On Oct. 18, Alaska Day, Sitka will celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Treaty of Cession, when the U.S. “purchased” Alaska from Russia. There will be reenactments, balls, and other ceremonies. But there are those in the Alaska Native community who do not feel like celebrating.
Coming a few days before Alaska Day will be the biennial conference Sharing Our Knowledge, a gathering of people who welcomes anyone interested “in the indigenous peoples of Southeast Alaska and their Canadian relatives,” according to the group’s website. It’ll take place Oct. 13-17 at the Sitka Fine Arts Campus.
Executive director Gerry Hope said this conference’s theme is Haa Shagóon, Yei Sh Natoosneix (Our History, We are Healing Ourselves), and will open up discussions amongst the Native community on the purchase of Alaska, and he hopes, add new perspectives for all attendees. Hope has wanted to facilitate this discussion since 2000, when he was president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, Sitka Camp number one.
“…it occurred to me that an underlying discussion within the Alaska Native community was this thing about Alaska Day. The Alaska Natives were not really a part of the agreement that the United States government and Russian government had come to. There’s always been, especially here in Sitka… there’s some within the Native community who accepted it, and others who still have this undercurrent, this uncomfortable feeling about it,” Hope said. “(“Our History, We are Healing Ourselves” means) that there is a recognition that there is some underlining pain and conflict within Alaska Natives within the Alaska Native community, yet at the same time, there is ownership, that we’re healing ourselves.”
Each of the presentations — there are more than 30 — will include a component on how the topic contributes to healing. Both indigenous and non-indigenous scholars and academics, as well as cultural leaders within Native communities, come together to share.
Mary Annette Pember and Jeremy Braithewaite have teamed up at the request of Hope to present “Intergenerational & Historical Trauma, Yesterday and Today: Moving To Healing Ourselves.”
Pember is a Native American independent journalist (of the Wisconsin Ojibwe Red Cliff Tribe) who has focused on the issue of transgenerational and historical trauma since 2000. She said she has looked at it from both a personal as well as a general perspective. Pember experienced the effects of transgenerational trauma through her mother, she said. She described her as an unloving, complicated, and difficult person to understand.
“I felt like there was something wrong and unacknowledged about her,” Pember said. “…As I began writing about that and doing more research into historical trauma and PTSD, I found that the way she behaved is very typical of the way of someone who had suffered a great deal of trauma. I found it really helped me personally a lot. It gave me some authority, personal authority, to the way she was toward me and some insight into the way she was.”
As she researched, she was contacted by others who said they related to her experiences. She called transgenerational trauma a “giant elephant in the room that lurks and lives” with many Native American families.
“We often think we suffer alone, but in fact our life experiences are far more common than we think,” she said.
The Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism as well as the USC Annenberg National Health Journalism Fellowship and Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism awarded her money to cover transgenerational trauma and how it relates to the Native American community.
Some of her work brought her to speak with the Yupik people in the Yukon delta. Braithewaite also spoke with Yupik people for his research. Braithewaite, a researcher currently living in L.A., said he didn’t know Pember before Hope requested them to co-lead a presentation, but he had read some of her work.
“My work in this area began in Bristol Bay, Alaska, in the Southwest part of the state. My research examined the ways in which transgenerational trauma, historical trauma, the legacies of colonialism, how those shaped violence that Alaska Native women in that area experienced today, primarily Yupik-Eskimo women. For that study I did a survivorship-storytelling study where I spoke with Alaska Native survivors of rape and sexual abuse, violence, and other forms of trauma that occurred throughout their lives and did a series of storytelling sections with each of them,” he said.
Some women he spoke with once or twice, while others communicated 30-40 times over the three years of the study. When listening to these women, he realized there was a lot in their narratives that could not be quantified through western practices: how they healed, how they formed grassroots social movements within their village, and how they resisted the influence of colonialism.
“We all know about the violence Alaska Native people experience, and we know about the high rates of alcohol abuse, substance abuse, cultural breakdowns, broken families. Western social science practices are able to uncover that stuff through surveys, quantitative research, but what’s really missing is all of that stuff that’s beneath the surface, that I think indigenous methodologies are able to uncover,” he said.
Indigenous methodologies he defined as “developed by the Native community, for the Native community.”
“We often find that most methodologies involve storytelling, which is a very crucial part of Alaska Native culture and a lot of Alaska Native oral history. …I think the most important thing about indigenous methodologies is it’s between two different perspectives, from traditional, western methodologies … the way that I was trained basically says there is only one reality and only one way of knowing that reality and there’s only one way of studying that reality. That doesn’t really jive with the indigenous experience, which says that everything is interconnected, that relationships are much more cyclical than they are linear.”
For the survivor-storytelling approach he used for his study, he let the women speak uninterrupted, only occasionally making a comment or asking a question.
“It’s important because it allows them to tell their full story uncensored, the way they need to tell it, the way they need to feel empowered to tell it. It also allows them to incorporate issues of Native traditions, Native customs. They were able to introduce those into their stories, which leads to a better understanding and appreciation of local culture on my part,” he said.
The study is not yet published, but he discussed his findings at www.safebristolbay.org. To learn more about Pember and her work, go to mapember.com.
“100 Years” is a documentary from Fire in the Belly Productions that follows Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet woman from Montana who started raising questions about missing money from the government-managed Indian Trust accounts, and the resulting 30-year fight for justice for 300,000 Native Americans whose mineral-rich lands were mismanaged.
“I made this film because I was outraged by the injustice from the U.S. Government and I vowed to bring this story to the world,” said director and producer Melinda Janko.
The film was selected for the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, the Athena Film Festival, the Environmental Film Festival, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, the American Indian Film Festival, and the LA Femme International Film Festival. The tribute song “On Ghost Ridge” was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Song.
The film will be screened at the conference, and Janko will later host a Q&A. She also plans to speak to Alaska Native youth who are interested in pursuing a career in the film industry, she said.
“I am hoping that ‘100 Years’ will inspire others by showing the power of one woman who made a difference,” she said.
Discovering the past
Steve Henrikson, the Curator of Collections at the Alaska State Museum, will present alongside Dr. Richard VanderHoek and Dr. Eric Hollinger. The topic is “Recognizing and Reviving an Ancient Tool: The Tlingit Spearthrower.”
The tool has appeared in many cultures and has gone by many different names: atlatl, throwing board, throwing stick, and spear thrower. It’s usually a carved board that averages a meter in length.
“One side has a finger hole, for your index finger. The other side has a channel that a dart or spear [lies] in, and the back of the dart is inserted in a little hook or prong at the end of the channel,” Henrikson said, stating it puts more force behind dart or spear throws.
Henrikson and his co-presenters have found 22 spear throwers from around the world. Some are currently at the British Museum, Ulster Museum, Peabody Museum and Smithsonian.
“The question that we’re exploring is how they were used,” Henrikson said. “Were they used for hunting or was there some other ceremonial purpose for them?”
Hollinger digitally scanned two throwing boards and printed them in a plastic resin in the same size and proportions as the originals, Henrikson said. Conference-goers will get to test the plastic spear throwers with darts and target boards to see how they were used in action and see the precision of their aim. Henrikson hopes some attendees will know more about the tools’ history in Southeast.
To see the full list of presenters, go to sharingourknowledge.org/current-list-of-proposals. Registration for the conference is on the same site.
• Clara Miller is the Capital City Weekly’s staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.