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'So, How Long Have You Been Native?' explores Alaska's cultural tourism

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 25, 2015

So, How Long Have You Been Native?

By Alexis C. Bunten; University of Nebraska Press; 2015; 272 pages; $26.95

Anyone who has worked in the tourism industry knows that people passing through Alaska can ask the strangest things. Still, the question that forms the title of Alexis Bunten's book about her experiences working in the Native Alaskan cultural tourism business is a doozy. As we learn early on, one of her co-workers actually was asked, "So, how long have you been Native?"

Bunten was working on her doctorate in anthropology when she went to work for Sitka-based Tribal Tours during the summers of 2003 and 2004. It was a seasonal job, but her primary motivation was research. Bunten was exploring what she describes as the "cultural commodification and self-branding in Native American tourism." She wanted to better understand the balance between introducing tourists to Native cultures and the inevitable selling of those cultures that results. She decided that working for one of the companies involved would be a good form of field work.

Tribal Tours is a nonprofit owned by Sitka Tribe of Alaska that offers tours of the city focusing on its Tlingit heritage. Bunten's genealogy is Alutiiq and Yupik — as well as Swedish — but her Native background gave her a leg up in being hired. Although her main goal in taking the job was research, her book downplays academic analysis in favor of telling the human side of what she found.

Fictionalized but informative

At the outset, Bunten states that she's moved events around and that the co-workers she writes about are in actuality composites of people she met. The book is also written as a chronological account of one summer rather than two, so she's compressed things, as well.

The end result is thus somewhat fictionalized, but in a fashion that allows readers to feel they've gained valuable insight into Tlingit culture, the tourism industry, the lives of seasonal workers, the town of Sitka and the complexities of ethnic identity in an age when more and more people have racially mixed backgrounds. Somehow Bunten keeps it all flowing smoothly, applying her tour guide skills to the written page.

Bunten, who alerted Tribal Tours in advance to what she was doing, takes readers through the late winter hiring process and the early spring training regime. It was mostly a positive experience, although she balked at the demeaning but required drug test.

Once ships start pulling into Sitka, the story gains momentum. Tribal Tours was, at the time, new to the local tourism market, and Bunten and her fellow employees hawked day tours to passengers as they disembarked. She had to learn the ins and outs of hustling quickly, knowing whom to target and whom to ignore.

It's here that Bunten offers some pointed observations and critiques of the tourism industry. Sitka is marketed by the luxury liners as "Russian America," and while this makes sense since it was the capital of the colony under the Russians, it puts Tribal Tours at a disadvantage. Tourists come ashore looking for Russian history rather than the vastly longer Tlingit experience.

The company was also in fierce competition with Sitka Tours, the local powerhouse that had the advantage of selling tours onboard the ships so passengers wouldn't even have a chance to learn about the Native option. Bunten describes some pretty cutthroat practices that Sitka Tours engaged in to keep the upper hand.

Stereotypes tough to overcome

The author also ponders the impact of tourism on communities. The extent to which tourist dollars actually help Sitka is hard to determine since the ship operators pay few taxes, the passengers get funneled into onshore businesses that contract with the liners, and many onshore outfits hire seasonal workers from Outside rather than locally. Meanwhile, year-round residents find their town overrun five months a year.

Bunten soon moved up to tour guide and here she found herself in the difficult position of trying to convey Native views to largely white tourists in ways that didn't offend them. For Native Alaskans, there is a long history of upheaval, subjugation, cultural suppression and other ills that followed the arrival of Europeans and only began to subside in the second half of the 20th century. Bunten recounts parts of that history over the course of the book. One of the objectives of Tribal Tours is to illuminate these events. Bunten found that carefully inserted humor could take the edge off her presentations and get her tour groups engaged with what happened rather than feeling guilty about it.

Still, stereotypes were hard to overcome. Midway through the book Bunten points out that tourists looking for the Native viewpoint actually wanted what they considered "authenticity," meaning Natives shouldn't progress. She writes, "It was as if the national narrative of the 'melting pot' was reserved for everybody except the Natives, who must remain in an imagined precontact physical form in order to be real."

This put employees in their own bind, she explains. "Working in a job that commoditized our identities forced us to think about who we were and what it means to be Native." This is an issue Bunten wrestles with throughout the book, both in her own mixed heritage and in understanding her co-workers' places in their cultural world. It turns out that the question that forms the title of the book is, if looked at properly, a very good one.

Bunten wanders over quite a bit of territory, asks some difficult questions, offers unusual insights and manages to tell a good story along the way. As this is her first book, the question readers might want to ask is, "So, how long have you been this good of a writer?"

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer and critic.

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