My Turn: Imagine a world where non-Natives give up their culture

Posted: Thursday, October 13, 2005

I would like to give the Webster dictionary meaning of racism. It states, "A belief that some races are by nature superior to others." Also: "Discrimination based on such belief." In my experience as an Alaska Native born and raised here, the exact opposite of this definition is true. The government has been giving "free" money to the Alaska Natives because they felt they needed to bring the "Native people" up to their standards of the Western culture that was foreign to our ancestors, who lived off the land and built homes from their resources. But is it really free? Our ancestors were forced to give up our lifestyle and language to sign up and wait for handouts.

In the Native culture, before the Russians or United States came, each clan owned large areas of land that included rivers, which was stripped away when Alaska became a state. At first our ancestors didn't know this happened because they weren't part of any negotiations when it was being purchased, but realized it when they were told they had to apply for the land they were living on and prove that they did. It took many more than 30 years, and some are still waiting to receive theirs. Our ancestors then got together, formed the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood and fought back by going to Washington, D.C., to force them to recognize that they were inhabitants of the land when it was purchased, and they should have had rights.

The government's answer was the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, where our regional corporations (like Sealaska Corp. and Doyon) and village corporations (like Yak-Tat Kwaan and Kootznoowoo) came from. The government later funneled federal monies through federally recognized tribes (like Tlingit-Haida Central Council and Douglas Indian Association) to educate the Native people to the Western culture. Their role within these federally funded jobs is to distribute money to the Native community by way of education and homes. That's why it is "Native preference" jobs; its purpose is to educate the applicant as they learn how to work in an office and working environment.

What if the opposite occurred? What if there were more Alaska Natives who forced the non-Natives to give up their culture and learn ours? If that happened, everyone's assets and education in the Western civilization would hold no value, and all their money in the world wouldn't help them earn a living in this culture. Malls would be destroyed. Buildings and streets would be torn down. No more clothing would be manufactured. The land would be restored to it's natural habitat. In the very place that brought riches would bring helplessness in a different culture. In the Native community, it is customary to combine all foods harvested to share. Imagine how it would feel if there were complaints of racism if only the ones who didn't know how to contribute could receive it. In this society, who do you think would be the largest population in jail or be the slowest ones in "school?" Who would have their homes built for them? Who would be the ones with the billions of dollars from the resource revenues and land? Although this sounds far-fetched in this day and age it's not too far off from what our ancestors had to endure when their society was overturned.

Our ancestors had the foresight to realize that for their children to survive, they had to let go when their children were forced from their homes to attend government boarding schools to learn a different language and culture. What a sacrifice that had to have been when all they knew was their own culture, of which they were proud. We are now reaping the rewards of their sacrifice as more and more of our Native community can move about in this culture with as much ease as anyone else. However, had we been given the choice, we would have preferred keeping the land, gold, oil, timber and other resources and stayed independent.

• Juneau resident Shari Jensen is the past president and CEO of Yak-Tat Kwaan Inc. She is a student at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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