From the Archives, April 5, 1974: Looking forward through the culture of the past
Suse McInnis/ Polar Star
Since contact, and increasingly in the late twentieth century, the first Alaskans have been separated more and more from their once close ties to the northernmost state’s extraordinary nature. Modern ways have marooned them, set them apart from ways of life and culture which grew slowly out of man’s adaptations to this coarse land.
Sweeping changes have caused much to be left behind, not the least of which are the tools, toys, costumes, the objects which attest to spiritual belief, craftsmanship and ingenuity of these peoples. Such objects, once graced with the power of function and ritual, are now artifacts, valued as much by modern historians and anthropologists as by the elders, studied in laboratories and viewed in museums, copied for tourist sales.
That the objects of craft and culture have been transferred from the private realm to the public is not of itself bad. But there is the danger that as Eskimo and Indian individuals Americanize their lives, as this state grows more like the “outside,” Alaskans and those newcomers who have adopted the state as their own, will become blind to the wealth of history that is here.
Unique artistry of craftsmanship, respect for the land, seasons, animals, and for this proud lineage may be overwhelmed by the drive for the material and social trappings of modernization.
Many feel, however, that Alaska may soon take its rightful place as one of the world centers for primitive art. This may be a very positive aspect of the move into public view.
Programs, now fledgling, encouraging young craftsmen to continue their work, to create written languages, and, from them, volumes recording the myth and history of the land, to build a curricula for young students within the state’s educational system which are relevant to their village and town lives, may receive the attention and funding they must have to survive.
Events such as the current Festival of Native Arts are, for these reasons, welcome and necessary additions to the schedule of activities on the Fairbanks campus. The festival, germ and brainchild of fewer than 20 native students and four or five faculty members from departments as diverse as Student Orientation Services, Physical Education and, from town, the Fairbanks Native Center, is the first of its kind in Fairbanks.
It will provide the Fairbanks community with the opportunity to view the dances, games, crafts, art, and literature of Aleut, Eskimo, and Indian peoples, the chance to participate and to speak with natives from the major culture areas of the state.
This is very much a first venture. Coordinators have worked with generous, yet inadequate funding, problems of transportation and housing of participants, the intricacies involved with gathering the impressive number of craft objects, works of art and artifact from the corners of the states, and with scheduling each group’s many activities into five days time. This festival of Native Arts has been a prodigious undertaking. This writer hopes that its success will encourage other such celebrations in future years.
In The Far North, the publication accompanying a showing of American Eskimo and Indian art presented in cities across the nation, Edmund Carpenter said, “this exhibition is not concocted out of unrelated bits and pieces stolen from the dead, but assembled in an effort to reconstruct certain lost “realities” so that such realities can once more be experiences.”
His comment on that exhibition may well find application here. The festival is a statement of the life which still fills Alaska’s native cultures and an encouraging sign of their potential for growth in an estranging environment.