Inupiaq use Google, blend cultures

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Deanna Paniataaq Kingston

Native people from the far north use rifles, outboard motors and aluminum boats to hunt walrus. To find open ice passages they may check Google Earth.

Does the use of such modern tools make them any less native? Any less Ugiuvangmiut?

Absolutely not, says Deanna Paniataaq Kingston. Using the old and the new in this way reflects a blending of cultures—not a cultural splitting.

“In other words, I do not see contemporary Ugiuvangmiut as ‘walking in two worlds,’ in which they are Ugiuvangmiut in some instances and ‘white’ in others,” Kingston said in describing her research on the Inupiaq Eskimo people from King Island in the Bering Strait. “Rather, I see them as embracing elements of the larger white Euroamerican culture to create traditions that are still uniquely Ugiuvangmiut.”

A Center Research Fellow and associate professor of anthropology in OSU’s School of Language, Culture, and Society, Kingston has a personal as well as a scholarly understanding of shifting views of native culture. As a member of the Ugiuvangmiut who grew up in Oregon, she said, her “initial tendencies were to try to repudiate my own upbringing in western society.”

Now she sees value in change as well as tradition. “Indigenous peoples have not forsaken the modern world and it is time to recognize some of the good things that the western world has brought us.”

King Island is located off the west coast of Seward Peninsula, northwest of Nome. No one has lived on the island year-round since 1966. Though they remain a cultural entity, the members of the group are scattered throughout Alaska and the lower 48 states.  

Kingston’s book-in-progress is titled Nigliarugut Ugiuvangmiuguruagut: We Ugiuvangmiut Are Wolf Dancing. The Nigla, or Wolf Dance, was a ceremony performed to create a sacred space in which two communities could enter into exchange with each other—could “renegotiate” the terms of the relationship between them.

“In much the same way, the Ugiuvangmiut are actively renegotiating their relationship to the wider world on a daily basis, deciding what elements of both worlds to use in their own lives.”  

The notion of “walking in two worlds” is a common way for scholars and others to describe the experience of indigenous Americans whose cultures were dramatically changed by European colonization. The phrase implies that indigenous populations must learn the ways of the dominant western culture while also maintaining their own traditions in the home communities.

“This assumes that the two cultural traditions are so vastly different that they cannot be reconciled,” said Kingston. “For many years, indigenous traditions were devalued and indigenous peoples were punished for practicing them, creating cultural dissonances which have led to low self-esteem in these communities.”

Partly in reaction, recent trends have included a tendency to romanticize and reify “traditional” indigenous culture along with a tendency to demonize western culture.

“These efforts to rediscover their own traditions are laudable. It is not my intent to discredit them,” said Kingston, but for real healing to occur, “indigenous peoples must acknowledge that their lives have irrevocably changed due to colonialism—and that their cultures changed and adapted for millennia even before colonialism.”
Though European colonization caused significant losses for Ugiuvangmiut culture, Kingston argues that the King Islanders have succeeded in maintaining important traditions while weaving aspects of western culture into their own ways.

“Does the use of outboard motors and satellite phones make the Ugiuvangmiut any less Ugiuvangmiut? This is akin to asking, does the use of kayaks, an Inuit invention, by whitewater enthusiasts make them any less American?”

The nigla, or Wolf Dance, did not necessarily create a lasting truce between the Ugiuvangmiut and those around them, said Kingston, but it created a temporary peace. “In the same way, the Ugiuvangmiut are constantly negotiating a truce with the forces of globalization and colonization.”

Kingston’s goal is to “show how all of us Ugiuvangmiut are ‘transcultural’ in our daily interactions—how we Ugiuvangmiut are wolf dancing on a daily basis.”

(For more information about King Island and the Ugiuvangmiut see the King Island Placenames Project interactive website  http://www.kingislandplacename.com/)