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New Dynamics of Cultural Research and Representation in Alaska

Aron L. Crowell
Presented at the Northern Research Forum, Akureyi, Iceland
November 2000

Alaska Natives number more than 90,000 people and speak 20 indigenous languages. This cultural diversity exists against an historical background of cultural repression as well as the contemporary resurgence of indigenous rights, resource ownership, political autonomy and cultural voice. Within this context, the relationship between Alaska Native peoples and cultural researchers from outside their communities has undergone a fundamental transformation. Anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, economists and other social scientists, as well as the universities, museums, agencies and foundations that employ and support them, all stand on a far different footing with respect to Native communities than was the case until even the last decade.

Today, researchers seek permissions, collaboration and communication as a matter of course. Information is shared with communities and ethical standards of informed consent, indigenous participation, data sharing and respect for privacy are pre-conditions for project approval and funding (see Guidelines for Research, Alaska Federation of Natives; Principles for the Conduct of Research in the Arctic, U. S. Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee and the National Science Foundation; Draft Principles for an Arctic Policy, Inuit Circumpolar Conference.) Alaska Native communities have also prioritized self-representation of their cultures in books, media and museums.

In the long history of arctic research, these principles and responsibilities were often unrecognized or ignored. The indigenous critique of traditional social science practice indicts researchers for lack of community review and access to publications, disrespect for cultural values, disregard for restrictions on the use of oral traditions, removal of objects without proper permission, disturbance of burials and removal of human remains for study, failure to reciprocate village cooperation, lack of credit and financial return to Native colleagues and other offenses.

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Reform of the relationship between researchers and communities can be credited in large measure to advocacy by indigenous organizations as well as to specific U. S. federal legislation. Repatriation laws have had a broad impact, including both the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the related National Museum of the American Indian Act, which applies specifically to the Smithsonian Institution and its Native American collections. NAGPRA and the NMAI Act reassign legal ownership of many human remains and certain categories of cultural objects (sacred items, objects of cultural patrimony, grave goods) from federally supported museums to tribes. Widely resisted at first by museums and anthropologists, these laws redressed some of the most fundamental grievances of Native communities and shifted indigenous rights to the forefront.

The U. S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the leading source of northern social science funding (almost $2 million in fiscal year 2000 through its Arctic Social Sciences division in the Office of Polar Programs), has been highly influential by directing its support toward projects that actively involve the cooperation and participation of local communities (Arctic Social Sciences: Opportunities in Arctic Research, ARCUS 1999). Federal agencies that conduct social science research in the north have also adopted goals and standards that reflect the new priorities. Agency work is coordinated by the U. S. Arctic Research Commission and the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC).

In recent years, the NSF supported creation of the Alaska Native Science Commission to encourage collaborative project design in such areas as northern contaminants research and the incorporation of traditional ecological knowledge into environmental and climate change studies. NSF also provides support for the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative, a statewide effort with the University of Alaska and Alaska Federation of Natives to develop culturally integrated science and mathematics curricula for Alaskan schools. The emphasis is on incorporating local knowledge and Native worldviews into science teaching. The Smithsonian Institution's Arctic Studies Center (National Museum of Natural History) has played a role in establishing new working relationships for research and education with indigenous communities in Alaska, Canada and Russia.

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There is a growing recognition that a collaborative, community-based research model can be applied in a wide range of contexts and work effectively within the value systems of both villages and scientific disciplines. Archaeological excavations, linguistic studies, oral history, cultural landscape studies, subsistence studies, documentation of museum collections and recording of indigenous knowledge of arctic ecosystems are a few examples of current cooperative work. Both communities and researchers benefit from consultation, information sharing, cost sharing and co-design of such projects, and many are organized, funded, or directed by Alaska Native organizations. Such projects help to support essential goals of Alaska Native communities: the integration of cultural heritage and contemporary identity, social health, education and management of critical resources. Local involvement and educational outreach can be incorporated through many channels. For example, anthropologists and others contribute to the development of tribal museums, cultural centers and exhibits and to educational materials for schools.

A few specific areas of active collaborative research may be highlighted in the present context. For example, human interactions with the changing arctic environment are an important focus of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural study. With NSF support, Henry Huntington and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference worked with North Alaskan coastal communities to document traditional ecological knowledge of beluga whales and their migrations. The Marine Mammal Commission (with Caleb Pongawi) has compiled hunters' observations of shifts in whale, walrus, caribou and seabird behavior. Anthropologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game cooperated with the University of Alaska and communities in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet to develop educational films and interactive CD-ROMs about local subsistence practices and traditional knowledge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Alaska Nanuuq Commission and Union of Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka recently collaborated on an international study of polar bears that relied heavily on indigenous observations. A recent workshop by the Marine Mammal Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Marine Fisheries Service focused on linking climate change observations by scientists and Native communities.

Archaeology provides a window into cultural history and human-environmental interactions in the past. Archaeological sites can be ideal opportunities for collaborative study and community involvement because they are often located near contemporary villages and are easily linked to school programs, training opportunities, local cultural heritage efforts and tribal museums. The National Science Foundation and the Kodiak Area Native Association co-sponsored excavations by Bryn Mawr College at the Karluk 1 site on Kodiak Island, leading to a wide range of educational efforts and foundation of the Alutiiq Museum in 1995. The Utqiagvik Archaeology Project in Barrow (State University of New York, North Slope Borough, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs) was another landmark project. Research was carried out jointly, including studies made of human remains recovered at the site. Over the past 15 years, many excavations and field schools have featured close cooperation between Native organizations and the National Park Service (especially its Shared Beringian Heritage Program), University of Alaska, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arctic Studies Center and other agencies and universities.

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Museums, collections and exhibitions are another highly active area of cultural study and collaborative effort. Archaeological and ethnological collections, scholarly reports and publications, photographs and archival research data gathered during two centuries of scientific contact in the north are of inestimable value to present-day Alaska Native communities. A network of new Alaska Native museums and cultural centers has opened over the past ten years, in Anchorage, Barrow, Kodiak, Unalaska, Bethel and other locations. These organizations house cultural collections and have become focal points for local and regional projects in oral history, archaeology and traditional arts. These institutions are locally run and supported, and provide an important venue for self-representation of cultural values and perspectives.

The on-going process of repatriation under NAGPRA, which requires extensive consultation between outside museums and tribal groups, has created a new awareness of the wealth of Alaskan collections in U. S. museums and around the world. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History alone holds more than 18,000 ethnological objects from Alaska, of which some portion will eventually go back to the state through repatriation. Others will return through exhibits developed by the Arctic Studies Center (ASC) in coordination with Alaska Native organizations, the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and other partners. An example is ASC's Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People, co-developed by the Alutiiq Museum using information provided by Alutiiq Elders and scholars. ASC offers on-going student internships and community scholar opportunities, and over the next two years will work on a major project with Alaska Native consultants to document Smithsonian collections and to produce new exhibits, publications and a web site. The Anchorage Museum's Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks is another prominent example of community-based exhibition development, and has been followed by further NSF-sponsored study of European museum collections by Yup'ik elders (with curator Ann Fienup-Riordan).

Information may be returned in other ways. For example, ASC's Beringian Yup'ik Heritage Project (led by Igor Krupnik, Willis Walunga, Vera Metcalf, and Lyudmilla Ainana) has assembled historical documentary records, notes, maps and genealogical data from the past century of anthropological research on St. Lawrence Island to create a community sourcebook of Yup'ik heritage and history.

It is clear that a new paradigm of U. S. arctic social science has emerged in response to broad political, legal and intellectual trends. The opportunities and challenges are both large. Joining local and scientific knowledge in the area of environmental observation is difficult and requires the construction of new interpretive frameworks. An increasingly important issue in cultural research is intellectual property. Research protocols signed with indigenous entities now often call for restricted access to the information gathered, in line with cultural values and fears that it will be misused or misrepresented. To what extent will researchers agree to restrictions on publication? Repatriation entails other unresolved matters that may undermine the collaborative efforts of Native communities and museums, including disagreement over what objects can be defined under the law as sacred or as inalienable because of cultural patrimony. In general, and across all aspects of social and cultural research, collaboration with indigenous communities requires time, willingness to listen, and a commitment to share control and to work toward alternative goals.

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