I grew up on the East Coast, but never felt comfortable there. I moved to Alaska in 1970, right out of High School.
I began my career in history in 1978, as a curator for the Wickersham House for the Tanana Valley Historical Society. I was very naive. At the time, there was a line between anthropology and history, a bright, jagged line. The line was contact. On one side, before contact, was pre-history, and that was the province, the realm of the anthropologists and the archeologists, with their specialized methodologies, and their specialized academic vocabulary.
On the other side was history, with its nearly total reliance, at that time, on the written record, the gold standard for history. Native peoples did not write, they had no written language, ipso facto, they had no history. All one could do, really, was to comb the written record, the stories of travelers and explorers, missionaries, traders, and government officials. There was no Native point of view at all.
Maybe I am lucky that I came into this drama as a very naïve historian, working in the realm of pioneer history, I never really noticed the lack of a Native version of the story, or the objectification of the Native people. I never noticed what was all around me. I know I was lucky that I was able to attend the joint meetings of the Alaska Historical Society and Museums Alaska meetings for more than twenty years shortly after the passage of NAGPRA, at a time when the museums were beginning to grapple with how to tell stories from the Native point of view.The experience of discussions with Museum professionals from all over Alaska was fundamental.
In 1990-1992 I was a guest curator for the Alaska or Bust: 50th anniversary of the Alaska Highway exhibit at the Museum of the North- University of Alaska Fairbanks. What would we display? Bulldozers and gas cans? Of course we would have to tell the stories of people involved and affected. I was very luck to go with Bill Simeone to interview Carl Charles and others in Tanacross who were there when the highway came through their traditional lands. And with Bear Ketzler who loaned us Andrew Isaac’s snow machine, the first in the village.
And I know I was lucky to be able to work with Claire Murphy on our books, beginning with Gold Rush Women, Children of the Gold Rush, and Gold Rush Dogs. Thinking about what to include, we began to think of the NAtive women who were there when the Gold Rushers arrived. Perhaps the decision to focus on women who had married the first non-Native traders on the Yukon was not the best decision. But it was a start. Later, the material in the book became the subject of another exhibit at the Museum of the North, Threads of Gold. Member of the Native Community in Fairbanks were so gracious in helping us by sharing reminiscences and lending personal objects.
After I wrote Gold Rush Women, Gold Rush Dogs and Children of the Gold Rush, I decided to pursue a Phd in U.S. History at the University of Arizona. My plan was to study the U.S. West. Since Alaska history is not a specific field, I decided to focus on the period of the Gilded Age, which provided the historical context for the Klondike and Alaska gold rushes, since that is what I was working on at the time. Of course, the history of American Indians is a vital part of the history of the US West. I began taking courses with Roger Nichols, and then I discovered the American Indian Studies program, and I decided that if I was going to study Indians, I would study them from the Indian point of view as much as possible.
Over the years I have become more and more interested in American Indian history, and thus, Alaska Native History, especially as I have taught history of Alaska for the last six years. A few years ago I added History of Native Americans as well.
And I have never looked back.
Since then, since the time of the bright line, I have been focused on the growing bridge between the two sides. This space is the realm of oral history. I see it as on the one hand, anthropologists growing awareness of their own limitations, when in some cases they relied more on what they found underground that what they heard from their informants. And from historians of American Indians, an insistence that oral history has as much validity as the written record.
Why will no one else write this book?
As I said, the anthropologists have their text, and the historians theirs.
I really thought that the Alaska Native Studies program at one of the three units of the University of Alaska would be more like the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona. I have discovered otherwise. I should not have been surprised, as I knew from my studies how many different program models are out there. [Champagne and Stauss, 2002]
Champagne, Duane, and Joseph H. Stauss. Native American Studies in Higher Education: Models for Collaboration between Universities and Indigenous Nations. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002.
The intimidation factor.
There are certainly many who are ready to criticize anyone who takes this on. I myself feel intimidated. However, after being back in the state for six years, and looking over the landscape, I realize than no one else is going to do this. One reason is that there are so many different Alaska Native cultures in the state. And they are so different. Each of the Alaska Native academics in the state are from one cultural tradition or another. Were a Tlingit woman to write a book, she would be not be writing about her own traditions when she got to the Inupiat, just as a Yupik man would not be writing about his own traditions when he got to the Athapascans in the interior.
Can this be written as a synthesis?
At this point, there are a lot of written sources, many many oral histories transcribed, works of anthropology, life stories, and more. So, I think, yes.
One of the best examples of what I have in mind, Part of the Land Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians, by Catharine McClellan Douglas & Mcintyre Ltd. 1987
When I looked up this reference on Amazon, I found one customer review, by me, in 2000. “It is very thorough, yet interesting, and covers the subjects without leaning too heavily on the anthropological. It includes modern as well as pre-history, oral history and stories, early drawings and color photographs. It is just a wonderful, respectful and human book. There is nothing else quite like it either in the Yukon or in Alaska.”
Exactly what I want to do for Alaska