Discussion 1: 13 comments

Discussion Question 1: In what ways do you think the narratives from the first European explorers of Alaska and the Yukon are driven by their origins? Are some of the things they see skewed by their own cultural backgrounds? Look at the bookplate above and think about how writers and artists sometimes depict reality in a predetermined manner (as in the way this Alaska Native woman from Kodiak is depicted in a decidedly “European” manner).

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About Madara Mason

Madara Mason's hats include painter, graphic designer, Instructional Designer, faculty educator, English Instructor, food blogger, and Oxford Comma Aficionado. If she's not in front of an easel, she's in front of a screen, or in front of a classroom. Her motto is "If you're not having fun, you're probably doing it wrong."

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13 thoughts on “Discussion 1:

  • Ann Kirk

    Everyone views life through their own cultural lens. Something static like a book will be interpreted differently depending on the reader’s own background and biases. So naturally, an active interpretation such as writing a story will be shaded by the writer’s personal interpretation. The painting above is an obvious example of the creator interpreting the world through his or her own cultural lens. One example from the reading is the story “The Old Man’s Winter” by Nick Jans. The story retells the life of Maniilaq through legends and interviews. Maniilaq rebelled against tradition and superstition and preached against common practices. A modern reader hears Maniilaq’s criticisms of his people, such as forcing a woman to give birth alone in the woods even in the dead of winter, and applauds Maniilaq. With our advanced medicine and view of basic human rights and comforts, a woman giving birth outside during an Alaska winter is appalling. However, to the Native listening to Maniilaq in person, his preaching would have been preposterous and frightening (Last New Land 31). Our background, or culture, changes how we perceive everything.

    The stories written and told by the first European explorers are absolutely tainted by their preconceived notions of Natives and their own experiences in Europe. Naturally, the painter would depict the Native woman in European style and with European features because that is how he or she would have always seen people painted. The language of the explorers, their dress, and their motives for exploring the “new” land would have affected how they viewed the people they met and how they later wrote about the native people. Because the explorers could not understand the Native American’s way of life, the explorers could not describe the people’s motives or explain their existence. The stories had to be told from what the Europeans could piece together on their own account because that is all they knew.

  • aaron

    All European explorers of what is present-day Alaska and the Yukon Territory were obviously influenced by previous encounters they had in their lives. Everyone’s unique experience leads to interpretations and/or perceptions (of wildlife, topography, climate, local people and their culture)—all these things may be skewed from what others happened to “take in” based on their own background. A Norwegian man cruising along the fjords of southern Alaska;s coast for the first time would naturally compare this new landscape to fjords he’d witnessed back in his homeland and analyze the similarities or differences. In regards to the bookplate, I also noticed how European those facial features are. It actually looks similar to the Mona Lisa! Interpreting and judging (in this case physical) phenomena by standards inherent to one’s own culture is the definition of a cultural bias. The eye shape of this Native Alaskan woman looks round and very distinctly Caucasian which doesn’t accurately reflect the appearance of who its supposed to represent based on my own knowledge. Native American genetics have been traced back to originate in Eurasia. https://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=199379

    Another related example of cultural bias is expecting the use of a chisel in carving a hard substance(when making hieroglyphs). It could likely be explained as a Hollywood image of carving stone from presentations of Michelangelo carving large blocks of marble with a swinging mallet and chisel. We don’t know exactly how early nomads used their stone tools but can only speculate.


  • Chad Hinders

    The stylized representation of the Kodiak Native as presented by an early bookplate is a striking but unsurprising example of humankind’s need to find and recognize similarities and commonalities between ourselves and others. As a species, we seem to be hardwired to seek out that which we recognize as familiar and represent what we find in those unfamiliar to us in terms we can relate to. Although this may be regarded as smacking of subliminal racism and misunderstanding may often times simply be our inability to truly understand a culture and lifestyle that is entirely foreign to us. However, it is often literature and language that serves as the bridge that spans the expanse of ignorance and allows us to communicate in a meaningful and mutually enlightening manner between cultures.
    I have always found it intriguing to note that so little time has been devoted to contemplating what Native Alaskans perceived from the new arrivals to their land. The thought provoking (but apocryphal) story of Native Americans being unable to “see” the ships of Columbus, because their minds had no ability to frame the ships in their reality, illustrates the fact that our schema filters all we see and interprets it in terms that we can comprehend. Certainly Alaska Natives also viewed Europeans through the same lens of cultural misunderstanding that Europeans suffered from. Although Alaska Natives lacked a written language, oral history still can give clues to their impressions. The modern Yup’ik term “Qussuk,” which is a somewhat derogatory term for a Caucasian, can trace its roots back to the Russian term “Cossack”. The negative connotation associated with the initial contact with Russian invaders is perhaps reflected in the use of this term today. However, Alaska Native language has also made inroads into European speech. The traditional term for a one-man boat or “qayaq” has been adapted to the common word “kayak”, and can be recognized worldwide.
    It was the first accounts of European explorers to Alaska that set the basis for the dialogue that would become uniquely Alaskan literature. The descriptions of harsh and exotic lands and people fueled the fire for further exploration. The earliest explorers, however, were often more preoccupied with the value of the land and people from a purely economic standpoint. Alaska was seen as a commodity, and perhaps some of the less tangible value of Alaska’s landscape and people were lost on these early adventurers. However, others were soon to follow, and with time came greater understanding. The stage had been set, and both sides were learning.

  • Kari Firlik

    Understanding the early European exploration of Alaska and Yukon territories, do come from the origins of which they came from. Early European narratives has shown a unique and a different way of thinking, then that of the natives in Alaska. During the Russian Era, explorers had one thing on their minds, that was to gain control of the fur trade region. Europeans came over with the mindset that whatever they saw, belonged to them. In the short story of, “Ashana” written by E.P. Roesch is describing that the Russian’s wanted to give the Athabascan Natives new names, change the name of their country, claimed the native’s and their territory as their own, to just give a metal plate in return for their enslavements. One thing that struck me in this story was the belief of the European Settlers in having the complete authority over another human being, because of Catherine the Great granted them that authority. The Natives believed that they were free in their culture to benefit their families only, and not some strangers who invaded with different ways (Ashana, E.P.Roesch).

    In the painting “Woman of Kodiak” the artist maintained her European genealogy. The Kodiak woman is merely a Caucasian woman with what is believed to be Kodiak apparel.
    In early days Vikings traveled to Greenland from Scandinavia and many were repulsed by what they believed to be sub-humans. The people were small, brown eyed, brown skinned, dark haired natives. Although the natives spent time aiding the Vikings their acceptance towards the natives was a pale as their skin. Most sheltered homogenous societies develop strong biases towards manors or cultures that differ from their own. Contradictions of their own origins tends to ignite prejudices between many European cultures and all cultures.
    The painter may not have been a racist herself but may have wanted to set a neutral mood soothing to the fellow Europeans who may find Native Alaskans bothersome in appearance. With wholehearted intentions to not bombard Europeans with an entirely different culture at once, she mellowed the mood by diluting the “Woman of Kodiak” to a “Woman of Euro-Kodiak“.

    E.P. Roesch. “Ashana.” The Last Stories of New Alaska Land-Past and Present. Ed. Wayne Mergler.
    Alaska Northwest Books: Oregon. 1996. Pages 56-62. Print.

    • LaVonMarie

      Your remark or word “Euro-Kodiak” made me laugh out loud, but it is exactly what the artist did. I agree with what seems to be a common opinon amonst us all–that it is easy to judge the past, it does not necessarily make the wrongs right, but we understand they why’s and are attempting ot move past them. I also like the point you made that the painter may not have actually been racist, but that this may have been their way of introducing a different human culture to their own people back at home. I suppose we can never truly know the artists thoughts or opinions on the indigenous people of Kodiak and your thoughts are an excellent reason why we cannot always just assume and judge.

    • Patricia

      I agree with you regarding the strong influence that Europeans had regarding their origins. European narrative is different from the Alaskan narrative for sure. I also did not like the level of authority that Europeans had over another person. It is unfortunate that Europeans painters could not paint a Kodiak woman exactly as she looked.

  • LaVonMarie

    The image of the Native Alaskan woman is, to us at least, nearly comical as we can easily recognize that would not be a true depiction from that time period of an indigenous woman of Alaska. Her clothing is to European along with her hairstyle is perhaps one of the first things that are easily observable to us. I will have to admit, I also do not recognize the jewelry being typical of what I would expect form Native Alaskan art. However, I am not even close to an expert in this way so I cannot say for sure. The picture is what I would expect from a colonial artist from that time period. I know that any depictions and writings were biased and heavily opinionated due to their belief system and this artist’s opinion of what a woman should look like is represented in his drawing. A previous semesters post by a student mentions the depiction of Mary and baby Jesus and how the renderings of those two are always very Caucasian (blue eyes) and yet we know that in reality, Mary and Jesus would have had the darker hair and coloring according to their Jewish heritage. I think that was a great example of how one can allow their own personal beliefs and cultural understanding to construct a different depiction and then how these depictions and understanding can become continuously perpetuated throughout generations.
    In the past I would have found it too easy to become angry and to judge this artist, today, I use the understanding I have of our historical past as a tool. Steve Haycox wrote in the Anchorage Daily News, “[S]ymbols…are stand-ins for a broad and complex history, distilling events that took place over a longer period of time and involved the work of many people into convenient and tangible shorthand,” such as the picture above or text, historical accounts can be. However, as Haycox writes, “Historical symbols are necessary if we are to draw anything from history beyond entertainment…we use most historical symbols to congratulate ourselves that our culture no longer manifests the failings of the past, that we have evolved into something better: They also remind us of work yet to be done” (Anchorage Daily News 1/25/2013 A-9. printed).
    I thought Professor Haycox’s remarks were very relevant to this class, particularly this discussion. I think that it is important we do have symbols that easily remind of us or our past and show us where we are today, but I also see where there is a danger in that as well. I think that sometimes we can look back and say “we have come so far” and become complacent. So there is also a personal purpose I have found when I look at historical text and art. For me, symbols of the past (art, text and so forth) is always a reminder, a tool that I use to tear down the stereotypes, myths and misunderstanding (at times it is almost a process of un-learning properly taught history and cultural understanding from my youth) I have towards our own history and other cultures. I attempt to constantly remind myself that when I approach a text that I try my best to put aside my cultural understanding and to keep an open mind. Perhaps most importantly, I do not allow myself to assume that just because I have a better understanding of history I can understand history from any other culture point of view.

  • Patricia

    I strongly believe that the narratives from the first European explorers of Alaska and the Yukon are driven by their origins because of the readings found in the book The Last Stories of New Alaska Land-Past and Present . “ The Makahs were there, waiting, fifteen of them, headed by an obviously wealthy old chief named Utra-Makah, who wore a European shirt, trousers and a fur cap. All of them seem prosperous and above most of the natives thereabouts.” This quote is an excerpt from the story The Tragedy of Anna Petrovna , from Russian America, written by Hector Chevigny (page 52) and it connects perfectly with the bookplate shown above. The reason why I mention this is because the author, through the way he writes, associates that having European things gives a person high status like in this case when he says that the Makah chief is “obviously” wealthy. A shirt, trousers and a fur cap? There is not even mentioning of gold to really give a better and more accurate way to express that specifically the chief was wealthy. The bookplate (from a record of Voyage of naval Captain Sarychev along the North-Eastern part of Siberia) shown above shows a native woman from Kodiak dressed with a European dress, her hair looks as if someone had brushed her hair. Her eyebrows look perfectly shaped. The only aspects of the painting that truly represents a Kodiak woman are the earrings; native decoration in the nose and chin and, her face has some painted lines. I think that it is evident that the painter’s European background influenced him because he added European characteristics and details that do not match a real native girl from Kodiak. It seems that painters considered that the best and correct way to depict a woman could only be through European characteristics.

    Baranov told Ashana “As I told you, I bring you the protection of Russia. And Tzarina Catherine will show you how to be civilized.” This quote is an excerpt from the story Ashana written by E.P. Roesch, page 59. This entails that through “Ashana” a native woman the author expresses the superiority that Russians felt and that native people were considered uncivilized because of the way they dressed and live. Through the Russians we can see how Europeans believed they were better than others and it is unfortunate that the bookplate does not show the beauty of the real Kodiak woman but instead it is a European version of how they wrongly believed a Kodiak woman should look like.

  • Nikki

    To start with the bookplate above I personally dont believe that the woman in the picture is an Alaska Native woman. I believe that she is a Caucasian, or possibly Russian woman that is dressed in Alaska Native clothing, as well as jewelry. The way her hair is perfectly fixed, and eyebrows shaped. The only thing connecting her to Alaska Nativeness is the jewelry on her face, which is the tradtional jewelry that Alaska Native women wore way back in the day. You hardly see Alaska Native women with that type of jewelry unless its in pictures, or museums. I dont actually think Alaska Native wore those type of earrings, but I could be wrong. The dress looks to be of lace, but it could also be fish skin. I also think that the Aluutiiq women wore beaded regalia, and clothing made of sea otter.

    I do belive that the first European explorers of Alaska & the Yukon were driven by their origins. Take for example in the story of “Ashana,” by E.P. Roesch on page 57 Baranov is bragging to the Yanghenen village, “Vitus Bering discovered Alayeksa for my country more than fifty years ago. He sailed here in 1741, as my people county time. And now Tzarina Catherine the Great, Empress of all Russians, has ordered me to take possession of your land for her glory.” The idea that one needed to conquer lands, and give new names to places and people was something originating from the Europeans. I know that from reading stories and hearing stories from my grandmother & aunties that back in the day there would be fighting amongst villages and they would go and steal wives, but never to go and conquer the lands. These European explorers believed that the Alaska Natives were savages with the clothes they wore, they way they lived, and the food they ate. Not understanding that their way of living was a way of coping, and survival. In the story, “The Tragedy of Anna Petrovna,” by Hector Chevigny it was apparent that the Russian explorers could not live off the land on their own, they were forced to eat the dog. What they knew was how to use guns, they never needed the skills of what plants were edible, or how to hunt for your own food. Unlike the Alaska Natives the skills they had were skills that were unable to help them in the end, only the few survived.

    • Madara Post author

      Nikki, unfortunately that was a very common practice among artists to either “Europeanize” their subjects or to work from verbal descriptions (expedition diaries or oral accounts), so if an aritst has never seen an Alaska Native, then the only idea they have is what they know (white people).

  • Cherie Lindquist

    I think that the narratives from the first European explorers were greatly driven by their origins. In those days, explorers were the first contact with new groups. They did not have prior knowledge from information in writings or even through the Internet. Technology has made it much easier to expand our own cultural knowledge. In some ways, I can see why early explorers would believe that their own culture is superior to newly discovered cultures. Individual cultures have specific foods, practices, and values that have helped their people survive. I have enjoyed our readings, because they are interesting and give me valuable knowledge about the Alaska Native culture. I feel that the story, Mother Earth Father Sky, by Sue Harrison demonstrates how Alaska Native tribes differ from one another. It tells about a mother’s difficulty in accepting her child because his father was from a culture that had values that did not match her own. She worried that her son would be like his father, Man-who-kills. I thought it did a good job of explaining why the mother would fear for her child, and about how in their culture the child avenges the death of his father. For me, the real message of the story was that you could have different beliefs than your own culture and choose to develop and follow values that do not fit into your culture. However, to do so, you may have to leave your family.

  • Cherie Lindquist

    I feel that it must be difficult for writers to be objective when they are writing about something they believe in and are passionate about. I wonder if Russian history of their early contact with Alaska Natives is similar to what is documented in the book. Do they or can they justify their treatment of Alaska Natives? In the story, Ashana, by E. P. Roesch, it tells about the lack of regard Russians had for Alaska Natives. As I was reading it, I found it very sad and disturbing for the chief’s daughter to be forced to give up her betrothed because Alexander Baranov wanted her for his own. I couldn’t help comparing it to the story, The Tragedy of Anna Petrovna, by Hector Chevigny. That story, from Russian America, told about how poorly Russian explorers were treated after being captured by Alaska Natives. In my opinion, the two stories are good examples of how both cultures relied on their values and beliefs when dealing with each other. I looked at the bookplate picture and thought about what the author was trying to convey to the readers. The woman in the picture is not only dressed in a “European” manner, but she seems to have had her features changed in order to have a “European” face.