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 Natives 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Do not quote or copy without permission from Mike Gaffney or from Ray Barnhardt at the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Click on Table of Contents to read/browse Alaska Native Life in Traditional Times: A Cultural Profile Project

Mike Gaffney

Table of Contents

Alaska Natives in Traditional Times
A Cultural Profile Project

Notes for Teachers

In preparing Alaska Natives in Traditional Times: A Cultural Profile Project I realize some of you will not be familiar with all of the topics covered here. You believe your students should know this material, but you may not feel fully prepared to teach it. This brings back memories. I helped design and organize the Alaska Native Studies degree program at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks some years ago. I was also one of the program’s first instructors. I therefore know exactly how you feel. I would have given the proverbial arm and a leg for some concrete direction for several of the texts I used. Therefore I’ve done three things to provide you with just such direction here.

First is these Notes to you. Here you will find statements on what the Cultural Profile Project asks students to do and for what purpose. I also discuss the assumptions underlying the decisions I made in putting this material together. And, finally, I provide what I think are key instructional points for each chapter and suggest some class exercises.

Secondly, Chapter One, “The Cultural Profile Project in a Nutshell” was written with both students and teachers in mind. There I try to provide the clearest possible explanation of the Project and why it is worth doing. Our basic roadmap is the Project Outline found on page 3 of Chapter One. For your information and convenience a copy is provided on the next page. Take a look but hurry back.

And thirdly, the extensive bibliography at the end of the text is probably more useful for teachers than for students. Once you have selected the traditional Native culture group or groups to research and profile, you can go to the bibliography for references listed for that group(s). Note that for larger volumes covering several Native cultures or general Native topics, the relevant page numbers are given. It is hard to imagine students wading through all the available material, so you may have to preselect the references they use.


Of course the Project has specific and immediate objectives as discussed in Chapter One. But when all is said and done, it is hoped that some measure of the following broader, more lofty goals are achieved.

Excite students about Alaska Native history by having them do actual research on what Native life was like in traditional times. An important part of this goal is learning about both the oral and written sources of this history.

Have students acquire a body of interdisciplinary knowledge for confidently pursuing further study at the next academic level, perhaps with a career goal of professional work in Alaska and playing an active role in the civic affairs of their communities.

The Cultural Profile Project

1. Alaskan Environments and Native Adaptations (Chapter 4)

Climate – arctic, sub-arctic, maritime, seasonal changes
Physiography – physical features of the area – tundra, forests, rivers, mountains, valleys, ocean conditions (e.g., sea ice)
Flora – plant life
Fauna – land animals, sea mammals, water fowl, fish
Land use and Occupancy – Demographics: Size & distribution of population, Settlement patterns

Land use – Mapping uses of lands & waters – location and boundaries, establishing community security

2. Social Organization (Chapter 6)

Social Relations – main social institutions: family structure, kinship system, social stratification, regional groups and relations between regional groups.
Economics – primary and secondary subsistence resources Commerce: trade routes and relationships, trade goods
Governance – group decision-making, leadership, law and order

3. Worldview (Chapter 7)

Spirituality – belief system, ceremonial practices, shamanism
Core values – social rules, cultural identity, historical legacy

4. Cultural products (Chapter 8)

Technology – hunting/fishing gear, tools, weaponry (and body armor), housing, transportation Applied Science – specialized knowledge developed to maintain and improve the group’s quality of life
Artistic Expression – artistic purposes, design, decoration, materials


Guided by the Project’s outline, students will construct a cultural profile of what Native life was like in traditional times for one or more groups of Alaska Natives selected by you and your class. Certainly you can select a group from your region of Alaska. By traditional times I mean those times before Native societies were changed forever by sustained contact with the cultural habits, economic ambitions, and infectious diseases of invading Russians and Americans.

Depending on your class situation and personal preference, you can have students do written reports, class presentations, or both. There is a chapter on each of the four sections of the cultural profile assignment with explanations and examples of the elements making up each section. I also think it is important that students understand the concepts and methods used in studying Native history, especially as we use them here. This requires several chapters of preliminary work before actually doing Project research.

A comparative approach. There is, finally, the ultimate Project assignment wherein students do comparative cultural profiling of two Native groups. For example, one half of the class forms a team to profile a group from one region of Alaska while the other half forms a team to profile a Native group from a different region. The purpose is to compare how two Native groups living in different environments developed different social organizations and cultural products. In Chapter Four, for example, we discuss significant differences between Native societies south of the Alaska Range (e.g., Tlingit) and Native societies north of the range (e.g., Gwich’in Athabaskan). By comparing a Native group north of the range with a Native group south of the range you have a ready-made instructional framework for highlighting the process of environmental adaptation and Alaska Native cultural pluralism.

Other Materials. Along with this text, you will need the 1982 edition of Native Peoples and Languages of Alaska, a wall map published by the Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC) at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. The Project textbook includes a rough version. But the wall map contains loads of important information at a glance. It should be prominently displayed in your classroom for quick reference.

Also have available Steve Langdon’s, The Native People of Alaska (Anchorage: Greatland Graphics, 2002). This is a brief and very readable survey of the major Alaska Native culture areas. Relevant chapters can be assigned to students depending on which Native culture(s) they will work on. It provides a helpful overview before doing more detailed research.


Assumption 1. Class size will range from small numbers in rural secondary schools to much larger numbers in urban schools. Moreover, the amount of time allocated to the Project will vary. One term? Two terms? Part of a larger Alaska Studies course or history/civics unit?

Therefore, the Project must be versatile. Teachers must be able to “slice and dice” it to fit various class sizes and time constraints. For example, the Cultural Profile is divided into four parts and each part consists of specific elements to be researched and described. You can assign any number of students to each section and to different elements within that section. If, for example, you have a large class and are pressed for time, you can form student research teams for each section.

You can also adjust the nature and depth of the student research effort. Most likely this “research” will be a review of relevant literature. This is why I have included an extensive bibliography. But there are still choices to be made. For example, will information come only from secondary sources? This is perhaps the easiest and quickest way to complete the project. Or will students examine actual primary source material? Of course students can attempt some original research by interviewing local Native elders for their historical knowledge. Or if time allows, will students be required to collect information from all three sources – local oral histories and from both primary and secondary written sources?

Assumption 2. Student reading levels will vary.

Therefore, I have done two things to smooth out the student reading experience. First, plain language is the rule. But sometimes there is no way around professional lexicon. So words likely to be unfamiliar to students are defined, usually at the end of the paragraph. The purpose is to keep reading disruptions to a minimum by saving students from having to often consult a dictionary. Or from simply slogging on and missing important points of the discussion.

Secondly, I have opted for a more personalized writing style than commonly found in standard textbooks. Here is the reason why

Mary Stuart is a retired San Francisco Bay Area high school English Literature teacher. She is also a longtime personal friend. Mary had always taught in schools with socially and ethnically diverse student bodies, including many students for whom English was their second language. Compared to academic texts, she found that the style and organization of literature invoked a quite different reaction from students. If students developed an interest in a work of literature, they would find ways to read and understand the material. But the perceived impenetrable mysteries of many academic texts was another matter.

So one of the questions Mary pursued was: Can high school students, particularly those reading below grade level, be directly taught to unravel “the mysteries” of these texts? Her interest in student academic literacy coincided with the efforts of several young teachers who had come together to form the Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI) project. Even after retiring she still worked with the SLI project. 1

For those of us who write academic texts, she suggests we develop a personalized style to the extent possible. Don’t be afraid to personalize the language of the text by using “we,” “you,” and “us” rather than the usual impersonal and formalistic approach of academic writing. Write your textbook as if you are looking over the shoulder of an individual student and pointing to places on the page that hold key ideas and information. Always be ready to interject an example the student will understand, even if it is metaphorical or analogous.

To imagine “looking over the shoulder of an individual student” is sound advice and I have tried to follow it. Basketball, “pop culture,” and the internal combustion engine are but several metaphorical and analogous examples used to make key points. Students will also find references to “Black English,” Albert Einstein, World War II, Australian Aborigines, and Julius Caesar. Indeed, students will find the phrase “for example” many times as they proceed. This is, after all, an educational enterprise and we should take full advantage of all teachable moments.

Assumption 3. It is reported that President Lyndon Johnson once told a group of young and aspiring lawmakers that “what you don’t say, you don’t have to explain.” That may be practical advice for politicians, but it cannot be applied to textbooks. In fact the assumption here is that the opposite is true – you have to say it and then you have to explain it.

Therefore, in addition to metaphorical and analogous examples, I try to explain complex topics from more than one perspective. To do this requires an interdisciplinary approach. Although this is a ethnohistory project, other disciplines are called upon to assist our understanding – anthropology, sociology, political science, literature, and economics. I even reference federal Indian law and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).
Comparative analysis is part of our interdisciplinary approach. It is used whenever possible. The comparative approach highlights aspects of culture and history often overlooked when studying just one thing or activity. An example found in this textbook is a comparative analysis addressing the question: Why were the Tlingits more successful than the Aleuts in resisting Russian control? I even use Michelangelo’s ceiling painting at the Sistine Chapel as a comparative referent in the Native artistic expression section of Chapter Eight.

Assumption 4. Not all students have sufficient access to primary and secondary source material on Native cultures and histories.

Therefore, an extensive bibliography is provided at the end of the text. It begins with a listing of books and articles which cover Alaska Natives generally. Then it is divided into sections listing materials for each of the different Native cultures. Online sources are also included. On certain topics, Native organizations may provide more up- to-date material on their regions than found in this bibliography. This is especially so as time moves beyond the publication date of this book.

Native organizations are also repositories for local oral historical material collected at elders conferences held over the past several decades. And there are internet sites such as Alaskool, the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, and Project Jukebox at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks library’s oral history program.

If at all possible, get students actively involved in collecting Native oral history from local elders. Of course the objective is to gather historical information. But the very process of engaging elders on historical questions is educationally beneficial in itself. At least this has been the case over the years with the Native Studies’ Elder-in-Residence Program at the University of Alaska- Fairbanks.

Two suggestions on receiving instruction from elders. First, be careful who you choose because some will be more knowledgeable and better at working with youth than others. Secondly, avoid overloading elders. It may be best to set up several sessions during the term rather than continuously calling upon them as students move through their Cultural Profile research.

Assumption 5. An assumption about an assumption. I assume that some will make the assumption that the Cultural Profile Project is meant only for Native students.

Therefore, a clear statement is needed here to put this assumption to rest. Without question, the Project focuses on Native histories and cultures. But why wouldn’t non-Native students find this subject-matter valuable? How can one be truly informed on Alaska history and civics without knowledge of Native life, both before the invasions and in response to the invasions and their aftermath? The latest census estimates that Natives make up almost 14% of the Alaska population. Through ANCSA corporations and other Native organizations like the Alaska Federation of Natives, they exercise considerable influence within the Alaskan political economy.

At the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, it wasn’t long before non-Native students comprised close to 50% of the enrollment in many Native Studies courses, sometimes even a higher percentage. And a fair number of these students elected to minor in Native Studies. Why? Intellectual curiosity was certainly a motivating factor. But they also realized that if they planned a professional career in Alaska, most likely they would be interacting with Native people. It only made good sense to know as much as possible about the Alaska Native experience.



A challenging statement. In another work I posed a proposition you may find useful here. To make the point that “history is a furious debate,” I said that “we are hard pressed to find the early actions of the Russians and Americans described as invasions or their later actions as colonization. 2 What we do find are titles or chapter headings like “Natives and Newcomers.”3 Or “New Immigrants and Encroachment.”4 Or we find no characterization at all. That somehow the coming of Russians and the Americans to Native Alaska was cosmically ordained. That Alaska’s real history – the history that really matters – began with the arrival of these outsiders so let’s move on to that story.

It is predictable that some are sure to take exception to labeling the Russians and Americans as invaders. Indeed some of you may be taken aback. I suspect an argument against my use of invaders or invasions would go something like this:

The movement of Russians and Americans into Native Alaska did not constitute a true invasion in the sense of numerous hostile forces entering another sovereign group’s territory for the purpose of conquest. Only once did Native – non-Native conflict reach the scale and intensity of Lower-48 “Indian wars.” And that conflict occurred during the Russian period when Alexander Baranov, Chief Manager of the Russian American Company, returned to Sitka in 1804 and waged war against the Tlingits. This was in retaliation for an 1802 attack by the Tlingits which completely destroyed the fortified trading post he had established in previous years. Those holding this view also may concede that Russian assaults on the Native people of the Aleutians and Kodiak were at times quite brutal. And that the early American Naval attacks on several Tlingit villages in Southeast Alaska were needless and tragic.

After reciting this history, however, they will still maintain that the Americans in particular never directly sought to displace or eliminate a Native community by force. They will point out that for the most part Alaska was empty land ready to be “developed” by industrious newcomers. That during the gold rushes, for example, most mining claims were staked in lands away from settled Native communities.

Now let’s apply this reasoning to an imaginary invasion of the United States.

Suppose a foreign power invades the West Coast of the United States. But they make every effort to stay on the interstate highway system until they reach unpopulated or sparsely populated areas further to the east. They are not interested in harming people or uprooting American settlements. They are after newly discovered energy producing minerals in what they claim to be mainly Terra Nullius (empty lands) such as Death Valley and the Great Salt Lake. If we leave them alone, they will leave us alone. Along the way they will make every effort to convince us of the benefits we will enjoy from all of their economic development activities.

Would we Americans consider this an invasion of our sovereign territory? Of course we would. So would the United Nations and any other reasonable international organization or person. It would be considered a flagrant violation of international law. Whether you characterize the early actions of the Russians and Americans as “hard” or “soft” invasions, they were invasions nonetheless. And their subsequent actions certainly meet any reasonable definition of colonization. (See page 16 of the text for my definition of colonialism.)

Invaders? A two-part class discussion.
Part One. On the first day of instruction point out my use of “invaders” starting on page 1 and read the above statement. Then give students some time to think about it. At the next class meeting, ask for debate on my argument. The not-so-subtle purpose is to quickly draw students into the Project with a lively discussion.

Part Two. Upon completion of the Cultural Profile Project, revisit the debate with this question:

You now have a good picture of an Alaska Native group(s) traditional social organization, demographics, settlement patterns, and use of land and resources. Given this information, is it fair to characterize the Russians and Americans as invaders of the group(s) homeland?


Chapters One and Two. Since these chapters contain preliminary work, answering the review questions at the end of each chapter should provide sufficient evaluation material. You should move through this material as quickly as possible.

On the distinction between a “tradition” and “traditional times,” made in Chapter Two, an interesting class exercise is show the film At The Time Whaling. As they watch the film, have students make side-by-side lists of what they see as “traditional” and what they see as “modern.” Given my own classroom experience with this exercise, I predict the number of items on the two lists will be about the same.

Chapter Three: Alaska Native Cultures – Think Pluralism. This chapter offers instruction for understanding the information found on the ANLC map. The instructional goal is understanding the cultural pluralism of Native Alaska. A worthwhile student exercise is to replicate the map’s cultural/linguistic boundaries from memory. Also insist on correct spelling of the different Native groups. For this purpose, a blank map of Alaska is provided at the end of the chapter.

Consider this chapter a turning point because real work on the cultural profile starts with the next chapter. Therefore the Native group(s) to be profiled must now be selected. If you and your class need more information on the different Alaska Native culture areas before making a selection, see Langdon’s The Native People of Alaska.

Chapter Four: Alaskan Environments and Native Adaptations. This chapter begins by providing a “Big Picture” contrast between northern and southern Native societies in social institutions, subsistence resources, and cultural products. Show how the concept of environmental adaptation explains much of this difference. Emphasize the idea of variable differences – that the difference between the north and the south is one of more or less, not of either-or.

It is here that we complete our definition of Native environmental adaptation by adding a social dimension. Perhaps a question for class discussion is: Beyond what is covered in this chapter, are there other social factors that may have determined the location and configuration of a Native settlement?

Land use, occupancy, and aboriginal title. Emphasize the point that when we talk about traditional land use and occupancy, we are talking about the federal Indian law concept of “aboriginal title.” Note that because legal issues are involved, we use the legal term “occupancy,” which in everyday language means essentially the same thing as settlement patterns. Emphasize the idea that “demographics” is not just a question of population size but also of settlement patterns – for example, more densely populated settlements (Tlingits) versus small groups spread out over a large region (Interior Athabaskans).

Alaska Natives and the Land: an major research source.

At the height of the Alaska Native struggle for an equitable settlement of their land claims in the late 1960s, Congress commissioned the Federal Field Committee for Development Planning in Alaska to undertake a massive research project called Alaska Natives and the Land. Within its 650 oversized pages is a comprehensive description of the multi-faceted relationship of Alaska Natives to the land in both traditional and modern times. It’s purpose was to give Congress the best possible picture of how and where Natives used and occupied the lands and waters within the different regional environments of Alaska. It is replete with maps and detailed descriptions of regional physiography, climate, subsistence resources, and settlement patterns. Although published over 40 years ago, it remains the best single source of information on Native land use and occupancy in traditional times.

Briefly, some of the Committee’s findings were:

  • • “The Alaska Native land claims are primarily based upon ‘aboriginal use and occupancy’ – and the ‘rights’ associated with this use.” (p.86)
  • " “In their use of the biological community for livelihood the Native people ‘occupied’ the land in the sense of being on and over virtually all of it in pursuit of their subsistence...” (p. 87)
  • " “Aboriginal group or ‘tribal’ territoriality with definable boundaries did exist in Alaska.” (p. 87)
  • " “Aboriginal group use and occupancy of territory to support livelihood varied greatly in amount between ethnic [Native] groups located in diverse biotic environments...” (p.87)
  • " For Alaska Natives to meet their basic subsistence needs, a minimum of 60 million acres is required (p. 542).

We know, of course, that the final ANCSA figure was far less at 44 million acres.

For purposes of the Cultural Profile Project, the most relevant section of this huge work is Chapter III, “Land and Ethnic Relationships.” Note: Because the online copy has the chapters out of sequence, Chapter III starts at page 146. Here is the bibliographic citation:

Alaska Natives and the Land, Robert Arnold et al., Federal Field Committee for Development Planning in Alaska (Anchorage, Alaska, 1968). Online at:

Throughout the Project, the landmark 1959 Court of Claims ruling in the Tlingit and Haida case provides us with several very important instructional points. Here the Court does so by expanding the definition of aboriginal title beyond lands actually used and occupied. With this ruling, lands historically recognized as under the tribe’s dominion are also part of that tribe’s aboriginal title. It matters not how barren and useless these lands are thought to be.5

Obviously maps are critical to understanding a tribe’s traditional use and occupation of land. If possible, have students research the extent to which the lands finally retained by their Native group(s) under ANCSA match the lands they originally claimed by right of aboriginal title. If you undertake this research, the local Native corporations may very well have the information and maps you need.

If your selected Native group(s) are coastal people, you may want to spend some time on the possibility of aboriginal hunting and fishing rights to portions of the Outer Continental Self (OCS). But first check for the most recent court action on this issue. An internet search should provide this information.

Note: This and Chapters 6, 7, and 8 correspond to each of the four sections of the Cultural Profile Project. Each chapter should be read before proceeding with actual research. Why? Because the readings provide conceptual frameworks and examples to guide student work.

Chapter Five: The Six Parts of Culture. The point is made that the term culture has become quite elastic, even stretched to include areas of social interest like “pop culture.” This is because culture must be defined in a way that fits the purpose of the specific social inquiry. And since the concept of culture is an organizing principle here, we provide a definition to fit our purpose and then break that definition down into six basic parts. I do so at this point in the Project to establish a framework for contemplating the upcoming material on social organization, worldview, and cultural products – the very essence of Alaska Native life in traditional times.

Chapter Six: Social Organization. Under the general heading of Social Organization are three elements: social relations, economics, and governance.

Social Relations. Stress the idea that our experiences with modern social institutions are not much help in understanding Native life in traditional times. Why? Because unlike the institutional specialization of modern times and the necessity of interacting with strangers, traditional Native social institutions were multi-functional and human relationships were personal and local.

Economics. Emphasize the critical importance of “commerce” to a Native group’s economic life and how geographically wide-ranging were these commercial enterprises. Pay special attention to the map found in Figure 6-2, page 65. It is taken from Ernest Burch Jr.’s “War and Trade” chapter in Crossroads of Continents (see bibliography for full citation).

I make the argument that the high value the I˝upiaq placed on Western goods did not signal their assimilation of Western values and institutions. Assimilation only occurred in the aftermath of famine and disease when survival largely depended on the goods and services of outsiders. You can have students debate this proposition either in class discussion or in a written essay or both.

Governance. This is one of the more difficult topics students will deal with. As Anne Shinkwin has observed:

Anthropological studies of the political systems of Alaska Native societies at and immediately following contact are rare at least; their absence represents a major gap in the literature...6

This absence is largely due to the fact that of all the tribal institutions found in the Americas, Europeans had the most difficulty understanding how tribal governance functioned. (The centralized Mayan and Aztec empires of Mesoamerica and the Inca in Peru were exceptions.) And perhaps we should also note how this ignorance conveniently served those colonial interests intent on denying the existence of tribal sovereign authority, especially over land. To dispel any notion that tribes lacked a governing process, discuss how the Court of Claims used a functional approach in deciding that Tlingit and Haida tribes did indeed have authentic political systems and therefore a legitimate claim to aboriginal title.

Leadership. Begin with a quick review of the north – south difference in social stratification. Make the point that leadership positions and functions should be easier to identify in southern hierarchical societies than in the more diffuse and amorphous northern societies. But again, caution students that we are talking about more or less, not either – or.

Law and Order. First discuss the idea that any society’s laws and ways of keeping order derive from longstanding core values and beliefs. An interesting class discussion might be how the basic jurisprudence of the United States is derived from a Judeo-Christian framework. The Washington Post’s short description of this historical tradition on page 68 offers a good starting point. Be sure, however, that students understand that Judaism and Christianity diverge significantly on certain theological points.

Consider the retribution – restitution dichotomy as a heuristic device – as an instructional technique for getting students quickly into a discussion of law and order. While the dichotomy does not always match reality, it does offer a good starting point for their research on this topic.

If possible, spend some extra time on the Ex Parte Crow Dog case because it breathes real life into the retribution – restitution dichotomy. But make the point that again we are talking about more or less, not either-or. Also reinforce the point that as used by DeLoria and Lytle, the dichotomy applies to criminal law, not to civil law which is all about restitution.

Chapter Seven: Worldview. I give Worldview special attention because it is, metaphorically speaking, the superglue that can hold a community together during the worst of times. Without a strong sense of cultural solidarity based on a set of core values and agreed upon rules of behavior, any society can go to war with itself when faced with a seemingly irresolvable dispute among its members. The American civil war is a good example. So are other social upheavals such as the Russian revolution of 1917 and the civil war which followed.

The past illuminates the present: the Carlos Frank case. There are three important points to be made here. First, various forms traditional Native spirituality have in fact survived to modern times. Secondly, based on a combination of carefully presented Native oral history and rigorous academic scholarship, the courts concluded that the Athabaskan funeral potlatch is indeed part of an authentic religious tradition. And thirdly, note how the 2009 disputed interpretation of fish and game rules shows that the 1979 Carlos Frank decision still has public policy implications.

An “intricate subsistence-based” Native worldview. Here the important point is that over time the absolute dependence on fish and game for survival fostered a complex spiritual reverence for the natural world. This should not surprise us since the creatures of this world were the ultimate givers of human life.

Historical Alaska Native and the Western Worldviews. The central idea here is that historically the “intricate subsistence-based” Native world view has been very different from the Western worldview. And this difference is best captured in the historic Western attitude toward the natural world as summarized in the “doctrine of higher uses.”

Please note my use of “historical” when referring to the difference in worldviews. One can make a reasonable argument that since the emergence of a modern Native political economy accelerated by the 1971 passage of ANCSA, many Natives have come to share aspects of the Western worldview. And the political strength of today’s environmental movement indicates that many Euro-Americans have come to embrace aspects of the historical Native worldview. In short, the difference is no longer so stark.

Shamanism. You may find some students reluctant to talk about shamanism which, since the arrival of the first missionaries, has been demonized as an evil purveyor of superstition. This is one reason why I start with shamanism among Siberian Native groups. By first giving students an outside comparative referent to work with, hopefully an ethnohistorical rather than a religious instructional framework can be established.

Historical legacy. This is an often overlooked but vital part of any human group’s cultural identity. As such, a mix of historical fact and historical mythology informs the worldviews of all human societies. I use the heroic American historical legacy of World War Two as a prime example. I have also mentioned three possible Alaska Native examples. Admittedly, this may be a difficult task for students because ancient historical legacies in oral traditions are not easily found.

Ideal culture and social reality. The main instructional point here is that a society’s worldview includes its most cherished values and traditions – its “ideal culture.” But we are all imperfect humans operating imperfect human institutions. Not surprisingly, the “social reality” is that the everyday actions of people and institutions sometimes violate the very values claimed to be precious, sometimes in a most shameful way. This endless tension between the ideal and the real is simply part of the human condition. It is, unfortunately, the way of the world.

Nevertheless, the existence of an ideal culture is indispensable. As an example, I suggest that the foundational principles of federal Indian law act as an “ideal legal culture.” For a 175 years these principles have given tribes a strong legal basis for arguing Native rights issues in the courts and before Congress. Do tribes always win their court case or persuade Congress to their point of view? Not hardly. In fact the history of Indian law and policy is marked by a steady diminishment of these rights.

But let’s consider the alternative by asking: What if these legal principles, however diminished, did not exist? This is why I discuss the contrasting case of Australia where aboriginal rights are minimal at best.

I must confess, finally, that whenever possible I use examples from Indian law and policy to make instructional points. I have done so with the hope that you and your students might develop a greater interest in this area of study – an area vital to the civic futures of many Alaska Native communities. If indeed you wish to do further study in federal Indian law and its application to Alaska, I recommend the following readings:

Indian law generally:

Wm. C. Canby, American Indian Law in a Nutshell (St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 5th Edition, 2009).

Alaska Natives:

David Case and David Voluck, Alaska Natives and American Laws (Fairbanks, AK.: University of Alaska Press, 2002).

Chapter Eight: Cultural Products. I have a specific reason for entitling this chapter, Cultural Products. It is to make the point that a people’s technology, science and art are the products of their cultural experience, not intrinsic elements of culture itself. To clarify, I have introduced the idea that culture is a cognitive phenomenon. It is a state of mind shared by members of the group. It is not a physical thing but a mental thing.

Technology. The obvious task here is description of the various technologies and their uses. Technology covers all the material things produced to maintain and improve the group’s quality of life. It therefore has the most visible connection to the process of environmental adaptation. Because we can see and touch these artifacts, they easily stick in our minds. Indeed, museums are full of such artifacts. But again, note that technologies are products of culture, not an intrinsic part of culture. That successful environmental adaptation required more than functional technology. It required functional social organization and cultural rules.

Applied Science. It is not a question of whether Native people did “science” in traditional times. It is, rather, a question of what kind of science was done. That is the key point of telling the Kenny Toovak story. His canny ability to predict changes in arctic weather came from years of practicing a specialized body of North Slope I˝upiaq knowledge steadily developed down through the ages. If we wish to give this body of traditional knowledge a fancy modern name, we can easily call it I˝upiaq meteorology.

You will find that I discuss “science” in some detail. I outline the difference between applied and basic science, distinguish specialized from common knowledge, and provide a description of the scientific method. I do so to emphasize the idea that “doing science” is not new nor uniquely Western. Nor should it conflict with religious beliefs. The technology involved may differ from one place to another or from one time to another. But the manner in which the science is done remains essentially the same.

Artistic Expression. The main instructional point here is that artistic expression can directly reflect the core values and traditions of any cultural group. It matters not whether the culture is Euro-American or Native American. This is why I use the Sistine Chapel as a comparative referent when discussing Native art. But again, art is a product or reflection of culture, not an intrinsic part of culture itself.

A Concluding Thought and Request

At the beginning of these instructional notes, I said that the Cultural Profile Project has two rather lofty goals – to excite students about Alaska Native history, and to instill greater confidence for pursuing further study at the next academic level. I have tried to jump-start achievement of these goals with my final word to students, “Congratulations – but don’t stop studying now!”

I know that, as always, instructional time is precious. And I know that completing every part of this Project will be a challenge. Even so, please try to spend some class time on this epilogue to reinforce why congratulations are in order, and why having diligently worked through the Project’s assignments can pay future academic and professional dividends. Thank you.


Michael J. Gaffney
Emeritus Associate Professor
Alaska Native Studies
University of Alaska - Fairbanks

1 For more on SLI, see: Schoenback, Ruth et al. , Reading for Understanding: A Guide to Improving Reading in Middle and High School Classrooms, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.

2 Michael J. Gaffney, Before and After the Invasions: A Native Codicil to Alaska History (a work in progress for submission to the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska – Fairbanks). For discussion of “history as furious debate,” see: James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) p. 16.

3 Natives and Newcomers: a Mingling of Cultures (Anchorage: Alaska Historical Society, Vol. 20, no. 2, Fall, 2005).

4 Robert Arnold, Alaska Native Land Claims (Anchorage: Alaska Native Foundation, 1976) See Chapter Three, pp. 62-67

5 Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska v. the United States. 182, Ct. Claims. 130, 1959.

6 Anne Shinkwin, “Traditional Alaska Native Societies” in David S. Case, Alaska Natives and American Laws (1st Edition, University of Alaska Press, 1984) pp. 333 – 370.


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 1, 2011