There’s a phrase in the Tlingit culture, haa shagóon, which loosely translates to “our ancestors,” but it means so much more. Our elders teach us haa shagóon is understanding who we were in order to understand who we are now because we are our future too. Alaska Native cultures have always looked to the past to make decisions about the present and for those who come after us.
As we head into the new year, it’s important to look into the past. What is the history of Alaska? Who are we today? Who will we become? Alaska geography, history, biology, cultures and languages are complex, so much so, you could spend your lifetime learning about Alaska and never learn everything. There is one truth, though: One region in Alaska does not own the narrative of what Alaska is. For example, the Alaskan experience in Hoonah is vastly different from the Alaskan experience in Wasilla.
Likewise, people who’ve moved here from elsewhere have a different idea of what Alaska is than those who were born and raised here. There are people who’ve intermarried among Alaska Native families, or who’ve lived her for generations, who don’t know the history of this place. While living in Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley, among the largest diaspora of people who’ve immigrated to Alaska, I got to know people who’d never met anyone born and raised here. I frequently found myself explaining Alaska’s history. The conversation often led to: “Well, how do we learn about this Alaska that you’re talking about if we don’t know people from here?”
Well, here’s how: First of all, if you want to learn more about Alaska, you can simply call the local tribal office in your area. But, in order to acquire in-depth knowledge about Alaska’s history you have to do a lot of digging, researching, reading and talking. I’ve always said there should be an Alaska education program that teaches complex Alaskan history. Keep in mind that every single last square inch of Alaska is traditional Alaska Native land, and we are 1/4 the population of the state. For thousands of years, our diverse Alaska Native cultures have been changing and we’re still here. We are still here. So local tribal agencies provide a good resource. You can also find out about cultural events through the local tribe, plus many tribes maintain libraries where you can discover excellent books and historical documentaries. Also, most public libraries have an Alaska section with a plethora of history. However, not all history books are well-written so it’s important to note who wrote them, when the books were written, and why they were written. It’s also important to read current history books alongside older history books because modern researchers, and especially Alaska Native authors and editors, have expanded cultural understandings unlike early explorers and studies.
Do you want to know more about Alaska in 2020? Here’s your list and your first lesson:
“Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics” by Maria Shaa Tlaa Williams, ed, Duke University Press Books, 2009.
Through essays, poems, songs, stories, and art, learn about Alaska’s federally recognized tribes.
“Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir” by Ernestine Hayes, University of Arizona Press, 2015.
Native stories and memoir leads us through an Alaskan childhood into an adulthood outside Alaska to an eventual return to a Tlingit homeland.
“A Dangerous Idea: The Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Struggle for Indigenous Rights” by Peter Metcalfe, University of Alaska Press, 2014.
The civil rights history in Alaska and the founding of the Alaska Native Brotherhood.
“Etok: A story of Eskimo Power” by Hugh Gregory Gallagher, Vandamere Press, 2001.
Biography of Charles Edwardsen, Jr. (Etok) and the struggle for Alaska Native land rights and ways of life.
“Gumboot Determination” by Peter Metcalfe, Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.
An excellent look at the history of disease in Alaska and the effects of colonization on Alaska Native health and the subsequent founding of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) .
“Haa Kusteeyi, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories by Nora and Richard Dauenhauer,” University of Washington Press, 1994.
An introduction to Tlingit social and political history told through Tlingit biographies.
“Hide of My Tongue” by Vivian Faith Prescott, Plain View Press, 2012.
Poetry as a means to tell a familial and historical account of the loss and revitalization of the Tlingit language.
“In the Courts of the Conqueror” by Walter R. Echo-Hawk, Fulcrum Publishing, 2012.
An introduction to the complex topic of The Alaska Native Land Claims Act (ANCSA), the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and other complex Native histories.
“Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska” by Aron L. Crowell, Smithsonian, 2010.
Two hundred plus cultural objects representing over twenty Alaska Native cultures are featured in this anthology.
“Then Fight for It” by Fred Paul, CreateSpace, 2006.
A behind the scenes look at the Alaska Land Settlement of 1971.
“Alaska, a history in five parts” by Nan Elliott, David-John Rychetnik, and Gary Lamar, 1985.
Alaskan history from prehistoric times through 1984. A basic introduction worth viewing.
“History of the Inupiat: Project Chariot” by Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson, 2012.
The dramatic story of an Inupiaq village’s battle with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the plan to detonate massive thermonuclear bombs in Alaska.
“The Land Is Ours: Laurence A. Goldin,” Public Broadcasting Service, 1997.
A PBS documentary about Alaska’s Tlingit and Haida Tribes, from time immemorial to the passage of the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act.
As we head through another year together, I consider that old saying hindsight is 2020 and what my elders say about haa shagóon. Let’s look forward to being informed about the past. The above list is not extensive but it’s a beginning I’m gifting to you in this new year. These books and films only scratch the surface of Alaska’s complex history. Know that if you haven’t read any of these books or seen these films, then you may have a limited understanding of this diverse land and the history of Alaska Native peoples. Whether you’ve lived here for generations, or are new to Alaska, or just visiting, digging deeper into Alaska’s complex history will allow us to make better choices about who we will become as a state, a community, a friend and neighbor. Take a lesson from haa shagóon and look to the past to make decisions about our present and our future.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.