Greetings from Anchorage

Sorry for the blog being down (not that anyone except for Adam noticed) — I forgot to renew my domain name. All that seems to be fixed now.

I’m in Anchorage, AK right now. The sun rises here at around 4:30 and sets at around 11:30 these days, so it’s still pretty bright out. Fortunately, the hotel has heavy drapes to block out the near-midnight sun. I may later spruce up this post with some photos.

Today I went to the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which is a museum on the edge of town dedicated to the native cultures of Alaska. I knew pretty much nothing going in, so the Center was an informative experience in terms of cultural awareness and ethnographic practice. The museum splits the native peoples of Alaska into five groups based on their mode of life (which in turn is tied to geography). From South to North the divisions are Eyak/Tlingit/Haida/Tsimshian, Aleut/Alutiiq, Athabascan, Yup’ik/Cup’ik, and Inupiaq/St. Lawrence Island Yupik. The divisions are not along linguistic lines. For example, the Yupik on St. Lawrence Island speak a language similar to that of the Yup’ik on the west coast, but their hunting practices and homes are more similar to the Inupiaq, who live in the far north.

What was interesting to me was the huge heterogeneity in the lifestyles across these different groups. From a position of ignorance informed by pop culture representations of “Eskimos” one is tempted to think of all native Alaskans as one group that goes and hunts seals and polar bears. In the south, wood is plentiful and the climate is more temperate, so permanent houses, totem poles, and other constructions are possible. Farther north and west, the only wood available is driftwood, and entire homes were built out of driftwood (and whale bones, I learned). In colder regions the houses were sunk into the ground to preserve heat, and entrances were built via tunnels into the permafrost. Similarly, the geographic distribution of animals informed diet, seasonal movement patterns, and other cultural practices.

Unfortunately, the museum doesn’t really make the comparison across native groups to visitors, which is where the ethnography and politics of native cultural preservation come into play. The kind of reductive analysis I noodled about with in the previous paragraph may run counter to the aims of the center. By drawing distinctions between ethnic groups one can understand how different cultural practices emerge, but drawing boundaries hinders solidarity across peoples. There is also a tension between the effort to preserve or modify traditional practices for the present day and the museum’s efforts to display cultural artifacts. Finally, the museum often does not display full-size versions of many of its artifacts such as boats and oil lamps, or the sample houses that were part of the outdoor section of the museum. The docents and guides had to explain this miniaturization to the guests, and it felt a little uncomfortable, as though in order to explain their culture they had to shrink it.

Finally, I thought the whole language aspect got short shrift in the presentation of the materials. I saw reference grammars and dictionaries in the bookstore, but how are language preservation efforts working? An acquaintance of mine at Berkeley works on language preservation/reintroduction, so maybe it’s just something I have heard about.

Later on we went to the History and Art Museum, which has a more linear timeline of the history and prehistory of Alaska, along with some more modern exhibits which belie the museum’s relationship to its funders. One is on the great things that oil has brought to Alaska (paid for by the oil companies). Another is the “benefits” of Alaska Native Regional Corporations. Finally (and most appropriately for me), there was a little section paid for by telecoms on the history of communications technology in Alaska. Plenty to think about in terms of who pays for museums, how history is written, and all that jazz.

All in all, both museums were definitely worthwhile — I wouldn’t have had this much to think and write about otherwise.

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