I’m a Caucasian woman of Italian descent, and I’m jealous. Not of the hardships that Alaska Natives have endured, but of their rich culture and understanding of the natural world that is engrained in their heritage—and seems to be—instilled in utero. The Native traditions and spiritual quests we (non-Natives) now revere, put on display, and at times exploit, are the same ones we once tried to strip away. Most of us visit Alaska to be a part of things missing from our ordinary, day-to-day lives. It’s not so farfetched to say that by getting closer to the land and the wildlife inhabiting it, that we are searching for what Alaska Natives possessed long before our missionaries came on the scene: a deeply felt connection to all living things. It can’t be learned or earned through an iPad app, a Starbucks latte or buying a new car. If it could, perhaps we’d all stay at home in the heated comfort of our homes binging on episodes of “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix.
Seeing a humpback whale breach along side your kayak or hearing the white thunder of a ten-stories high, calving glacier or fishing (along side hungry brown bears who ignore you) for salmon running thick against a current gives us the sense that we are a part of something big, serendipitous, magical. That connection, in turn, leads to a certain kind of faith and respect for what it means to live a life, give a life, or take one. Nowhere is that more evident than in the subsistence living of Native villages in Alaska. Land, language, medicine, spiritual practices, songs, art, dance and community are deeply held and cherished, especially when they are at risk of disappearing.