Alaska Natives thrived before the coming of the white man

Sen. Fred Dyson

Homo sapiens have lived and prospered in Alaska for at least 10,000 years. Very resourceful people had advanced cultures and economies here when Europeans were huddling in caves drawing on the walls with burnt sticks.

It is easy for those of us from non-indigenous stock to assume that humans accomplished nothing of significance here before 1747. Most of our attitude is benign ignorance mixed with some cultural hubris. My purpose is to dispel some of the ignorance and engender more respect as we go forward.

Houses: Alaska's Arctic Native people evolved semi subterranean houses thousands of years before the hippies made earth houses popular in the 1960s. These houses had insulation several feet thick with "arctic entries" to keep out the wind and the vapor barrier on the inside. (Modern house designers did not figure this stuff out until the last 50 years.)

The homes of Alaska's northern people could be heated with a seal oil lamp. An elder and friend from Barrow told me, "Before the white man came, we lived underground and buried our dead above ground. Now we do it backwards and we haven't been warm since."

They figured out how to quickly construct movable dwellings when they went to fish camp or needed to follow the changing game migration patterns. In timber country, they learned how to split tree trunks into planks and build post and beam structures of great utility and beauty that shed the rain and leaked not.

Tools: Alaska's indigenous people are ingenious inventors and very open to borrowing technology from all sources. They developed the toggle head harpoon, braided ropes, and inflatable buoys that made the hunting of marine mammals possible. The famed "Japanese" current brings anything that floats across the North Pacific and often deposits the flotsam and jetsam onto Alaska's coasts. Alaska Natives scavenged the iron and made axes, spear and arrow heads, saws, chisels, drills, knives. They called them "gifts from the sea." Early Alaskans developed laminated recurve bows as fine as any in Europe or Asia. They increased the range of their spears with "attalas," throwing sticks.

Great boats: In the north, Alaska's Native people developed boats that met three criteria. The boat's frame could be built from local trees, bushes and driftwood. The covering was from animal skins. And the completed boat was man-portable and could be dragged across the land or ice.

Now, thousands of years later, no one has improved upon the design and shape of the kayak. There is simply no other vessel in history or in the world that is so capable of taking one to three people safely out to sea. And these boats are fast and easily driven.

The larger, open skin boats, often called umiaks, could carry a dozen or more people, plus cargo, and still be moved across the ice or up onto shore. The kayaks and umiaks were designed to flex in a seaway and thus avoid the frame-breaking stress that plagues any boat longer than the space between waves. In timber country, huge tree trunks were hollowed out, steamed and spread to make magnificent ocean capable boats that made ocean voyages of more than a thousand miles. In these great boats, early Alaskans raided and traded down the coast perhaps as far as San Francisco Bay. They were this continent's equivalent of the Vikings of Europe.

Effective government: Most of Alaska's original inhabitants established trade routes and relationships that enabled them to trade with others who had access to desirable goods. This allowed early Alaskans to trade for copper from Northwest territories, and perhaps iron and other goods from Asia.

There is also some evidence that early Alaska had evolved sophisticated restorative justice protocols. These agreements allowed for the peaceful resolution of disputes and torts. In the U.S., we are only recently rediscovering the genius of these systems that put the rights and restoration of the victims first.

Most Alaska Native people had an effective system of selecting honorable and effective leaders that worked well. The prospective leaders had to prove themselves worthy by showing maturity, hunting skills and wisdom. Then the elders went through some deliberative process that resulted in consensus to confirm the leaders.

And now

I trust my observations here are largely accurate and not offensive. We non-Natives are unfair to not acknowledge that we are latecomers to this great land and that we are standing on the shoulders of giants who learned to live in this magnificent land over 10,000 years ago. Let us acknowledge our debts and sins and go forward with respect, justice and dignity.

Fred Dyson, a Republican senator from Eagle River, has lived in Alaska since 1964 and raised his family here. He fished in Bristol Bay for 25 years and has worked on several engineering projects in Western Alaska.