Common Culture

[I’ve been taking an Alaska Studies class online, required for teachers here, doing weekly assignments like the one below on Alaskan cultures. I thought this one might make an OK blog post]


This is not an easy assignment, at least it’s not if you want to be complete. I like the way Joe [another student] did it, describing distinct rural and urban cultures, but since he already did that, I won’t copy him. I was thinking of grouping the many different Alaskan cultures (all important, of course) into three categories, White (like me), Indigenous, and other (other non-white cultures) but of course these are over-simplifications in many ways and you really couldn’t even begin to do justice to any real complexity.

Take white people, for instance. I’m white, as my Tlingit and Filipina wife often reminds me, with fairly common mix of long-lost Scandinavian, German, French and British Ancestry.  At this point in Alaska history whites have had a huge impact on our state. Do we have a "white" culture, some kind of blend of the remnants of the various bits of European cultures that have remained with us, combined with our newer highly commercialized society? It seems likely, but how do you even identify a white culture? Some people are trying, like this guy who runs a blog called Stuff White People Like. But if you look closely at the posts you see they are really talking about what mildly liberal yuppies like, a group that might be mostly white but not exclusively so. But even without being able to identify what white culture is in Alaska, I’ll for sure make the statement that it is the dominant culture, the culture that you must be fluent in, at least at the elite level, if you want to most easily climb the various and tenuous economic and political ladders in the state.

It’s common to be presented with a list of features about a culture that makes them different from other cultures, or different form the dominant one. For instance, you may have seen such a list about Native cultures valuing community property over personal property, clan over individual. But I think it’s just as useful to see what cultures have in common, their common "humanness" you might say.  You can find it in the historical record.

I was digging around for information on local Indian schools in Juneau and found a transcription of an 1899 meeting that took place between various Tlingit chiefs and the territorial governor John Brady at the time,  a document that’s quite heartbreaking. It records the thoughtful and desperate pleas of several Tlingit chiefs that they might somehow get access to their lands again, specifically their salmon streams and rivers. These streams might be clan property, but they were regarded as property. A normal cultural comparison list might say ok, look at the difference in how cultures view property, one is clan based and the other is individual based. But if you read this plea from the chiefs you see the common human value of fairness, of the fair deal (even though the governor doesn’t seem to have it). They wanted a fair deal which involved keeping their streams and hunting access so the culture could stay alive. Chief Kah-du-shan from Wrangal explains…

We make this complaint because we are very poor now. The time

will come when we will not have anything left. The money and

everything else in this country will be the property of the white

man, and our people will have nothing. We meet here tonight for

the purpose for you to write to the chief at Washington and to let

them know our complaint. We also ask him to return our creeks and 

the hunting grounds that white people have taken away from us.


And Chief Chief Koogh-see from Hoonah adds to this with some additional reasoning, hoping to convince his audience of the fairness of their arguments:

I have been down to Seattle, and Tacoma. I have seen very nice towns.

I have seen how white men live, and I like it very much. Now

supposing I came back here and told my people, the leading men such

as Kah-du-shan to go down to Seattle and Tacoma. I have seen

white men raising at those towns all kinds of fruit and vegetables.

Suppose I tell these people to go with me on certain days to burn

certain ground and next day same thing and third day same

thing and destroy all these things, don’t you suppose the white

people would say something to us if we destroyed all these grounds

by fire and get on places where white people goats and other

animals and commenced to shoot them. That is why I ask you,

Governor, to return all these things which white men took away

from us. Creeks, for instance, where we make dry fish, places

where we trap. We make our living altogether by trapping and

hunting, and I ask you to give all these places back. And if

white men should like to take possession of any of these places,

we should like to ask you to tell them to not take them for nothing

but to pay for them.


In modern Juneau, now 109 years from when these speeches took place in that small schoolhouse, with some additional cultural groups and of course lots of blending–but still in large part Indians and white people–we are dealing with the same issues in many ways, trying to figure out what’s fair.


Remains of Old Taku Village 12 mile S. of Juneau, 1914

Remains of Old Taku Village 12 mile S. of Juneau, 1914

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