Alaska's Native heritage

This is the first of five commentaries to be run in the Juneau Empire


To know Juneau educator Paul Berg is having the knowledge of how he is very present to each and every student, teaching with the utmost compassion and respect they deserve. During a career that spans 41 years, Paul has accumulated broad experience and valuable insights. In a series of forthcoming essays, Paul offers his perspective on why western education and social services are failing many Alaska Natives. Based on his teaching experiences and stories entrusted to him by his former students and families on the Pine Ridge Reservation and in rural Alaska, Paul exposes the rawness and outcomes of the historical trauma created by forced assimilation and acculturation. Paul appeals to the public at large, but specifically to policy makers and educators, to reform a system that is broken. I value the urgency of his messages. It’s a call to action.

Barbara Cadiente-Nelson

Alaska Native Educator


Most Alaskans live in Anchorage, Fairbanks, or Juneau. Only a few of us who immigrated north from the “Lower 48” have ever had much opportunity to visit, let alone live for any extended time, in “the Bush.” For those of us who have been honored and privileged to have experienced bush culture and interacted with Alaska Native peoples, our lives have been enriched.

I realize the news media regularly carries stories about current problems in bush Alaska, making village life seem harsh, poverty-stricken—in other words, less than attractive. I will examine those complex issues later in this series of articles. Before discussing the problems, I would like to say that rural Alaska is one of the most beautiful and extraordinary places on earth, not just because of the magnificence of the scenery and abundance of wildlife, but for the examples of human kindness, patience, forgiveness, hospitality and love I have encountered there over the last four decades.

I have seen people share all the food they had in their house with a guest. “All the food” might have been a box of saltine crackers or pilot bread or the last remaining smoked salmon from last summer’s supply. I have seen hunters going from house to house to share the bounty of a good hunt. There are no people more generous than traditional Alaska Native people.

Russian Orthodox priest Father Michael Oleksa told me about an Alutiiq man he knows whose wife left him for another guy (who was less energetic and less able to provide for her and his children). Seeing them struggle, he invited them all back — with the new husband — and supported them for many years. He still loved the woman. He still loved his children. And that love was big enough to reconcile with her and invite the new spouse into his home and into his life as well. Have you ever heard of anyone loving and forgiving like that? There are no people more forgiving than Aleuts.

I have seen widows spend hours crocheting mittens, socks, and caps to give away to anyone who came to visit, strangers or relatives. Gratitude and respect are central values in a culture where life itself is a gift, food a blessing and survival a miracle. There are no people more thankful than traditional Native Elders.

A teacher friend encountered a subsistence Yup’ik fisherman alone in a skiff a few miles off the coast in Kuskokwim Bay with a blown head gasket on his outboard engine. When he stopped to assist, the fisherman thanked him for his concern and declined the offer of help with a confident smile, saying that he would have the engine running again in no time, as he continued to fashion a makeshift gasket out of a tin can. I have seen tools repaired which I was sure were beyond fixing, and a functional snow machine emerge from the parts of three wrecks. I began to see the collection of broken tools and rusted machines around a house, no longer through Western eyes as an aesthetic eyesore, but through Native eyes — as a rich assortment of spare parts.

And I learned that no people are more resourceful than Alaska Native People.

A Native Elder in the interior once told me about the first contact his people had with white men. His ancestors were aware of the presence of Europeans and Americans. Through trade with neighboring people, they acquired metal implements and various manufactured goods. One day, a hunter killed a bear. When he opened the bear’s stomach, he found the remains of an unknown food, which turned out to be bacon. He realized there were white men in the area and they were in serious trouble, as the bear had broken into their camp. The hunter quickly returned to the village and organized a search party, eventually finding a sick and starving U.S. Army telegraph survey team. The hunter brought the soldiers to his village, took care of them, and provisioned them for the rest of their journey. There are no people more hospitable than Alaska Native people.

Go to any village in southwest Alaska in January and you will be invited into a traditional feast, a banquet in every home. They call it “Russian Christmas,” but nowhere in Russia did they ever celebrate anything like it. In ancient times, the depth of winter was a time for gathering, singing, dancing and celebrating, offering songs and dances in thanks to the animals that had sacrificed themselves to feed and clothe the human beings. Today, the Aleuts and Eskimos continue the feasting and singing, transforming the traditional celebration into a celebration of Jesus’ birth, and continuing the custom of hospitality and generosity in memory of the relatives that may have died in the past year, and giving gifts and offering food to any and all. There are no people more generous than Alaska Natives.

Children have always been treasured. In several Alaska Native cultures children received names according to clan lineage. So, like royalty, they received their name, title, and rank only when the person who currently holds it dies. Then there will be months of grieving and preparation for a memorial banquet, at the end of which the child who will inherit the name of the departed Elder will be brought forward and given the name they were born to have. Yup’ik children received the name of a recently deceased Elder and acquired that person’s widow as a wife, that person’s children as children, and that person’s grandchildren as grandchildren, for they called the infant “my husband,” “our dad,” or “grandpa” if he (or she) had that beloved departed person’s name.

A village is a network of lifelong relationships. No people are more tightly bound to each other as are Alaska Native people in their home villages. They know and love each other, their land, and all the plants and animals that make it a living place. No people are more tightly bound to the land than are traditional Native people.

Years ago I was privileged to experience this deeper relationship to the land in a village which was cut off from the outside world for months at a time, with the exception of the occasional arrival of a small plane carrying mail, a traveler, or the public health nurse. There were no stores, and little dependence on the outside world for food. I learned that subsistence was not just an economic necessity, but a way of life, a special relationship to the land. I was taken on hunting and fishing trips and watched the men speak with reverence as they harvested, skinned, gutted and prepared the meat of their prey with care, accepting the food as a gift to sustain life. I learned to hunt and fish, and to cut, split, and dry wood to keep my family warm during the long winter. I was honored to share this special part of village life. Then my family moved to Juneau. To get food for my family, I went to a store. To heat the house, I turned up the thermostat. And I felt incomplete, as though something was missing. I longed to provide for my family with the efforts of my hands and to once again experience this close relationship to the land.

City folks seldom experience this cultural universe, but anyone who has lived in “the Bush” knows what I’m trying to convey. Yes, there are problems, issues, conflicts, and tragedies in rural Alaska. But before we focus on the problems, we need to emphasize that the village is the soul of Alaska. Whether urban Alaskans realize it or not, Alaska Native people are unique and precious. We have 10,000 years of wisdom contained in each of our 20 indigenous languages. We do whatever we can to protect endangered animal species, to prevent any threatened fish, bird or mammal from going extinct, but we spend little or no time or energy trying to preserve or enhance the human cultures whose knowledge and wisdom offer us unimaginable riches.

I invite all our readers to take the time to become familiar with this amazing legacy and join in the effort to sustain and enhance it for future generations. Our Native cultures help us all to become more fully Human. Traditional Alaska Native Elders challenge us to become more perfectly the Real People we were born to be.


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