Four researchers from New Mexico and Denmark are visiting Haines and Juneau to find out more about Alaska Native identity. They’re interested in what they say is a complex but understudied area of research – how Tlingit and other Alaska Native people view themselves, their culture and their community.
The identity study is funded by the National Science Foundation and supported by Sealaska Heritage Institute.
One of the lead investigators has a personal connection to the area. Caitlin Stern grew up in Haines.
“So I’ve always wanted to learn more about Native culture,” Stern says. “And I was really excited to have the opportunity to come back to Haines and do that.”
Now Stern is a fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. She’s teamed up with another Santa Fe researcher, Vanessa Ferdinand, and two peers from the Aarhus Institute in Denmark, Jessie Barker and Djuke Veldhuis.
“A major reason we wanted to work with Tlingit people is their notions of identity are so interesting and complex and not very well understood by other people, I think,” Stern says. “So people can have their clan identity, within clans there are houses that people might identify with, there’s also layers of people’s moieties, their villages.”
Stern says, they want to learn how all those different layers influence people’s identity, how they connect with their culture, and social behavior – how they relate to and rely on others. Here’s Barker:
“We think this is an exciting time to be here and talking to Tlingit people, with so much effort being put in recently into perpetuating Alaska Native culture,” Barker says.
Veldhuis says, this study could support programs that teach and continue traditional practices.
“If we find that for half of our participants, their roots are in their language and language programs, that might then inform decisions on how many resources a community gives to language programs,” she says. “Of course it could be art, it could be something else.”
Veldhuis says she helped conduct a similar study in Papua New Guinea, looking at how locations influence people’s identities and stress levels.
“One of the things that I found was that people in more remote locations, even though they might not have the material wealth of people in more urban locations, were generally much happier and doing much better than their peers who had moved to the bigger cities.”
The research team is hoping to talk to as many Alaska Native people as possible. They’re expecting to hear from mostly Tlingit people, but they’re also interested in Haida, Tsimshian and other cultures. All the participants will be kept anonymous.
“We’re really eager to hear from everyone,” Stern says.
They’re gathering feedback in a few ways: through an online survey, paper surveys at the Haines library, and follow-up interview in-person. Each participant is paid $15. The team has already talked to a number of people, and the renewed interest in Native culture stands out.
“This is something people are keen to talk about, in part with the older people I’m interviewing, that hasn’t always been possible,” Veldhuis says. “And it feels to me that this [cultural] re-invigoration is partly people’s opportunity to catch up and reconnect. That’s something we’re seeing a lot, people reconnecting with their culture and having a deep appreciation of what it has to offer.”
The researchers say the more people they hear from, the stronger information they’ll have. They hope their findings won’t just be interesting to read, but have practical implications for communities.
To participate or learn more about the study, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 766-2943.
More information: http://tuvalu.santafe.edu/~stern/sites/Alaska_site/