Course's philosophy could hurt Natives

Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2000

Not long ago several Christian denominations came together to formally apologize to the Native peoples of Alaska for causing harm to their cultures. Certainly the intentions of missionaries were mostly good.

At the University of Alaska Southeast there is a new missionary movement being urged in a course titled Culture and Ecology. The course textbook, ``Sacred Ecology'' by Fikret Berkes, labels this movement as traditional ecological knowledge. This choice of phrase seems to indicate that the movement is based on the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples, and it does indeed have a strong element of this long overdue and much needed respect for the vast knowledge of Native peoples. But the movement is in fact a radical form of Western ideology that could cause Native peoples to be further marginalized.

Berkes and the course instructors condemn modern science and world capitalism and recommend incorporating spiritual beliefs into the scientific process. They especially attack the modern science of ecology. A needless and destructive antagonism between indigenous knowledge systems and modern science is established.

This radical ideology is based on the philosophy of a fringe element within Western academia well-known for sloppy scholarship. It is not an approach of the modern science of anthropology, as advertised in the UAS academic catalog.

This fringe element in academia arose as a radical movement during the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s. It is a quasi-religious political movement heralded by writers such as Theordore Roszak, best known for his books ``The Making of a Counterculture'' and ``Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society.'' The latter book is the philosophical foundation for the UAS course textbook.

Many people are vulnerable to harm caused by radical ideologies, especially when ideologies might appear to support their own world views and political struggles. I witnessed this firsthand when a man named Hank Ostrosky moved into the Yup'ik (``Eskimo'') village of Atmautluak, where I had lived and taught. He managed to get the elders to support a radical ideology that was quite similar to that presented in the UAS course. For a while the district attorney in Bethel worried that there would be armed conflict before Hank would leave the villages. Hank had good intentions, but he caused long-term harm for my friends.

Urging Native peoples in Alaska to shun science and capitalism is to push them away from gaining access to the benefits of mainstream society, including pushing them away from the political and economic power of self-determination and the ability to preserve their own culture as they define it for themselves.

The villages in Alaska are suffering. Tragedies are too frequent and often brutal. Where I last taught, in the Yup'ik village of Quinhagak, my own son was in a home where not long after he was playing there, a child shot his mother. About a year later one of my students shot and killed another student. Substance abuse and domestic violence are endemic. Suicides are common.

Cultural revival movements seem to be helping. Economic development has largely failed, but where it has been successful, such as on the North Slope and in the NANA region, with oil and mining, conditions are improving. Of course sustaining this improvement is a challenge, for which sophisticated economic mechanisms will be necessary.

Subsistence is a key factor for Alaska Native physical and cultural survival. The recent strongly worded resolutions by AFN regarding subsistence have been long overdue. But long-term success in protecting subsistence rights will depend on effective use of mainstream legal and political mechanisms, and on good science, not on radical ideology.

The UAS Culture and Ecology course was concluded with an essay by Wendell Berry. Berry farms with horses and asks that humanity give up most modern technologies, reverting society to small, self-sufficient rural communities. The course instructors tried to convince students that Berry's ideology is consistent with the ``traditional ecological knowledge'' of indigenous peoples. Not only is this naive, simplistic and unrealistic, but such a societal restructuring would deny the many benefits of our global industrial society, including modern medicine. Certainly Natives would no longer be able to use nylon gillnets, snowmachines and outboard motors for subsistence activities, nor global positioning systems to increase safety.

The UAS instructors have good intentions. Academic freedom should be preserved, but the university should ensure that students are presented with accurate course descriptions and with broad intellectual perspectives that are well supported by careful scholarship.

Bob Woolf is a biologist who has lived and taught in the Yup'ik villages of Atmautluak, Goodnews Bay and Quinhagak. He is helping the tribal government of Quinhagak use traditional ecological knowledge to measure the impact of sport fishing on subsistence fisheries.

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