'Alaska Native Reader' offers a welcome change in perspective

Posted: Thursday, December 24, 2009

"The Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics." Edited by Maria Shaa Tláa Williams.

I n the past 40 years, there has been a Native cultural revival in Alaska in art, music, language, oral history and celebrations. At the same time there has been impressive growth of Native Alaskans in academia, with many new writers and as professors at universities. For example, Dr. Maria Williams, (whose Tlingit name is Shaa Tláa) the editor of this journal, has a doctorate in ethnomusicology and is a professor at the University of New Mexico.

This new book reflects these decades of change. Dr. Williams provides a fine general introduction to this volume dedicated to the Native American perspective on history, art, values and philosophy, and has contributed a brief introduction to each section. Most of the authors of these essays are Alaska Natives or Native Americans, but a few articles by others substantiate some of the oral history and views of the people whose ancestors have lived here for countless generations.

The book is divided into five general topics. The first section is "Telling Our Own Story." These nine articles are by Natives, non-Natives and even an article by Russians describing some events of the Russian era.

The second section is about the early recorded history of Alaska. Many of us have read the history of Alaska, but all history is selective and derived from a cultural point of view. This part is a collection of articles that expands the readers' understanding of the past. Anyone interested in the real history of Alaska should read these articles.

The third part is a series of five essays entitled "Alaska Native and Indigenous Epistemologies." This is one of the most enlightening portions of the book. Epistemology is the study of truth: what is real?, what do we know? Here Alaska Natives and Native Americans express their ideas of what is real and true and what this means to them. I personally had to go back and re-read some of these articles to make sure I clearly understood their teachings.

The fourth part, "Native Arts: A Weaving of Melody and Culture," is about the arts, music, films and literature. It is another view of the arts and life from a Native point of view.

The final section, "Raventales," is a fun section. It consists of poetry, life adventures and even recipes.

Now for my take on the book. Forty years ago, when I began teaching classes on the Native people of Alaska as an "outsider," I told the Native students that it was time for them to "take over," have their voices heard. That hope has now been realized. They are now the scholars of their own heritage and tradition, and we all need to listen to what they have to say.

This is not a book that should be read quickly. It is the kind of book that, when a person has a quiet time, should be read an article or two at time. Then, later, pick it up and read or re-read an article.

At times it is said that anthropologists study other cultures. Good anthropologists don't study others, they learn from others. I learned a lot, I enjoyed the book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested not just in Native Alaskan topics, but to those who want to understand the real people of Alaska and see things through different eyes.

• Wallace M. Olson, is Professor of Anthropology (Emeritus) at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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