Human Journey

For Alaska’s Alutiiq, the Future May Be Found in the Past

Sven Haakanson is the executive director of the Alutiiq Museum, Kodiak’s Alaska Native culture center where visitors explore 7,500 years of Alutiiq history, language, and arts.

We ran into Haakanson at the Seventh International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences (ICASS VII), held recently in Iceland.

Organized by the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA), ICASS VII was attended by more than 400 delegates, who between them presented some 300 papers and joined discussions in dozens of workshops. (Watch our video interview with IASSA President Joan Nymand Larsen, discussing the highlights of ICASS VII).

“We’ve been working with elders, museum collections, we’ve been documenting our language, we’ve been documenting pretty much everything that has been lost,” Haakanson told us in the video interview above. “What we’ve been doing is trying to take knowledge that was taken out, and put it into a living context back into our community.”

The Alutiiq Museum has been documenting the indigenous language, trying to record as much as possible elders speaking common everyday language, Haakanson said. The project has some urgency because there are fewer than 24 fluent speakers left today, less than half the number of speakers a decade ago, when the documentation started. “It’s been a real challenge for us to try to maintain our language, but also trying to preserve it,” Haakanson said.

Finding Knowledge in Museums

Beyond preservation of the native tongue, there is also a worldwide attempt to recover lost knowledge of traditional skills and arts. Much of this involves visiting museums in Russia, Finland, Germany and Spain, the repositories of collections from Kodiak from the 1800s. “We’ll go photograph that, learn how that was made, and then come back and go out and work in each of the villages and share that knowledge, working with the elders, artisans, and the photographs, teaching basket-weaving, kayak-making, hunting tools … fish skin-sewing. And in this process we’re able to not only build on it, but we’re putting this information back into a living context,” Haakanson explained.

“I grew up not knowing much about my culture, not knowing who we were in terms of our 7,500 years of history, and what it really meant. By being able to repatriate that knowledge, put it back into a living context, we’ve been able to share with our future the history, the hands-on … living knowledge of how our ancestors lived for the last 7,500 years,” he said.

“With that we will hopefully continue for the next century building and putting that knowledge back into a context where it becomes commonplace knowledge, instead of museum knowledge where it’s inaccessible.

“We’ve basically used the Alutiiq Museum as a tool to try to change a lot of things that had already been changed in the past.”



In repatriating traditional knowledge, there is also an implicit transfer of knowledge about sustainable environment, Haakanson said.

“When we are teaching or documenting our language or teaching about hunting tools, there is a lot of implicit knowledge. When I learned about hunting I was taught that you don’t take more than you need … It’s a different philosophy about how you harvest your food … So it starts to change the current generation’s attitude toward over-harvesting, exploitation.”

Taking Only What’s Needed

The Alutiiq Museum’s logo shows hands with holes on them, a symbol to show that you don’t take more than you need, so that the future can be sustained, Haakanson said.

Western society has a different approach, “where you harvest, take as much [as you can], you exploit, you make money,” Haakanson said. “The generation that is coming up has taken on more of the Western philosophy. What’s happening is that the younger generation is trying to go back to the philosophy of taking what you need, sustainability, sharing, and understanding who we are as a people.

“It’s going to be very important for the future generations to not only understand the philosophy, but live it.”

Related coverage: Why Indigenous Peoples Need to Be Heard in the Global Debate on the Arctic.

Coverage of the Seventh International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences was sponsored by the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA) and The Christensen Fund. The video was made by Blue Lagoon Productions for National Geographic News.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

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Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn

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