At Sealaska Heritage, we field a lot of questions from the public, researchers and the media about Northwest Coast cultures. This question addresses an issue we’ve dealt with many times in the past and continue to face today.
Question: What are the challenges of integrating Native arts, culture and language into new institutions?
SHI President Rosita Worl:
In our efforts to integrate Native art, language, and culture into the new institutions present in our lives and in which we participate, we have had to accommodate the rules of these institutions while protecting the integrity and values of our culture.
Our Clan Leaders and Elders realized that our children were learning in new ways and not in the ways of our ancestors. We no longer lived in clan houses; we no longer learned our history and traditions around the clan house fire; and we no longer accompanied our aunties and uncles in their daily activities to learn the ways of our ancestors. At Sealaska’s 1980 Elders’ Conference, an overriding message from these leaders was that we must adapt to the new ways but yet integrate our traditions into the new institutions if our ancient culture was to survive.
Reasoned adaptation has been a strength of our society since our first encounters with Westerners. Our clan leaders made the decision not to war against the United States when the Russians sold our lands to the Americans. Instead they embarked on a political and legal battle to protect our land ownership, hired a lawyer, and sent him to Washington, D.C. Our leaders through the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood sought full participation in the new institutions. They fought for citizenship and the right to vote.
Today we are following the same path of our historical leaders in our attempt to integrate our culture into schools, museums, theaters, and other institutions. These efforts have not been without challenges. First we had to overcome the opposition and suppression of our culture and public policies that sought full assimilation of Native Peoples into Western society. We had to develop the approaches and materials. We had to train teachers to be knowledgeable and understand our culture and history. And always, we’ve had to seek the funding to integrate our cultural programs into these new institutions. And then to ensure that the programs continued, we had to demonstrate their benefits.
Perhaps the most difficult task has been ensuring that the integrity of our cultural values and practices are not violated or undermined in these efforts to perpetuate our culture and to integrate them into these new institutions. We’ve made mistakes. More often, we’ve had to re-group and reformulate our approaches. Fortunately, we’ve had the benefit of the wisdom and advice of traditional scholars to assist us in our efforts.
The first major challenges came with our biennial Celebration, where for the first time, newly formed dance groups rather than clans were singing clan-owned songs. We had to develop protocols to ensure that dance groups and participants at Celebration recognized clan ownership of songs, stories, and crests.
In our efforts to teach and learn Native languages, we used publications and recordings of our oral traditions and ceremonial speeches. We found that in some instances we had unwittingly violated cultural protocols, and we had to alter our practices to ensure that social and spiritual balance were maintained.
In our efforts to integrate our oral traditions into theatrical performances, we had to ensure that clan ownership of stories, songs, and names were maintained. We had to resolve the legal issue that gives copyright to the script writers. We developed contracts that recognized the rights of both clans and script writers and the contract language ensured that clans had the rights to approve or disapprove of the use of clan stories in any performance.
The Council of Traditional Scholars debated the use of shamanic objects after a group of young Natives approached the Council about their use in exhibitions as a means of learning about this ancient tradition. The Scholars embedded the required protocols in a formal resolution they adopted to guide the development of exhibits.
We have had to deal with the issue of cultural appropriation. We had to develop protocols to protect clan ownership of crests but yet give our artists the right to produce and sell Northwest Coast art and teachers the approval to teach Native art. We had to seek the enforcement of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 that protects Native artists. We continue to search for ways to protect our art and intellectual property under Western law.
More recently, we have used various forms of Native art as a means to teach math concepts to improve academic skills. Since our classes are limited in scope and time, it was clear that the artists, such as weavers, could not teach the full art and technique of Chilkat and Ravenstail weaving within the confines of a math class. In their ingenuity, weavers developed new approaches, inventing altered weaving techniques that draw inspiration from historical techniques, in order to teach math concepts. However, they have had to insist that teachers and students do not assume that they are teaching or learning e.g. the full art of Chilkat or Ravenstail weaving, and they have developed new names, such as “two-color-twining,” to identify this as a new weaving practice. We have found, however, that these new techniques spark the interest of both students and teachers to study the historical and authentic weaving techniques more in depth.
We have made mistakes and undoubtedly we will make further mistakes. We are always open to critiques as we depend on these reviews to ensure that we do not unwittingly violate basic cultural rules. We are open to receiving the advice of our traditional scholars, our master artists, our language and cultural specialists, and teachers. We beg for indulgence and patience as we weave through a complex effort to integrate our culture, arts, and language into institutions that are governed by rules of their own. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that our youth learn the values and practices of our culture and that our culture survives. However, at the same time, we want to ensure that our youth master Western education and science to allow them to attain and maintain a quality of life and prosperity.