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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
Growing Up Native in Alaska
By Alexandra J. McClanahan Page 1 of 4   Next ยป

Growing Up Native in Alaska (CIRI Foundation 2000) was not the book I was hired in 1998 to write as the CIRI Historian. But as I think back to the day that I discussed going to work for CIRI, I realize it may have been inevitable. My charge was to gather as much information and history as I possibly could about the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The goal was to produce popular articles and books, as opposed to scholarly works. What I said at the time was, "Do you mean you want me to produce materials that would be relevant to my daughter?" And the answer was yes.

Alexandra J. McClanahan
I should explain that I am a journalist who came to Alaska in 1982. I was hired in 1985 for an oral history project that involved interviewing CIRI elders from each of Alaska's major geographic areas. Also, I've worked for several publications, including The Tundra Times, where we focused much of our attention on promoting sobriety within Alaska. I left that weekly newspaper, Alaska's only statewide Native newspaper, in 1991 when my husband and I adopted a six-day-old baby girl, whose birth mother is an Inupiaq Eskimo from Kotzebue. Her birth father is non-Native. Kotzebue's tribal entity approved our adoption, and I believe they did so largely because they were confident we would make sure our child knew about her culture and her history.

My commitment to ensure that my daughter knows about her culture made the job of CIRI Historian that much more compelling to me. CIRI President and CEO Carl Marrs framed the job I would do by saying he was specifically interested in learning how Alaska Native people felt about ANCSA and how it had affected their lives. He said he wanted to know how elders, Native leaders and young people felt about the Act.

His comment about young people stuck in my mind as I struggled to figure out how to produce written materials that would be interesting and useful to Alaskans. I began digging through congressional testimony, books and articles relating to ANCSA, as well as interviewing Native leaders and other people who played a role in the development of the law.

The young people kept coming to mind because I realized that the Native leaders who led the fight for ANCSA were mostly a group of young people in their 20s and 30s in the late 1960s. I wondered what was happening with young Alaska Natives 30 years after the act was passed. Within a few weeks of my hiring, I began a series of interviews with young Alaska Native leaders to find out how they felt about ANCSA.

From the outset, the openness and honesty of each person interviewed was stunning. What came out of the interviews was a discussion of ANCSA, but it quickly became apparent that it was really a discussion of identity. What does it mean to be Alaska Native today?

There were times the interviews literally brought tears to my eyes. Some of the stories were painful. What kept me going was the thought that this material would really have resonance with my daughter, an Inupiaq raised in Anchorage by non-Native parents. And while my daughter was my idealized audience, I knew that by extension, the work would have an impact for all of the young Alaska Natives who are finding innovative and creative ways to live in two worlds.

Some of the young leaders experienced discrimination from their own people. Some were teased or taunted for being a "half-breed," or "too white." Some felt ashamed of being Native while being immersed in the dominant non-Native culture. Some had firm roots in their Native village, but had established themselves in an urban area. Still others grew up in a tiny village and left only to get more education, returning to their home to live. In each case, I pictured my daughter Natasha looking in the mirror, wondering where she would fit in as she grew up.

As Natasha grows up, she sometimes makes comments or asks questions that make me realize I am in uncharted territory. My parents offer no guide for how to raise my daughter and instill pride in her Inupiaq culture. While there is much that I can give her from my own background, family and memories, still there are areas beyond my reach. When she asks about her identity as an Alaska Native, I can hand her Growing Up Native in Alaska. In it, people who know far more than I about living in two worlds will be her guides. And they are there for all of the Alaska Native children growing up today.

I hope we produce the ANCSA book I was hired to write. Alaska needs a popular work that will bring ANCSA up to date and give people a greater understanding of the impact of this powerful law on Alaska and Alaska Native people. In the meantime, though, there's no question that producing Growing Up Native in Alaska was the right thing to do. These are stories that need to be told, and they will have special meaning for all the young people growing up Native today, in the year 2000, in Alaska.

Alexandra J. McClanahan is the Historian for the Cook Inlet Region, Inc. She is the author of numerous articles and the books Our Stories, Our Lives and Growing Up Native in Alaska, both published by the CIRI Foundation. She is currently at work on a third book, One Shining Ray, scheduled for publication in late 2001.

Growing Up Native in Alaska features oral history interviews with 27 emerging Alaska Native leaders born between 1957 and 1976. Each reflects on what it means to be an Alaska Native today and the impact the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act has had on their lives. The publication is based on a series of interviews with Alexandra J. McClanahan, CIRI Historian, who also wrote the introduction.

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About the Author: Alexandra J. McClanahan is a CIRI Historian.
 
Next page:   Rex Allen Rock, Sr. Pages:  1 2  3  4 


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