Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics

This is not a review of the book, just kind of a brief insider's peek into my chapter contribution and what I was thinking about regarding the book in general. When scholar and good friend Maria Williams first asked whether I was interested in being a contributing author to The Alaska Native Reader: History Culture, Politics, I jumped at the chance. Her description sounded purely irresistible, like offering a very shiny puzzle to a raven or something; much too delicious to pass up. She mentioned some of the other contributors, such as:
  • Nora Marks Dauenhauer & Richard Dauenhauer, POEMS
  • William L. Hensley, Why the Natives of Alaska have a Land Claim
  • Gregory A. Cajete PhD, The Cosmos: Indigenous Perspectives
  • Claudette Engblom-Bradley, Seeing Mathematics with Indian Eyes
  • Lilian Na'ia Alessa PhD, What is Truth? Where Western Science and Traditional Knowledge Converge
  • Kanaqlak George Charles, PhD, Cultural Identity through Yupiaq Narrative
  • Maria Shaan Tlaa Williams, PhD, The Comity Agreement: Missionization of Alaska's Native People
(There are numerous others, all with subjects of relevance to not only indigenous people, but to humanity at large.)

This book is for anyone interested in learning some of the history, science, art, and politics that hardly ever makes it into mainstream educational programs. It reminds me that even something that is supposed to be objective, such as science, is sometimes only objective as long as it is written by White Man. Hey all you White guys: What ever happened to that sacred scientific method you always preach about? Is it the truth if you exclude science that comes from other places in the world?

I suspect that a lot of our indigenous children actively resist Western education because they can't relate to it. I remember actually sneering at the first star charts (that I saw) that had Greek or Latin names when I was in elementary school and thinking quite clearly, "Who the heck are they to name our Tlingit night sky? Screw this." And needless to say, I did NOT memorize their names all those years ago. It made me realize that some of our indigenous activists are only 11 years old. This was an act of cultural resistance by a young indigenous person, and can still remember how indignant I was with the lesson. How I would have loved to have had the opportunity to read Gregory A. Cajete's "The Cosmos: Indigenous Perspectives" in conjunction with the Greek and Latin names.

In an ideal setting, children would learn all aspects of the sciences, social studies, mathematics, literature and other subjects as a part of their regular curriculums. This would give them a broader education that is inclusive of other forms of scholarship and epistemologies that are just as factual and relevant as the ones that they already use. Especially if the children are not a part of the "mainstream" ethnicity or culture. If you/we don't offer a curriculum that is relevant to them, in some instances, they simply won't participate, and opt to not learn what is currently there, like what I did with the foreign names of the stars.

My answer to this entire scenario of what happens at the intersection of the mainstream and the indigenous world was and is to make art about it, and offer my own scholarship as a University Professor. Therefore, when thinking about a title to the chapter that would appeal to young readers, I gave the title of my chapter a great deal of thought. I changed it about nine times over the course of writing the chapter, but ended up with An Indigenous Guide to White Man, or How to Stay Sane When the World Makes No Sense.
I'd have loved to have read an essay like this when I was young. Who else out there needs an Indigenous Guide to White Man? Especially when the world makes no sense.

Maria added a list of suggestions for further reading, which was a very thoughtful touch, because a lot of the chapters serve as an introduction and overview to the various subjects.

Gunalsheesh, Thank you Maria for spearheading this book project, it is deeply appreciated!

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