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Home  >  History and Culture  >  Cultural Heritage
Shari Huhndorf: Helping the Nation Find a Conscience
By Debra McKinney

Shari Huhndorf, in her book Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination, "skillfully addresses issues of race and ethnicity and analyzes the European American romanticization and distortion of Native American culture and customs," says the Library Journal. Though she doesn't consider herself to be a leader in the traditional sense of the word, Shari Huhndorf's work may just help the nation find a conscience. The following article was originally published in the Anchorage Daily News with the title "Painful Past."

The subject is tough to talk about, the images tough to see:

The bewildered eyes of the young boy Minik, virtually abducted along with his father and four other polar Eskimos by explorer Robert Peary as "specimens" for scientific study in 1897.

The solemn faces of nameless, fur-clad Natives in front of a giant faux igloo with a sign screaming "ESKIMOS" at a 1909 exposition in Seattle, one that included such displays of "primitive" people for fairgoers' amusement. Up until the last moment, Shari Huhndorf wasn't sure she could bring herself to show such heartbreaking pictures. She'd been asked to come home to Anchorage as keynote speaker for the "Women Warriors: Healing and Reconciliation" conference sponsored by the Alaska Native Studies Program at the University of Alaska. A Ph.D. scholar and faculty member at University of Oregon, Huhndorf had planned to discuss her research on these dehumanizing exhibits. But could she show the photographs without feeling exploitative? 

Shari Huhndorf photo courtesy of Jack Liu.
Huhndorf consulted University of Chicago scholar Jacqueline Goldsby, who struggled with the same issue regarding her work documenting lynching. Huhndorf also consulted her mother. Before her address, she consulted her audience, too, which stuffed a lecture hall, including both aisles and all along the back wall. She asked those who'd come to listen, to tell her at the end, if showing them was the right thing to do.

Then, for the better part of an hour, Huhndorf talked about the "boastful years of Western expansion" and the turn-of-the-century practice of exhibiting Native people as curios, portraying them as inferior beings deserving of conquest. When she finished, the consensus among audience members was that the photographs were important. They helped make the unbelievable believable. Show them, the people said.

"Powerful" is how Jeanne Eder described Huhndorf's address. Eder, director of Alaska Native Studies, called Huhndorf "a perfect example of the contemporary woman warrior."

Considering where Shari Huhndorf comes from, that's not surprising. Her parents, Roy and Charlene Huhndorf of Anchorage, have shown their two daughters, and their community, the importance of confronting injustice and saying what others may not want to hear.

Shari's mother, a caseworker in Sen. Frank Murkowski's office now working part time, helps people navigate through federal agency quagmires, sorting out disability benefits or immigration problems, issues that don't typically make the news but matter greatly to the people involved.

Her father's work has made headlines all her life, locally and nationally. Roy Huhndorf led Cook Inlet Region Inc. for two decades, was a founder of the Alaska Native Justice Center, the Alaska Native Heritage Center and Koahnic Broadcast Corp. He's currently co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives. And those are just the highlights of his career.

"I ask his advice a lot," said Shari, 36. "And actually, my mom's advice too. My mom worked really hard behind the scenes for all the things he believed in, they both believed in. She doesn't get much of the credit, but they're both very important advisers to me."

Shari's younger sister, Charlsie Huhndorf-Arend, does work similar to her mother's for the Alaska State Ombudsman's Office and is the mother of a 20-month old son, Cooper. The sisters witnessed their father's drive and commitment as he led CIRI to great financial success by day while attending college by night.

"You know, he went to night school for 12 or 13 years to get a degree," Shari said. "Sometimes he'd start taking classes one term and he'd have to travel so much he'd have to drop out and start again the next term. And we watched that. I think that was a really important lesson to us about the importance of education."

Growing up with such a focused and famous father came with a cost.

"In a way it was kind of tough because he was never home," Shari said. "He's still never home. Both he and my mother made a lot of sacrifices for Native issues.

"I don't know if it's a good thing to talk about or not, but a lot of the things he was involved in were really controversial in the larger community. And so there were things like, we'd come home and the mail would be ripped up. There was some tension there."

Shari doesn't see herself as a leader. She's more comfortable with quietly reading, writing and thinking than being on center stage. Her mother described her as a studious child, "a bookworm" and "so smart," a child who skipped two grades and graduated from high school just before her 16th birthday. She speaks of her daughter as a kind and gentle soul, yet her research has her confronting a nation's cruel and arrogant past. She worries about her.

"Sometimes she'll call me and read things to me," her mother said. "She's a very sensitive person. It's troubling for her."

"Researching this (topic), it's hard not to be bitter," Shari said in an interview during her visit. "The horrible things that happened to people that you didn't even know about ... because you don't learn it in school."

Huhndorf earned her doctorate degree in comparative literature from New York University in 1996. Now director of ethnic studies and associate professor of English at the University of Oregon, she's the author of "Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination," an academic analysis of Western colonialism and the curious ways in which European-Americans romanticize and distort Native American culture to fit an inherent need to make "Nativeness" their own.

Minik, the Eskimo boy captured by Robert Peary and displayed at the American Museum of Natural History.
Among the outrages her readers confront is the story of Minik and five other polar Eskimos brought by ship to New York in 1897 at the behest of anthropologists and officials of the American Museum of Natural History. (His full story is told in the 1986 book, Give Me My Father's Body, by Kenn Harper.) On a single day, 20,000 people visited Robert Peary's ship, "anxious to glimpse the Natives who, despite the stifling heat, were dressed in the elaborate furs expected by curiosity seekers. Nor did New Yorkers' attention soon wane. Housed in the basement of the museum, the Eskimos drew throngs of eager visitors who crowded around a ceiling grate installed above their living quarters."

And the story just gets more painful. Within months the Eskimos contracted pneumonia and started dying. Anthropologists responded by documenting intimate displays of grief, removing the brains of the dead for study and putting their bones on public display, Huhndorf says. Minik and an adult named Uisaakassak were the only survivors. Uisaakassak was returned to Greenland. Museum officials kept Minik, placing him with a white family as an experiment in assimilation.

Huhndorf's more recent research focuses on a piece of history that's closer to home, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, which included displays of Native people from Alaska to the Pacific islands.

"At the fair, zoolike exhibits of 'wild' and 'primitive' Eskimos and Igorots (Philippine Islanders) were staged alongside spectacular showcases of natural resources in a way that conveyed the legitimacy of U.S. ownership. By associating Native peoples with the natural world in an exposition that accorded supreme value to technological progress, organizers depicted them as somehow less than human and, as a result, as unworthy stewards of the land."

Huhndorf plans to continue her research on this exhibition with another book in mind. In the meantime, her goal as an educator is to broaden the curriculum, to open the eyes and minds of her university students.

"We have this curriculum that does not reflect the society we live in," she said. "We need to know about other histories and other experiences and other cultures. And those histories and experiences and cultures need to be as important as those of Europeans.

"I feel compelled in my work to think critically about what happened in the past and how that shapes the world we live in today. But I also think that your race, whatever that is, doesn't determine your position in all of that."

A stereoscope titled Playing Indian.

She may not think of herself as a leader, but her parents do.

"I really believe she is going to make a mark," her mother said, "and it's not out of any desire to make a mark. Shari values education so much, and she believes we need to know the hard things. Like her dad always says, we have to remember the past so we don't repeat it in the future. "

Her father thinks she has the potential to bring change.

"I think (her work) can help the nation come to recognize its past and perhaps become a better nation for it. Truly great nations acknowledge their past, and nations that aren't so great bury it. I hope Shari will help the nation find a conscience."

Shari Huhndorf received a Ph.D. in comparative literature from New York University in 1996, and she is currently director of the Ethnic Studies Program and associate professor of English at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination (Cornell University Press, 2001) and numerous articles. Her current projects include an anthology titled Topographies of Race and Gender: Mapping Cultural Representations (co-edited with Patricia Hilden and Timothy Reiss) and a history of Native American drama to be published in The Columbia Guide to Native American Literature of the United States. She is also beginning a research project on images of Alaska Natives in their political and social contexts.

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About the Author: Debra McKinney writes for the Anchorage Daily News. Article reprinted with permission from the Anchorage Daily News.

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