First we have to consider the definition of “culture.” Merriam-Webster defines it as:
: the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time
: a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.
: a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)
This week in one of my other classes I had the pleasure of listening to Willie Hensley, an Inupiat born in Kotzebue and raised on the Noatak River. As a young child, he lived in a sod house listening to family tell stories and did not learn to read till later. Somehow, this child of Inupiat culture grew up into an adult who became a Democratic state senator, in a very different culture, with negotiating and organizational skills to help forge the Alaska Native Lands Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The background on his part in the ANLSC is: he wrote a short paper titled “What Rights to Land Have the Alaska Natives?: The Primary Question” in May, 1966 for a class at UAA with Judge Rabinowitz (you may see this paper at http://www.alaskool.org/projects/ancsa/WLH/WLH66_1.htm). By the time he finished the paper, he realized that Alaska Natives were in danger of losing the lands they had grown up on, and he began work to reverse that situation. It does not seem that the cultures of the times were necessarily co-existing, although they may have been working together at the level of individuals. Somehow Hensley worked with the dominant government’s culture to help his people claim much of the land they had subsisted on for ten thousand years.
Small towns in Alaska (and Fairbanks will often consider itself a small town) have a culture which dictates they stick together and help one another out in any way they can. It may have something to do with the extreme weather. Here, no matter what your place in life, you are subject to the extremities of the weather in some way and always have to think about it in order to ensure your survival.
In Fairbanks, we are about to host the 2014 Arctic Winter Games (http://awg2014.org/), which will be a major sharing of arctic cultures.
A major way of sharing culture is to trade subsistence food. I like to trade subsistence moose meat for subsistence salmon or halibut. I’m especially honored if someone decides to give me a can of half-dry smoke salmon, or strips from the Yukon. Yum!
Dog mushing seems to transcend cultures as well. Dog mushing is a good way to travel about the state and see some of the old, traditional trails that have been in use by people in the Bush for many years. If you use wood at someone’s cabin, you replace it before you leave. That is a tradition I associate with dog mushing.
Potlatches can be another culture in which whole towns participate, such as in Nenana, where you can be non-Native but still participate in the potlatches.
Church cultures seem to co-exist very well in my area. There are five different churches in a small area, but they do community services every Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas. Mormons, Catholics, Baptists, Assembly of God and an independent church all celebrate these seasons together (although I must say I don’t ever remember the community services being at the Mormon church, but they don’t seem to object in any way).
People in Alaska seem to transcend cultures to enjoy one another.