If you’re like me, an indigenous man who grew up in his ancestral home, you were surrounded by your culture from the minute you were born. From the history, your elders teach, to the old technologies our ancestors invented that we still use, even just practicing traditional ways of subsistence. Culture is the most important aspect of your indigenous identity.
Something else you have undoubtedly noticed is the immersion of European cultures into your own. Curious settlers looking for enterprise began to permanently settle in our lands (what is known today as Alaska) as early as the Russians in the 1800’s, and later with Americans and immigrants from other European nations. They began giving places names that made sense to them: ‘Scandinavian Slough’, ‘Dutch Harbor’, ‘Wales’. They even gave us names that weren’t our own: ‘Indian’, ‘Eskimo’, ‘American’. Almost immediately, we began adopting their names because we knew that they were here to stay. They brought commerce, exotic goods, and manufactured tools that made our lives easier. It was a truly beneficial relationship parties – until it wasn’t.
Although Russian relations were complicated, (with the slavery of Aleuts being their first inception into our sphere of influence) they never intended to subjugate native peoples as a whole. There was no forced ‘Russian identity’ on Native Alaskans, we were merely a tool for exploitation. The English and the Americans however, were an entirely different story. With the illegitimate sale of Alaska (you can’t sell something if you don’t, in fact, own it) the United States federal government continued its long history of subjection of Native Peoples. The message was clear: assimilate or face immediate destruction like many other indigenous peoples in the United States have in the past. Under threat of being forced on reservations (and already being forcibly removed from our lands in the SouthEast), our leaders across the state banded together to at least have some say in the formation of the newest US colony. In desperation, our tribal delegates agreed to the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, establishing Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) in the stead of sovereign states. My grandfather said to me at a young age that while we may have got the best deal of any native peoples in the country, we were also signing away our rights with a gun cocked in our face.
Euro-centric assimilation had seemed to be irreversible a generation back. The United States had effectively dissolved our nations into corporate entities, elders were emploring children to adopt English as their primary language and ‘be like the successful white man’, and soon we began to fall into becoming a minority in our own home. Today, everyone under the age of 60 speaks English, most practice Christianity, and consider themselves American citizens primarily, and whatever tribal associations they have as secondary.
So where does this leave us, what of our history and culture that predates these events by over ten and a half thousand years? Is the ‘right of conquest’ so infallible that even a baseless land deal between two imperial powers is enough to justify the dominion over what was then un-mapped territory and un-contacted peoples?