Warming Up in Anchorage

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6/8/19, On BoardAlaska Airlines Flight 62

Everybody seems to be talking about the unusual heat.  When told that we are from New Mexico, several people claim that we brought our weather with us.  We overheard a restaurant worker say that Anchorage just never gets lightening, right after a rumble echoed down the mountain passes.  A very good friend of mine sent me an article from the Smithsonian magazine about how Alaska is experiencing record heat.

Of course, Joan and I think that a high temperature of 80 degrees, and nighttime lows in the high 50s is really pretty temperate – we think it is terrific weather.  All things are relative, I guess and the weather is one of them.  If this ‘heat wave’ continues, it might render some of our clothing choices useless – maybe we won’t need quite as many layers,

But, despite what some ante-Diluvians think, global warming is a fact.  Scientists have already determined that the areas likely to be affected the most are the polar regions, with the extra heats first effects being the melting of polar ice.  That means some of the early and most serious effects occurring right here in Alaska.  As I have already learned – and will write about often in future posts – Alaskan ecology is rich and complicated and, importantly, is highly dependent on cycles of cold weather.  If you take that away, you will upset more than the apple cart. 

But I didn’t want to talk about ecology, but rather archaeology today.  Yesterday we took the hotel shuttle north of Anchorage a few miles to the Alaskan Native Heritage Center.  Located in a lush forested setting, the center is idyllic.  Coupled with the weather, we had a thoroughly enjoyable three or four hours.

We started inside in the Gathering Place where a young man, a high school student in fact, was demonstrating the native tradition of story-telling, by, umm, telling a story!  His story involved a friend of his who, somehow had acquired a Mustang and, after being told the Alaskan Highway Patrol were all involved in a special meeting in Fairbanks, decided to drive the 240 miles from Fairbanks to Anchorage in just over two hours.

High School Kids Dancing at Alaska Native Heritage Center

As I’m listening to his story, I realize two important things.  First, this kid was very much like any normal high school kid with a fascination for fast cars, flaunting authority, and proud of all of that.  Yeah, although my car wouldn’t go quite that fast, I can remember testing the speed limits at that age.

But there was also something else about this kid.  He was fully engaged in the act of telling this story – an activity that, evidenced by his enthusiasm, and confidence, he obviously felt was a natural part of his culture.

A while later, he was joined by a young woman and two other young men who were all very much Native American in appearance.  For the next hour, these four high school kids, sang  songs from the Yu’pik people, a group of Native Alaskans from the sparsely populated tundras of the southwestern part of the state.  What was fascinating and hopeful about this performance was how much these kids, normally proponents of tradition-busting norms, embraced their historical culture.  Instead of rushing full speed into the mind numbing world of iPods and Fox News, these kids were taking the time to learn about their ancestors, and their music and their stories.  They were singing songs about having respect for the targets of seasonal hunts – something far from the average Anchorage grocery store.

After the concert, Joan and I browsed the sidewalk booths of about a dozen native artists selling their custom jewelry, clothing, and everyday tools.  All of them items of native origin, beautiful style, and functional purpose.  I bought Joan a pair of walrus whisker earrings which, the artist said, came from an animal her father and grandfather had hunted.  She, also, came from the Yu’pik region and her family still lived there in traditional, subsistence, fashion.

Reconstruction of Native Housing at ANHC

Next we proceeded around the lake on a paved path which visited reconstructions of villages from each of the five native groupings making up Alaskan pre-history.  In just about every building, more native high school students were available to answer questions, or, if desired, give their packaged presentation explaining the artifacts in each building, their origins, and purpose.  I’m sure the structures were reasonable facsimiles of what we might have found a couple of centuries ago, even if some of their settings weren’t quite right.  For example, though the center is located in a dense lush forest, there are virtually no trees and only shrubs, mosses, and lichens on the tundra where several native groups found sustenance.  There are no forests on the Aleutian Islands and so the Aleuts learned to harvest the sea.  Seeing an example of their village style in a green forest setting is a bit misleading.

Native Village at ANHC

My formal training in sociology and anthropology is going to be fairly useful on this trip.  Alaskan pre-history is a very rich web of several native cultures and I am hoping that this trip will allow me to see and tell more stories about this rich culture.  The earliest archaeological evidence from Alaska dates back at least 14,000 years, but ‘they’ suspect it may have occurred much earlier.  Some current speculation is that as much as 40,000 year ago, in the middle of a severe ice age, the ocean levels were several hundred feet below where they are now.  That meant that Asia and North America were actually connected by a massive ‘land bridge’ several hundred miles wide – what is known as Beringia, across what is now, the Bering Sea.  It is believed that there were at least two waves that came across.

Whale Ribs

One group, and possibly the first group, was from Central Asia and became, first the Athabaskan peoples.  They followed large mammals like mastodons, into what is now central Alaska.  It is believed that they followed an ice-free corridor to the east of the Rockies, eventually settling the rest of the America’s.  There is distinct genetic evidence linking the Athabaskan of interior Alaska to the Comanche and Navajo Indians of the American Southwest.  Based on language derivations, it appears that an early group of Athabaskan also moved westward across the mountains and ended up forming the distinctive Native subcultures of the Alaskan southeastern panhandle – the Tlingits (and three other even smaller groups.)

A second wave of immigrants came from southeastern Asia, were smaller in stature, and looked much more like what we now call Asians.  These people branched into groups such as the Yu’pik, the Inupiat (or Eskimos), and the Aleuts populating the island chain.

All of this archaeology is presented at the Heritage Center, as well as in a book I am reading, The Native People of Alaska by Steve J. Langdon.  He divides the native cultures into six distinct groups, the Heritage Center describes five.  In other places I’ve read of as many as eleven unique Alaskan cultures.  I suspect there are many ways to slice and dice native cultures, but the important conclusion is that they form a distinctive and important part of the Alaskan story.  Some 20 different Native languages are spoken in the Alaskan school system and approximately 15% of the population describe themselves as Native Americans.  As in my state of New Mexico, the cultural input of from this group of people is a key part of understanding this state.

And that brings me back to the high school kid telling the story.  We hear so much these days about how the traditions of the past are being forgotten and, as a result, ignored.  And yet, these Native Alaskans found a balance with nature that is profoundly relevant today.  They were able to live for thousands of years in a very difficult environment.  Modern western culture, on the other hand, seems to want to wipe itself out after just a century or two.  Perhaps there is value in learning what these other societies have to tell us.  Not that we will ever go back to subsistence living from whale blubber – that’s neither desirable nor feasible.  But maybe the story they tell us gives us a bigger and better picture of how we might use our technology to live in harmony with nature not to try and dominate it.  Maybe those high school kids know a whole lot more than we do.