This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner Home Page About AKRSI Publications Academic Programs Curriculum Resources Calendar of Events Announcements Site Index This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
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Do not quote or copy without permission from Mike Gaffney or from Ray Barnhardt at the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska-Fairbanks.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 Seven
“Worldview” Deserves Special Attention

Worldview – belief system, ceremonial practices, shamanism, core values, cultural identity, historical legacy

An Alaska Native Worldview

The past illuminates the present. We have said that worldview is the heart of our concept of culture and therefore deserves special attention. Now it is time for you to give it that special attention by exploring how your selected Native group or groups made sense of their spiritual, natural, and social worlds, and the rules for conducting themselves in these worlds. This exploration should tell us much about their cultural identity and how it was shaped by core beliefs and valued traditions.

But first recall that one purpose of the Cultural Profile Project is to show how the study of traditional times can help us better understand modern Alaska Native life and civic affairs. We highlighted the connection between the distant past and the present when we discussed the historical research required when a tribe applies for federal recognition. And again when we discussed how Native aboriginal title served as the legal basis for Tlingit and Haida land claims and for ANCSA. Yet it may surprise you to know that understanding the spirituality of traditional Alaska Native worldviews can also have practical application in modern times. To illustrate this connection, we go to the Alaska Supreme Court case of Carlos Frank v. State of Alaska and the story it tells.1

In 1979, Carlos Frank and several other Athabaskan Indians from Minto were arrested for taking a moose out of season for the purpose of providing ritually required moose meat at a funeral potlatch. Mr. Frank and his legal counsel argued that the funeral potlatch is a religious event dating from traditional times and the consumption of moose meat has always been an essential ritual of this spiritual activity. They said that to apply this “game regulation to him, under the circumstances, amounted to an abridgement of his freedom of religion,” hence a violation of his constitutional rights under the First Amendment. Before appeal to the Alaska State Supreme Court, the case was heard in district court.

Alaska’s Attorney General countered Frank’s defense with three arguments. First, while the consumption of moose meat at a funeral potlatch is highly desirable, it is not an absolute necessity. Secondly, The State of Alaska has a “compelling state interest” in applying the rules of fish and game management equally to all Alaska residents. And thirdly, the regulation of fish and game is closely watched by many Alaskans passionately involved in hunting and fishing activities. It is, the Attorney General said, predictable that any exception made for one class of people is sure to set off a firestorm of anger, protest, and possible “lawlessness.” Therefore this potentially explosive situation only heightens the state’s compelling interest to deny any exception to the rule, no matter the circumstance.

Using as precedent two decisions by the United States Supreme Court on questions of religious freedom, the district court applied a three part test.2 First, was the funeral potlatch an integral part of a “distinct belief system?” That is, was it an authentic religion? Secondly, was the conduct of the hunters clearly tied to fulfilling a fundamental tenet of that religion? And thirdly, was Carlos Frank a sincere believer in the religion? The lower courts agreed that the funeral potlatch and its spiritual context clearly satisfied the first two parts of the test. As for the third part, they easily found Mr. Frank to be a sincere believer.

So an interesting question becomes: What evidence convinced the district court that this spiritual element of a traditional Athabaskan worldview constituted a religion as commonly defined in modern times? Answer: The court was convinced by the considerable testimony they heard from respected Athabaskan elders, including Chief Peter John of Minto, and from distinguished scholars who had studied available historical documentation. The courts also found that the oral history they heard was well supported by the written historical record. Even so, the district court agreed with the state that “moose meat was not such an absolute to override the compelling state interest of the State of Alaska in the management and control of its game for the benefit of all its people, Native and white.” Therefore Mr. Frank’s freedom to practice a religion was not abridged, and the state has the right to impose the appropriate penalty for his violation of fish and game laws.

On appeal, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the district court’s ruling. The Court held that “absolute necessity” is too strict a standard when judging a freedom of religion case. The fact that moose meat consumption at a funeral potlatch was a deep and abiding spiritual tradition was cause enough to allow an exception to the game regulation. Moreover, the state’s interest in maintaining healthy moose populations is not compromised by such rare, religiously based exceptions. As for the state’s prediction of civil disobedience and possible lawlessness if an exception is allowed, the Court found no evidence supporting this assertion. The Court went so far as to say that such a suggestion insulted the people of Alaska. After years of appeal, Carlos Frank’s conviction was finally dismissed, and the angry protests predicted by the state never occurred.

The past illuminates the present in the Carlos Frank case by showing that knowledge of the past – of a traditional Native worldview – can help explain aspects of Native beliefs and behavior in modern times. Mr. Frank would have been convicted if the Alaska courts had felt the oral and written testimony they received on Athabaskan traditional spirituality lacked historical credibility. Perhaps an event more to the point occurred in 2009 when the taking of moose for memorial potlatches again became a public policy issue. This time the question was not whether moose could be taken out of season for a memorial potlatch, but where the taking could take place. The Department of Public Safety interpreted state game regulations to say that even the taking of moose for religious purposes had to be done in state designated subsistence hunting areas away from urban centers. Citing the Carlos Frank decision of 1979, the Alaska Board of Game ruled otherwise. The Board determined that such a restriction would still be an abridgement of religious freedom. But at the same time it is reasonable to require potlatch hunters in non-subsistence areas to first obtain authorization from the nearest Fish and Game office.

An “intricate subsistence-based worldview.” Dr. Oscar Kawagley’s book, A Yupiaq Worldview, continues to assist our work on this important subject by describing what he sees as the Yup’ik worldview and how it conflicts with the Western, Euro-American worldview. He suggests that the fundamental elements of the Yup’ik worldview have much in common with all other Alaska Native worldviews. He further suggests that when compared to the Western worldview, what differences may exist melt away. Therefore we want to pay close attention because he is telling us what to look for in our own cultural profile research.

Dr. Kawagley actually gives us an instructional guide for conducting our research. First and foremost, he emphasizes an intricate subsistence-based worldview as the overarching concept. What he means is that the elements of the traditional Native worldview flow from a subsistence way of life as opposed to an urban-industrial way of life or a rural agricultural way of life or any other way of life. He points out, for example, that a major element of the traditional Native worldview was proper respect and behavior toward the natural world, particularly toward the body and spirit of animals. Since Native life was totally dependent on fish and game, it should not surprise us that over time certain animals took on mythical qualities and spiritual meanings for the people directly dependent on them. These animals were, after all, the ultimate givers of human life.

In the following passage from his book you will find other important elements of the Native worldview emphasized in italics. You only have to make a list of these elements to know what to look for when researching the worldview of your Native group. These elements are myths (for example, the role of Raven in creation stories), rituals, ceremonies, role of elders, and everyday core values such as responsibility, awareness, harmony, and reciprocity. Here is that passage:

Alaska Native peoples have traditionally tried to live in harmony with the world around them. This has required the construction of an intricate subsistence-based worldview, a complex way of life with specific cultural mandates regarding the ways in which the human being is to relate to other human relatives and the natural and spiritual worlds.

Citing the works of several scholars, He continues:

This worldview, as demonstrated historically by the Native peoples of Alaska, contained a highly developed social consciousness and sense of responsibility. As indicated by the writings of outside researchers and observers, Native peoples’ myths, rituals, and ceremonies were consistent with their relationship to one another and to their environment...

Wisdom, insight, knowledge and power were considered the prerogative of the elders, who were honored and respected in recognition of their achievements. Attitude was thought to be as important as action; therefore one was to be careful in thought and action so as not to injure another’s mind or offend the spirits of the animals and surrounding environment. For one to have a powerful mind was to be “aware of or awake to its surroundings.”

To help practitioners along this reciprocal path, Native peoples developed many rituals and ceremonies with respect to motherhood and child rearing, care of animals, hunting and trapping practices, and related ceremonies for maintaining balance between the human, natural, and spiritual realms. This intricate sense of harmony with all things has been identified by most observers as central to understanding Alaska Native worldviews ...

Fienup-Riordan has called the Alaska Native and other indigenous peoples the “original ecologists.” One reason for this is that their worldviews are dependent upon reciprocity — do unto others as you would have them do unto you. All of life is considered recyclable and therefore requires certain ways of caring in order to maintain the cycle. Native people cannot put themselves above other living things because they were all created by the Raven, and all are considered an essential component of the universe. [Emphases ours] 3

Professor Kawagley then gives us an I˝upiaq example of how significant elements of a worldview are passed on to future generations. Within the following short story by Mary Muktoyuk are many of the points emphasized in the above passages. He says that “out of this ecologically based emphasis on reciprocity, harmony, and balance have evolved some common values and principles that are embedded in the worldviews of Alaska Native people.” From Mary Muktoyuk’s I˝upiaq Rules for Living, here is the story:4

Back then, my parents would give us lessons on correct behavior, back when I was first becoming aware. My parents spoke with great wisdom of things that we did not know about. Also, when we were small, from time to time someone would kill a polar bear. The people were very happy when a hunter killed a polar bear, for polar bears were considered extremely dangerous then. Then after they had slept a certain number of nights, they would give thanks for it by dancing. They would give thanks for the polar bear.

Then they would give some pieces of skin for sewing to those who were growing old, and they gave them food, too, because they were thankful for that polar bear and were celebrating it. They tried to make those who were growing old happy, too. These days, people are no longer like that, because we are no longer in our land, and because those wise people of long ago have died, all of them. They would give freely of food or skins for sewing. In those days, they gave and gave freely. They lived a good life then. These days, they no longer live in a good way, for they are no longer as they used to be.

The elders, in those days, we held in great respect. Whatever they told us, we would listen very carefully, trying not to make mistakes when we listened, because we respected them so highly, because they knew much more than we did while we were still growing up. In these times, though, people seem to have stopped doing things in the old way. It is known that they no longer do things as they used to. (9-10).

Dr. Kawagley employs an interesting device for summarizing the Native worldview. He calls this device a tetrahedral metaphor based on the geometric concept of a polygon. A polygon has three or more sides connected in such a way that no two lines cross. The simplest polygon is the triangle. A tetrahedron is a polygon with four line segments or “faces.” The Egyptian and Mayan pyramids are good examples of a polygon structure. Below is his tetrahedral structure of the Native worldview and his explanation of what it illustrates.

Oscar Kawagley’s Tetrahedral Metaphor.
Figure 7-1
Tetrahedral Metaphor

To help illustrate the interrelationship among human nature, nature, and super nature (or spirituality) in the Yupiaq worldview, I will utilize a tetrahedral metaphor... If we use the three corners of the base to represent the human being [including human social organizations], nature, and spirituality respectively as elements in a common circle of life, we can see the apex as representing the worldview that overarches and unites the base elements of our existence. The lines connecting these “poles” can be seen as the life forces that flow all ways between and among the human, spiritual and natural worlds and are united through the worldview. The three base poles all provide essential supports to the Yupiaq worldview...The Yupiaq would agree with Chief Seattle (1790—1866), who stated that “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself” (Kawagley, pp. 15-17).

Ceremonies. We can get a good idea of a people’s worldview by examining their rituals and ceremonies. A “ceremonial cycle” provides a cultural window through which to glimpse less visible core cultural values of the group. Take what might be called the yearly ceremonial cycle of Americans. An African anthropologist from, say, the Nation of Botswana in Southern Africa can get some idea of American values and traditions by asking about the meaning of our holidays and how they are actually celebrated. Among others, there is Presidents Day, Independence Day (fourth of July), Columbus Day, Veteran’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For an Alaska Native example, we go to the work of the anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan. She has described five major feasts and festivals making up the traditional winter ceremonial cycle of the Central Yup’ik. There is the Bladder Festival, the Feast of the Dead, the Gift Festival, the Messenger Feast, and the Masquerade Festival. As with American holidays, the question becomes: What aspects of Yup’ik culture is being celebrated by these holiday feasts? So be sure to look for similar ceremonial activities of your selected group.5

Shamanism: A Comparison

Alaska and Siberia. A cultural profile of a Native group’s traditional worldview is not complete without a description of their spiritual leadership. Here we are talking about what is usually called shamanism, although there are some Athabaskans who prefer the designation, medicine man or medicine woman. The term shaman apparently comes from the language of a Siberian Native group, the Evenk, and means “ones who knows.” Rather than start with an example of traditional shaman duties and practices from Native Alaska, let’s look at a brief description of shamanism as generally practiced among the twenty-two indigenous Native cultures of Siberia.

Figure 7-2 Evenk Shaman of Siberia6
Evenk Shaman

But, you may ask, why go abroad when our specific interest is Alaska Natives? We broaden our knowledge and sharpen our ideas when we seek comparative referents from other places and other times. You may indeed find that shamanism in Native Alaska has interesting similarities to that practiced in Native Siberia. In her book, The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia, Anna Reid offers this description:

The Native Siberians believed that everything around them was animate, possessed of personality and living force...When the mountains threw rocks in the air they were fighting...The sun was a man in glittering clothes who drove a team of copper- antlered deer, and the Milky Way [the galaxy of which the sun and our solar system are a part] as a river choked with boulders. The south-west and south-east winds were an estranged couple who shouted abuse at each other as they passed; thunder was the noise of heavenly infants playing on a seal-skin...

The Native Siberians’ mediators with this vital, teeming world were their shamans...(who)... performed the usual sacred offices, presiding over thanksgiving and propitiation ceremonies, healing the sick and divining the future. [propitiation: to win favor from others.] Their most characteristic function was the soul-journey, undertaken while in a trance achieved by dancing, fasting or ingesting hallucinogenic [mind-altering] plants. In the course of such a journey a shaman might turn himself into a wolf or gull, fight the spirits of famine or bad weather, retrieve a sick man’s soul, summon migrating walrus, or compete with the shaman of an enemy tribe.7

Anna Reid certainly gives us a colorful description of the Native Siberian worldview and of one shaman ceremony called the “soul-journey.” Yet it may be only a partial description. Whether in Alaska or Siberia, the main function of the shaman was to act as spiritual go-between or mediator for his or her group in their relations with the spirit world. In many cases, however, Alaska Native shamans had other important duties. In addition to their spiritual duties, they were often the chief practitioners of medicine. We turn again to Dr. Rosita Worl who has researched traditional Tlingit shamanism. She reports that Shamans always accompanied their clan and war leaders into battle, acting as their intelligence officers. No Tlingit clan would dare be without the everyday services of a shaman.8 It is not overstating the case to say that shamans were single- person multifunctional institutions.

Figure 7-3
Tlingit Shaman from the Wrangell Area, c. 1899
Tlingit Shaman


Historical Alaska Native and Western Worldviews.

To further explore Dr. Kawagley’s elements of the Native worldview, lets compare it to the historical Western worldview by asking several questions. If you were to select a tetrahedral metaphor like Kawagley’s to illustrate the historical Western worldview, what would it look like? Perhaps a better question is: Would it work at all? Can it be argued, for example, that the “Natural Realm” (the natural environment) will not fit into any diagram attempting to represent the historical Western worldview because it has not held nearly the same spiritual meaning as found in subsistence-based Native societies? Please note that we say “historical Western worldview,” not simply Western worldview. We do so because over the past several decades, many Euro-Americans and others have become much more aware and protective of the natural environment and its creatures. We see this in the growing political power of environmental and animal rights groups. Historically speaking, however, Western man did not seek protection of the natural world. In fact, quite the opposite is true as we will see shortly when we discuss the doctrine of higher uses.

Alaska Natives and the natural world. The point has been made several times that the quality of life in traditional Native subsistence-based societies was almost totally dependent on a people’s relationship to wildlife and their habitat. Therefore we should not be surprised that the natural realm took on sacred meanings for Native people who infused it with ceremony and ritual. Why is the Raven the central figure in many traditional Native beliefs about creation? Why do I˝upiaq whaling families traditionally give a drink of fresh water to the head of a just butchered whale and other marine mammals and push it back into the sea?9 Shortly after killing a black bear, why do Koyukon Athabaskan men hold what has been described as a potlatch-like feast honoring the bear?10 Why are all Tlingit clans totemic, with their clan crests showing a specific animal as emblematic of the clan’s mythical origins?

Totemism refers to the set of symbols and rituals used by a kinship group to express their mythical relationship to a natural object such as an animal or plant. This mythology is usually found in the kin group’s creation stories. A totemic society is organized into a fixed number of clans, each of which is represented by a totemic figure. For the Tlingit, such totemic figures were, among others, the killer whale. the beaver, and the salmon.

When we think of totemism, we usually have in mind the tall, ornately carved Native poles of Southeast Alaska which depict the totemic figures of a clan or clan house along with other symbolic representations of their historical legacy. However, according to the late Tlingit writer, Andrew Hope III, “one often hears it said by the older people that originally totem poles were used inside of houses only, to support the huge roof beams.”11 Among totemic societies in other parts of the world you don’t always find striking monuments like totem poles depicting a clan’s history and mythology. A good example is the clan systems of Australian Aboriginal societies where their totemism is portrayed by other forms of artistic expression.

Doctrine of Higher Uses. The traditional Native view of the natural realm as sacred is quite at odds with the historical Western worldview where, until recently, the basic theme has been the belief that the natural environment exists to be exploited and changed for human material advantage. Most often Western man has viewed the natural environment as an obstacle to overcome, not as sacred realm to be carefully used and maintained. Declarations of a divine inspiration to “tame the wilderness” occurred repeatedly during the European colonization of the Americas. Many times this belief provided justification for removing Native tribes from their lands in order to advance the Western concepts of progress and Christian civilization. Some scholars have fittingly called this attitude the doctrine of higher uses. 12 Rather than be left to the primitive pursuits of subsistence hunting and gathering, the land and its resources must be put to the “higher uses” of farming, ranching, industry, and commerce. Anything less was often considered sinful idleness.

The doctrine of higher uses was well expressed in the ideology of Manifest Destiny. By the 1840s Americans had come to believe it was manifestly evident, even divinely justified, that the United States was destined to expand across the continent to the Pacific, bringing its grand experiment in democratic capitalism to the uncivilized Native tribes. Americans – particularly new European immigrants to America – were looking for fertile lands west of the Mississippi to settle and cultivate. And American merchants and manufacturers were searching for new raw materials and markets. One of the best known Native American writers is N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Indian from Oklahoma. He makes this point:

The Indian considers the land to be possessed of spirit, and his identity is bound up in it. ‘Manifest destiny’ implies that the land can and must be appropriated for the sake of expansion, empire building, profit. It is an enterprise without spirit, and not only Indians have suffered from its unchecked pursuit.13


Historical Legacy and Worldview

Historical legacy: reality and myth. Dr. Kawagley suggests that “myths” and “legends” are a large part of any people’s worldview. We would add historical legacy as also embedded in the collective memory of every human group. It is that part of the group’s past – most often a heroic past – which is told and retold down through the ages to the point where it can easily become the stuff of mythology and legend. For every human group, whether traditional or modern, the retelling of their historical legacy always has purposes beyond mere presentation of facts. There are always cultural values to be considered and lessons to be learned. Reflecting on popular tellings of his culture’s history, the Irish writer, Sean O'Faolain, reminds us that: “History is ... an ever-developing process, and all its events not so much events as thoughts hammered into mortal heads.”14

O'Faolain’s observation that over time the triumph and tragedy of significant historical events and heroic figures are retold in ways that remind adults and convey to youngsters the essential aspects of their society’s core values and cultural identity. It is “hammered into mortal heads” by story telling, the construction of monuments, and through ritual and ceremony. In recent times, for example, there has been much public storytelling of the American experience in World War Two. It is being hammered into our mortal heads.

World War Two – the Great American Historical Legacy. Starting sometime in the late 1990s, World War Two storytelling seemed to surge with the publication of, among others, the bestselling books by the historian, Stephen Ambrose. Especially popular were his D-Day, June 6, 1944 and Band of Brothers. The D-Day book inspired the box office hit and academy award winning movie, Saving Private Ryan. The Band of Brothers book led to one of the most widely watched television events in recent times — the ten part mini-series of the same title on HBO. And published in 1998 was one of the all time bestselling books, The Greatest Generation, by former NBC News anchor, Tom Brokaw. Using the living oral history method, he interviews fifty Americans from different walks of life who lived, worked, and fought during World War Two. He suggests that they should be considered the greatest generation because they changed the course of American history with their courage, perseverance, and sacrifice during the war. He also feels that they provided exceptional leadership in countless ways after the war. Then in 2007 there was the seven part PBS documentary by Ken Burns entitled “The War” which, of course, is WWII. Most recently in 2010, the producers of Band of Brothers had another WWII mini series on HBO entitled The Pacific.

As for monuments, all of this well crafted and immensely popular storytelling led to the remarkably swift construction of the World War Two Memorial in the heart of the Nation’s capitol. It was opened to the public in April, 2004, only six years after Saving Private Ryan hit the movie houses and the Greatest Generation hit the bookstores. The Memorial was funded almost entirely by private contributions totaling $195 million, a fact that certainly attests to the emotional impact the retelling of this historical legacy has had on the American imagination. Not surprisingly, the World War Two Memorial is flanked by two other significant America historical shrines, the Washington Monument to the east and the Lincoln Memorial to the west. The very manner in which visitors conduct themselves at America’s war memorials in Washington D. C. tells us we are on hallowed national ground. It makes no difference if it’s the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, or the World War Two Memorial. People move slowly and quietly and speak in hushed tones as if they were in church. If America has a central spiritual place — a great outdoor national cathedral dedicated to what is found sacred and glorious in the American spirit —it is these war memorials combined with the nearby Presidential memorials, all of which are within walking distance of each other.

Along with the telling and retelling of stories and the construction of monuments, there is constant ritual and ceremony to remind us of how the historical legacy represented by war and presidential memorials reflects the best of American values and traditions. At major sporting events there is the singing of the national anthem or an equivalent such as “America the beautiful.” Often there is the presence of a military honor guard and the unfurling of the American flag. The pledge of allegiance is recited by children and teachers at the start of the day in many of the nation’s schools. And it should not surprise us that both Republicans and Democrats at their national conventions spend less time on specific issues affecting people’s everyday lives and more time on how they are better than the other party at representing the best of the America historical legacy. The overriding convention message is that our political party’s version of American history and what made this country great is better than the other party’s version. Therefore our political party has proven best at advancing the ideals of freedom and democracy and maintaining America’s leadership in the world.

Why World War Two? Why does the historical legacy of World War Two occupy such a venerated place in the American worldview? Because for years to come it will provide the perfect opportunity to reinforce our most cherished national self images. It was the right war fought at the right time in the right place. Unlike other American wars, the morality of it — the righteousness of its cause — was clear. A militaristic Japanese imperial government with its “sneak attack” at Pearl Harbor and the monstrous purposes and actions of Nazi Germany make them the perfect enemy. You cannot say enough bad things about them and, therefore, think enough good things about us. It is, moreover, the retelling of a horrible history without horrible consequences, at least from the American perspective. World War Two itself was surely brutal on every front, with the Americans sustaining considerable loss of life and limb. But when looking back, it is the triumph over just such brutal conditions which makes for an even more uplifting historical legacy to be played over and over again down through the ages. It has become a treasured legacy which blends fiction with fact to deepen its emotional appeal and highlight cultural lessons to be learned.

Because we are all familiar with it, World War Two is chosen here as an example of a historical legacy giving rise to a mythology which, in turn, becomes part of a culture’s worldview. That is, World War Two has transcendent cultural meaning. By “transcendent” we mean the purpose for telling the history goes well beyond facts. Like the film Saving Private Ryan, it is not always claimed that every part of the story is true. Instead, it is told and retold because of what it says about American traditions, values, and cultural identity. It is a historical fact that there was no Private Ryan to be saved. But that’s not what is important about the film. What is important are its searing images of extreme sacrifice and courage for what are considered all the right reasons. The historical event’s people and actions become larger than life and rise to the level of mythology, usually to the level of heroic mythology.

When World War Two is bundled together with other historical legacies such as the Founding Fathers and their struggle for independence and a constitutional democracy, we glimpse the dominant American worldview and cultural identity. An example of an Alaska Native world view shaped by historical legacy is the heroic exploits of Yup’ik warrior Apanuugpak during the 18th century Bow and Arrow Wars.15 Still another example is the Kiks.a?Ldi clan’s survival march during the 1804 Tlingit – Russian war.16 So when working on your cultural profile assignment, always keep in mind this idea:

All societies and cultures down through time and around the world have historical legacies as significant parts of their worldview and cultural identity.


Ideal Culture and Social Reality

A social contradiction without end. Another important reason for giving worldview special attention is because it highlights the idea that all human societies operate on two levels. There is the level of ideal culture where oral and written traditions, including historical legacies, reflect what the group says are its most precious values. But there is also the level of social reality where many times the everyday actions of people and institutions contradict the very values declared to be most precious.

We know that many of the statements on human equality and liberty in the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’s Preamble and Bill of Rights have been violated by real American history. Since the founding of the American nation, almost ninety years of slavery and another eighty years of legally sanctioned racial segregation in mainly southern states are obvious examples of such contradictions. ( 246 years of slavery if we count from the time the first slaves were delivered to the Jamestown colony in 1619.) And of course there is the shameful history of federal Indian policies and their often devastating consequences for Native American tribes. It should not surprise us when many Native Americans become irritated at the popular retellings of certain American historical legacies. The “discovery” sagas of Christopher Columbus and the inflated one-sided storytelling of “Custer’s Last Stand” come quickly to mind. In 2009 Congress finally admitted to this tarnished history by passing a joint resolution formally apologizing to Native American tribes for a history of “official depredations, ill-conceived policies and the breaking of covenants.” 17

In all societies there always exists some gap or contradiction between the ideal and the real simply because we are all imperfect humans operating imperfect human institutions. Fortunately this social fact has not kept courageous people from challenging injustices by asking questions such as: Is the gap closing between our ideals and how we actually conduct our real life? Or is it getting wider? Do we have the legal means and the political will to close the gap? But as the prominent American statesman and two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson once said, “It is often easier to fight for principles than to live up to them.” Nevertheless, a strong ideal culture can have the power to sustain people’s hope and aspirations, even in the face of the most oppressive social realities.

Foundations of federal Indian Law: an ideal legal culture? In the United States there is an ideal legal culture defining the rights of Native American tribes, including Alaska Natives. This jurisprudence is found in the foundational principles of federal Indian law largely established by three early Supreme Court decisions.18 Together, they are known as the “Marshall Trilogy” because Chief Justice John Marshall wrote all three court opinions. Even today these principles still furnish the essential standards for adjudicating major controversies over Native rights. (From an Alaska perspective, federal Indian law could just as easily be called federal Native law since Eskimos and Aleuts are equally subject to its rules.) Here are the principles in brief:

  • Tribes have a right of use and occupancy to their lands until clearly extinguished by the federal government through a negotiated settlement. As we have seen, this land-use right is called “aboriginal title.
  • Congress has plenary (complete) power over Indian affairs. But this power carries with it the clear obligation to protect tribal rights and resources from all others. For example, Alaska or any other state only has power over Native affairs when that power is clearly delegated to it by Congress.
  • By the very fact of being original occupiers of the land, tribes possess an inherent sovereignty. Therefore the federal government cannot grant sovereignty to tribes because tribes already possessed it before the United States existed. Exercising its plenary power, Congress can, however, extinguish the sovereign powers of tribes in all or in part. Indeed, much of the history of federal Indian law and policy is marked by a continual diminishment of tribal lands and self-governing powers by Congress and the courts. This is what the Native American rights lawyer Walter Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) calls the “dark side of federal Indian law.” 19
  • And, finally, federally recognized tribes have a special relationship of one sovereign to another with the United States government. Of course the federal government is the ultimate sovereign, but certain sovereign rights and immunities are retained by tribes. Note that within the American Republic, there are only three political entities having the power to exercise sovereign authority – the federal government, the fifty states of the Union, and Native American tribes.

So whenever Native American tribes argue for their rights in court or in Congress, the driving idea behind their argument is: “These are your own American laws. All we ask is that you abide by them”! By invoking one or more of these foundational principles, tribes seek to expose what they view as the gap between an American legal ideal and whatever perceived challenge to Native rights they confront at the moment. Of course tribes do not always prevail. If, however, there was no ideal legal culture to call upon, tribal arguments would have little chance of being heard let alone a chance of success. To understand the significance of these federal Indian law principles as ideal legal culture, we now look at the contrasting case of Aboriginal tribes in Australia.

Australian Aborigines: a contrasting Native rights situation. In sharp contrast to the ideal culture of American Indian law is the uncertain legal status of Aborigines, the indigenous people of Australia. Unlike the United States, there is no historically developed legal doctrine defining Aboriginal land rights and tribal sovereignty in Australia. Even today, Australian Aborigines cannot say, “These are your own Australian laws. All we ask is that you abide by them”!

Geographically, Australia is the sixth largest nation in the world. It has, however, a relatively small population of 20 million. The Australian federation consists of six States and two federal Territories. The Aboriginal population is estimated to be about 500,000, or about 2.5% of the total population. Before the arrival of Europeans, Aboriginal tribes occupied most areas of the Australian continent. Scientific studies indicate that they had inhabited Australia for at least 20,000 years before European contact. In 1770, Captain James Cook landed on the east coast of Australia and claimed the continent for the British Crown. By 1790 the non-Aboriginal immigrant population rose to about 160,000. Then in the 1850s, the growth of the wool industry and gold rushes led to a new wave of immigration to the Australian colony.20

Like the white settlers who invaded Indian country in the American West, the early colonists in Australia desired large tracts of land for farming, livestock raising, and mineral development. But unlike American settlers who were often confronted by large, powerful Indian tribes, the Australian colonists encountered far less threatening small, nomadic hunter-gatherer groups scattered throughout the continent. They quickly sought to bar any possible Aboriginal land claims by declaring Australia to be terra nullius, which means “empty land” in Latin. According to European-made international law of the time, a nation could claim a right of discovery to empty wilderness lands not already claimed by another nation. By the end of the 18th century, however, the terra nullius doctrine was expanded to include lands occupied by “uncivilized tribes” described by European colonizers as lacking any real legal system, hence any land tenure rules to be respected.

Figure 7-4
Australian Aborigine, Djakapurra Munyarryun, plays the didgeridoo in the "Sea of Hands" display in Sydney in 1998. The display was in support of native title and reconciliation of Australian aboriginals. (Source:AP)

For two hundred years terra nullius survived as Australian legal doctrine automatically extinguishing whatever Aboriginal rights to land and sovereignty might be claimed. Then in 1992 the Australian High Court agreed to hear an Aboriginal challenge to terra nullius. The Court ruled in Mabo v. Queensland that indeed terra nullius had been wrongly applied from the very beginning. As the High Court’s Chief Justice Gerrard Brennan put it, "The fiction by which the rights and interests of indigenous inhabitants in land were treated as non-existent [and] justified by a policy [of terra nullius] ... has no place in the contemporary law of this country."21

But did striking down terra nullius as legal doctrine mean Australian Aborigines now have recognized rights to land and sovereignty approaching that of American tribes? Unfortunately it did not. While the High Court’s decision in Mabo held that the declaration of terra nullius did not extinguish Native title, it also said that other actions by the British Crown over the years may have the power of extinguishment. The Court held that as ultimate sovereign of Australia, any grants of land made by the Crown to non-Aboriginal private or public interests are likely to be valid acts extinguishing any Aboriginal claims to the same land. In a word, much of what the High Court gave with one hand, it seemed to take away with the other hand.

Ideal legal culture – a final comment. Western democracies such as the United States and Australia claim to cherish the Rule of Law, which usually means a well defined jurisprudence fairly and equally applied to all. It is the law and not the prejudices and self interests of men that should prevail. But obviously there first has to be a body of law to cherish, to abide by. In the United States we have the foundational principles of federal Indian law. In Australia there is no such body of law – there is no ideal legal culture to call upon.

When they reflect the best standards and traditions of a society’s ideals, there is simply no substitute for the protections offered by established legal doctrine. Previously the late Standing Rock Sioux scholar Vine Deloria Jr. introduced us to the Ex Parte Crow Dog case and elements of the Sioux system of justice. Most likely the general public knows him best as a harsh critic of United States Indian policy and law. His first book, Custer Died for Your Sins, disturbed many people. It was, nevertheless, a nationwide best seller in the 1970s. Yet even Deloria concedes that “in spite of the history of exploitation and conquest represented by American settlement of North America, American Indians have actually been treated considerably better than any other aboriginal group on any other continent.”22 Interestingly, when ruling on important Native rights issues in their own countries, both Australian and Canadian courts have directly referred to those early United States Supreme Court decisions establishing the fundamentals of federal Indian law.

Review Questions

According to Oscar Kawagley, what are the major elements of the traditional Alaska Native worldview?

How does the traditional Alaska Native worldview differ from the historical Western worldview?

Although performed by just one person, why do we consider shamanism to be a multi-functional institution?

Why do we include historical legacy as an essential part of any culture’s worldview?

How does the historical legacy of World War Two transcend fact and take on a larger, almost mythological meaning within the American worldview?

Why is it important to understand that all societies have both an ideal culture and an often contradictory social reality?

Aborigines make up 2.5% of the Australian population. Native Americans make up only 1% of the United States population. Yet Native Americans have far more self determination than Aborigines. Why?




  1. Carlos Frank v. State of Alaska, Supreme Court of Alaska (1979.AK.224).

  2. Sherbert v. Verner (374 U.S. 398) 1963, and Wisconsin v. Yoder (406 U.S. 205) 1972.

  3. Oscar Kawagley, A Yupiaq Worldview (Illinois: Waveland Press, 1995) pp. 8 - 9.

  4. Mary Muktoyuk, I˝upiaq Rules for Living. Anchorage: AMU Press. Found in Kawagley, pp. 9-10.

  5. Ann Fienup-Riordan, “Eye of the Dance: Spiritual Life of the Bering Sea Eskimo”’ in W. Fitzhugh & A Crowell (eds.), Crossroads of Continents, pp. 267-269.

  6. Shaman Khorolkan of the Kambaghir tribe of the Evenk, first quarter of the 19th century. See: Solovyova, Karina, “Shamanism among the peoples of western and Eastern Siberia” Russian Museum of Ethnography at

  7. Anna Reid, The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia, Walker Publishing Co. 2003, pp. 4-5

  8. Rosita Worl, “The I`xt’: Tlingit Shamanism,” Celebration 2000, Sealaska Heritage Foundation, 2000, pp. 155-172.

  9. Steve Landon, The Native People of Alaska (Anchorage: Greatland Graphics, 2002) p. 77.

  10. Richard K Nelson, Make Prayers to the Raven, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983) p. 20.

  11. Andrew Hope III, “Southeast Region: Reading Poles” in Sharing Our Pathways, A newsletter of the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative. Volume 3, Issue 5, 1998.

  12. See: Robert Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the present ( New York: Vintage Books – Random House, 1979).

  13. E-mail message to the editors of the New York Times Book Review, October 29, 2006, p.6.

  14. John Water, Jiving at the Crossroads (Dublin: Blackstaff Press, 1991) Flyleaf.

  15. Ann Fienup-Riordan, “Robert Redford, Apanuugpak, and the Invention of Tradition” , Études Inuit, 11, 1987.

  16. Herb Hope, “The kiks.a?Ldi Survival March of 1804” in Andrew Hope III and Thomas F. Thornton, Will the Time Ever Come: A Tlingit Source Book (Fairbanks: Alaska Native Knowledge Network, 2000). Online at

  17. Senate Joint Resolution 14, signed into law by President Barack Obama, December, 2009.

  18. Johnson v. McIntosh, 22 U. S. ( 8 Wheat.) 543, 1823; Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U. S. ( 5 Pet.) 1, 1831; Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U. S. ( 6 Pet.) 515, 1832.

  19. Walter Echo-Hawk, In the Courts of the Conqueror: the 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2010).

  20. Go to: About Australia. Com

  21. Mabo v. Queensland (No 2) , 1992, HCA, 23.

  22. Deloria Jr., Vine & Lytle, Clifford, The Nations Within, University of Texas Press, 1998, p. 2.

Table of Contents | Chapter 8

Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
Questions or comments?
Last modified July 6, 2011