The Alutiiq of Alaska were the first people to use kayaks.
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I was a tour guide at a museum and culture center in Alaska for six months in 2008, and again in 2009. I’d lead visitors on an outdoor trail that had exhibits on different native groups in Alaska. My ancestors came from the Alutiiq group, and so when the visitors got to the exhibit that showed the kind of houses my ancestors lived in, I would talk to them about my people.
I figured out quickly that there was a little bit of danger to the job — there was always at least one older white guy who would kind of stay behind, and the first thing they said was, “Can I ask you a really stupid question?” It was always something about sex, like, “How would they figure out who to have sex with?” Or, “Would they just have sex on the floor in front of everyone? That’s what savages do, right?” It was offensive but at least I was glad I could educate them.
Weirdly enough, the women, especially older white women, always asked about peeing. Like, “Did they just pee on the floor?” Well, no, depending on where you were, you probably had an outside bathroom.
A lot of people also asked about divorce. They asked, “Did women get married? Did they have multiple husbands?” Actually, sometimes Alutiiq women would pick a man based on his hat. Men would wear these baseball-ish hats made of bent wood. It was like their bling — every time they killed an animal in the hunt, they’d put something from that animal on it. So you wanted to find a guy who had all these feathers and carvings and bits of ivory, because he’d be a good provider. But then if a guy turned out to be a dirtbag, all the woman would do was take all his stuff out of the home and throw it outside. That was the divorce.
People would joke about Sarah Palin — they’d say, “You must really love her because you’re Alaskan and you’re a girl too.” I don’t like her at all. One great example of how she ignored native people is one village up north ran out of heating fuel one winter and she didn’t do anything to help out. She did nothing for the native peoples here; she didn’t support us, and she didn’t do anything to work with us.
The visitors would get kind of condescending sometimes — I think their image of Alaskan natives is that they were dirty or uneducated. They didn’t understand how smart we were or how hard we worked.
I was given a script with a prepared answer for people who asked insensitive questions, but it didn’t solve the problem of how some visitors treated the women there. A lot of the people I worked there were teen girls, and a lot of guys would take advantage of inexperience and youthfulness to say inappropriate things to them. But if a guy was saying offensive things to a younger girl, I would figure out a way to physically bully him out of the area where she was, just continue speaking and bring him out into the open. And if someone asked if they could ask a stupid question, I’d say, “You can, but if it’s that stupid, I’m going to share it with all my friends.” Like, “It’s OK to ask me, but if you’re being an idiot I’ll tell you.”
Everywhere I go, though, people make assumptions about Alaskan natives. When I was growing up, I’d always get the same questions: “Do you live in an igloo? Do you have a penguin for a pet?” First it’s kind of funny, but it really gets old.
The best questions always came from the younger people, from kids who were just blatantly honest and open. Food was a big topic because food is really universal, and people are especially interested in it now that Instagramming your meal is a thing. Almost everything our bodies needed came from the sea — the Alutiiq diet is actually one of the healthiest diets.
People were also really interested in how we got around the island, and if we swam. We didn’t — it’s too freaking cold. The Alutiiq would travel in kayaks. They come from my part of Alaska, and the Alutiiq were the first people to use them.
I loved working there. I was a little saddened by how little people knew, but it was encouraging because these people paid money to come there. They paid money to hear me talk, and I spoke to thousands of people. For some of them it was their dream to come to Alaska, and it was great to see them asking me questions and really wanting to learn about natives.
As told to Anna North
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