Bias remains the standard

Edge of the Village

Posted: Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Outright bigotry is difficult to endure. Graffiti spelling out racist messages is painful; targeting of minority victims is abhorrent to all. Institutional discrimination is more subtle and more difficult. Incarceration rates, as well as rates for virtually every social ill, are clear evidence of continuing institutional discrimination. But systemic inequities are in some respects the most troubling of all. Examples of color bias and class favoritism in the English language, in American icons, and in the media are the unquestioned standard. In Alaska, one-sided depictions of history and of the relation of original people to the land fall into this norm.

The Juneau city Web page describes Juneau history in this way: "For the most part, the vast spruce-covered mountains and protected waterways along Gastineau Channel in Southeastern Alaska laid untouched to the mid-1800s. Before that, Tlingit Indian tribes fished the rich salmon routes for centuries. And a few well-known explorers had come before: Men such as George Vancouver and John Muir." Grammar aside, the declaration that the land was untouched by the original people is an example of unchallenged systemic bias.

Some persons come to Alaska for awhile; others come here to stay. Soon or eventually, a few will consider themselves authorities on Alaska and its history; some never believe they know more than others about such matters. Some fall in love with the land; others do not. Some have been here since time immemorial and don't have that choice. Those who have been here since time immemorial can't help but love this land.

When you speak of a place, be sure to speak of what that place means to the generations who have always lived there. Not to do so would be like picturing a lush and timeless woman but choosing not to mention her lost children - children to whom she gave fecund birth, whom she nourished at her rich fat breast, whom she loved no less than they loved her, who were seized and sent away from her arms, but whom she remembers and longs for every day. That is the same way the land longs for her children.

One of my first jobs after I returned to Juneau was at a Native theater where we told old stories and sang and drummed old songs. At the end of each performance, we stood in a line on the stage and introduced ourselves in our Native language, and then translated what we had just said. I would say: Lingt x'einax Saankalaxt' yo xat du waa saak'w: My Tlingit name is Saankalaxt. Dleit kaa x'einax Ernestine Hayes yo xat du waa saak'w: My white man name is Ernestine Hayes. Ch'aak' naa aya xat: I am Eagle. Kaagwaantaan aya xat: I am of the Burnt House People. Gooch ht aya xat: I belong to the Wolf House. Gunax teid dach xan xat sitée: I am a grandchild of the Gunaxteidi clan. Shéetka Kwaan: My clan springs from Sitka.

The woman standing next to me would step forward to say her name, her lineage, her clan: Ling_t x'einax Kaastéen yo xat du waa saak'w. Chookaneid aya xat: "I am of the people from the grassy place. I belong to Glacier Bay." And I loved to hear her say that, for it describes our relationship to the land. Who our land now belongs to - or if land can even be owned - is a question for politicians and philosophers. But we belong to the land. There is not one Ling_t person, from the most modern urban executive to the most unsophisticated villager, from the oldest great-grandparent whose dim eyes can see only memories, to the youngest child who has just learned to form the words, who will not say, "This is our land, for we still belong to it. We belong to Ling_t Aan_."

We can't help but place our love on this land our grandfathers touched.

• Ernestine Hayes is assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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