Researchers from New Mexico and Denmark were in Haines, Klukwan and Juneau the past couple months interviewing Alaska Native people about identity. After surveying more than 100 people, they presented the initial results from the study at the Haines Library and the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau. (Audio courtesy of SHI.)
How strongly people connect with being Alaska Native could influence whether they feel more attached to their clan or their community. That’s one of the initial findings from a study led by Caitlin Stern and Jessie Barker.
Stern is from Haines originally but now is a fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. Barker is a researcher at Aarhus Institute in Denmark.
Barker explained how people identify with certain groups can impact their actions towards others. She said in one well-known psychological study, participants were asked to choose between two paintings.
“And they were divided into two groups based on which painting they preferred and then asked how willing they were to help somebody in the same group as them or a different group,” Barker said. “And people were much more helpful and generous towards people in their same group than the other group even though it was totally artificial, totally arbitrary and had only formed just a couple minutes before they asked these questions.”
Barker and Stern wanted to know how Alaska Native identity shapes interactions with others. They focused on Tlingit people, since the majority of the 171 participants in their survey identified as Tlingit. The participants were asked about three pieces of identity:
“The moiety that people belong to, secondly their clan, and thirdly their kwáan, or home community,” Barker said.
The Tlingit moieties are Raven and Eagle or Wolf. Within each, there are a number of clans. The people from a given clan may live across many different kwáans, or home communities.
“And this is one of the things that we are really interested in investigating, how this geographic distribution of members of the same clans plays into the connections people have, the different ways that people identify with people and place,” Barker said.
Stern then explained some of the initial results. They asked participants about their ethnic identity – how strongly they connect with being Alaska Native. They also asked how strongly people identify with their clan and community. Stern says they looked at whether one connection is stronger than the other.
“We’re really interested in this question because this is something a lot of our participants brought up in their interviews and because of some previous research on this topic,” Stern said. “So George Emmons, who did some previous research on this topic, actually thought that village or town is just an accidental geographical grouping of clans. So he really thought clan was the most important thing to people.”
Some participants said clan was more important, some said home community. Stern says they looked at those results and tried to see if there were any differences based on age or gender, and there were none. Then, they compared how strongly people connect with being Alaska Native.
“So what we’re gonna ask is if the strength of ethnic identity influences whether people identify more strongly with their clan or their home community.”
The answer appears to be yes.
“People who identify more strongly as Alaska Native are more likely to identify with their clan than with their community,” Stern said.
The researchers also asked about ‘identity in action.’ They asked who would be most likely to ask you for help, and who would you be mostly likely to ask for help.
“So for both of these questions, the majority of people said they would be most likely to ask someone who is from the same community but a different clan for help,” Stern said.
Barker and Stern say they have a lot more analysis to do from the survey and interview results. The researchers say their study is one of the first to investigate these aspects of identity in Alaska Natives. They say the cultural resurgence happening now makes it an exciting time to ask these questions.