereotypes of other cultures and societies. Therefore I must be constantly on guard against such careless, often harmful thinking.”

Native oral history: a final word. To repeat, paying special attention to Native oral histories is absolutely necessary if we are to come close to having a complete picture of Alaska Native life in traditional times. It is hoped that you will have a chance to use Native oral histories in your Cultural Profile research, perhaps listening to elders talk about their group’s history as they have come to know it.

History? Prehistory? Ethnohistory?

We say that the Cultural Profile Project is a study in history. Some may argue that what we are really studying is prehistory - “that time during the development of human culture before the appearance of the written word.” The problem is that prehistory often gets confused with prehistoric. And for many, prehistoric calls to mind paleolithic stone-age cultures, even the age of dinosaurs. We, however, are talking about that time immediately before the invasions changed much of Alaska Native life forever. We have, moreover, a substantial written record of that life as witnessed by early non-Native visitors to Native communities. And fortunately there is increasing access to Native oral histories. Others will correctly suggest that, technically speaking, we are doing ethnohistory. The scholarly journal of the American Society for Ethnohistory describes this field of study as including:

A wide range of current scholarship inspired by anthropological and historical approaches to the human condition. Of particular interest are those analyses and interpretations that seek to make evident the experience, organization, and identities of indigenous ... and minority peoples that otherwise elude the histories and anthropologies of nations, states, and colonial empires. The journal publishes work from the disciplines of geography, literature, sociology, and archaeology, as well as anthropology and history. It welcomes theoretical and cross-cultural discussion of ethnohistorical materials and recognizes the wide range of academic disciplines.14

This description of ethnohistory certainly matches much of what we will do here. And of all the academic disciplines using historical materials, ethnohistorians have one of the best track records for taking seriously the oral histories of indigenous people worldwide. Certainly we take Alaska Native oral histories very seriously as well. And as we do here, ethnohistorians clearly recognize the value of ideas and materials from a variety of disciplines. But let’s keep it simple and use “history” throughout.


Review Questions.

What do we mean when we say “culture” has become an elastic concept?

What is our two-part rule for naming indigenous/Native groups?

Why distinguish tradition from traditional times?

Why distinguish ethnicity from culture?

How is racism different from ethnocentrism?

Can you define “colonialism?”

Why have we chosen to stick with culture and cultural identity rather than switch to the currently more popular terms of ethnicity and ethnic identity?

Why do we say that collecting Native oral histories is essential if we are to have the most complete picture of traditional times?

Can you explain the difference between primary source and secondary source historical material?

What is the difference between living oral history and oral historical legacy?

Although the observations of outsiders may contain ethnocentrism, we can still find value in this written documentation by distinguishing between “description” and “interpretation.” What does this mean?

Technically speaking, the Cultural Profile Project is an ethnohistorical project. Explain

* Brackets. From time to time you will find [bracketed] text at the end of a paragraph or in the quoted works of others as, for example, the quick note defining “oligarchy” in the Chesterton quote above. These are short instructional notes clarifying the meaning of a word or concept. Just remember they are instructional notes and not part of the work being quoted.


  1. Nick Jans,, “Living with Oil,” Alaska Magazine, March, 2008, p. 39.

  2. See: Craig Mischler, The Crooked Stovepipe (Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois Press 1993).

  3. Hudson Stuck, The Ascent of Denali (The Mountaineers edition, 1977) pp. vii - xi.

  4. See: Charles C Mann, 1491 ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) pp. 342-343.

  5. For more on racial segregation in Alaska history, go to: the ALASKOOL website at .

  6. John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (Pocket Book Edition, 1975.)

  7. Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. W. W. Norton & Company, November, 2000.

  8. Go to: www.

  9. Ernest Burch Jr., The Iñupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwest Alaska (University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 1998).

  10. Peter-Raboff, Adeline, Inuksuk:Northern Koyukon, Gwich’in, & Lower Tanana, 1800-1901. (Alaska Native Knowledge Network, 2001)

  11. Nora Dauenhauer, Richard Dauenhauer, Lydia Black (eds.) Anooshi Lingit Aani Ka, Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804, (Seattle:University of Washington Press, 2006, p.XLIV).

  12. William L. Iggigruk Hensley, Fifty Miles from Tomorrow (New York: Sara Crichton Books, 2009) p. 8.

  13. L. A. Zagoskin, Travels in Russian America, 1842-1844, edited by Henry N. Michael (Arctic Institute of North America, University of Toronto Press, 1967).

  14. See the Society’s web page at:

Table of Contents | Chapter 3

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Last modified July 6, 2011