Alan Boraas: Dena'ina exhibit testifies to rich history - and determination to have a future

The name of the recently opened exhibit at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Dena'inaq' Huch'ulyeshi, should be a signal that this is no ordinary exhibit about exotic people from distant places.

"A Dena'ina Way of Living" is about the original inhabitants of this place, a people who have occupied Cook Inlet and parts of the Kvichak and Kuskokwim drainages for thousands of years. During that time the Dena'ina forged one of the world's great sustainable societies.

Of course they were helped along in that endeavor by having salmon as the keystone species of their subsistence. Until recently salmon has been one of the world's most secure, predictable, and nutritious food sources. The summer flood of salmon to our northern waters is a biomass of unmatched proportions.

Early anthropologists forged the concept of culture to understand why people behave the way they do. They understood that one of the driving forces was subsistence--how people obtain and distribute food energy. Eventually the Marxian idea of economic determinism was rejected, but it is still a well established principle that subsistence (or economics) is a primary driving force that shapes how family is structured, what values become core values, and what beliefs constitute the force of supernatural power.

For the Dena'ina and the other salmon cultures of the world: the Saami, Micmac, Hupa, Haida, Ainu, and others it was the king of fish that shaped their language their values, and their reason for being.

But those core values were also formed by something else, the mystery of the northern forest. We in the modern world have insulated ourselves from those mysteries with the light switch and centralized heating. We don't spend much time miles from anywhere camping out on a cold winter night. Only then with the fire crackling and the shadows alive can we truly understand this place. It is telling that in the ancient stories the animals called the Dena'ina the Campfire People.

And so you will see in the artifacts assembled from far-flung museums by curators Suzie Jones, James Fall and a young Dena'ina scholar named Aaron Leggett, a statement about this place through the lens of the people who have been here the longest. The message is not of vicarious time-travel into the past, but a statement about the present: the Dena'ina are saying "we're still here and we will continue to be here."

In urban areas the old sustainable culture was to be truncated by Captain Cook and Russians and especially canneries, miners, homesteaders, oil workers and a glut of service workers: doctors, lawyers and college professors that inundated Dena'ina territory, each in their way writing them out of history.

In 1970 if you had asked a person on the street the name of the indigenous culture that occupied Cook Inlet you would have gotten a shrug or maybe "Eskimos I guess." Like its southern counterparts, the northern version of Manifest Destiny is made problematic by the presence of indigenous people with indigenous rights. Better to eliminate them by writing them out of history so you can feel good about transforming the landscape from raw to civilized, or as the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, put it, from raw to cooked.

But the Dena'ina would not die at the stroke, or lack thereof, of a pen. They would not be written out of the history of their land and their landscape.

To be sure many Dena'ina succumb to one of the powerful tools of cultural dominance: disinterest. Disinterest means a dominant culture convincing a minority through assimilation tactics to not act in their self-interest but in the interest of the dominant culture. Teachers and other newcomers subtly or not so subtly, enacted measures to convince Dena'ina that it was not in their best interest to embrace their Dena'ina identity. Their mouths were washed out with soap for speaking their language in school and their traditional clothing was mocked. In later years little Dena'ina girls were too brown or too poor to be invited to birthday parties and boys had to fight or slump away in school yard encounters because they were not from the mainstream. To cope, many Dena'ina denied their heritage.

Disinterest is a terrible thing with devastating psychological consequences.

Now one of Alaska's premier museums has finally seen fit to tell the story of this place and to do it from the perspective of the Dena'ina. Haunting the display cases at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center's exhibit is the back story of payback -- payback for a century of being ignored and marginalized in their homeland. Congratulations to the museum and its curators for making progress in the war against the cancer of ethnocentrism.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.