The indigenous peoples of Alaska have not only survived in extreme climate conditions, but have also developed a highly elaborate system of belief, spirituality, and material culture. These cultures were well-established within their environmental niches throughout the state, and in the case of the Arctic, throughout the circumpolar region. The Alaskan arctic coastline was among the last to be explored and exploited by Russian colonialists and other Western merchants.
Elaborate dancing, singing, drumming, and other rituals played integral parts within the spiritual worldview of Alaskan Native peoples. The Inupiat of Northern Alaska have an especially expressive tradition of mask-making and utilizing masks within their rituals. These rituals were preludes to hunting excursions and marriages, and could serve as opportunities to fulfill community roles and show devotion to spirituality and community.
Contact with outside cultures was driven by economic factors on both the part of colonialists and indigenous culture. Western traders, hunters, and colonialists were interested in Alaska’s abundant natural resources, while Native Alaskans were seeking material goods like firearms, ammunition, and, later, addictive substances such as tobacco and alcohol.
Russian sailors were the first Western colonial power to explore Alaska. Before contact with outside cultures Alaska Natives did not produce alcohol among themselves. Grinev explains Russian sailors, hunters, and merchants carried “small quantities [of alcohol] for personal consumption.” Where Russian colonialists used tobacco as the substance of choice to incentive work and cooperation among the indigenous people, English whalers and American merchants used alcohol as the tool of economy of in colonial North West Alaska. “American boats were regularly stocked with alcohol by the 19th century and visiting more and more coastal villages in Northwest Alaska” (Grinev 2010, 70-71). “The regular distribution of alcohol was a means of maintaining Indian loyalties as well as gaining new friends” on the part of Western merchants, hunters, and traders throughout Alaska (Conn 1980, 46).
As more and more alcohol became available via trade with English and American sailors and merchants alcoholism developed in some people in many coastal communities. Since the initial moment of contact with outside cultures Alaska Native communities have had to adjust to huge changes in their way of life, and were forced to re-examine their understanding of health and healing, education, and spirituality.
Effects of Alcoholism in 19th Century NW Alaska
Contact with Western people brought new material goods to Natives of Alaska but it also introduced new diseases to Alaska. At the same time that alcohol and alcoholism were taking their toll on small, indigenous communities, the deadly effects of illness was ravaging populations and confounding traditional healing practices, as well. In addition to supplies of alcohol and disease, foreign colonialists also supplied the model for conduct when drinking alcohol. Often on board ships for years, these sailors and hunters demonstrated that drinking alcohol was part of a process of “letting off steam” that also included unruly, unproductive, and perhaps violent behavior (Conn 1980, 4). “Drinking sprees coupled with over-hunting of … sea mammals by seaman resulted in widespread annihilation of coastal Eskimos by famine and disease” (Conn 1980, 5-6).
Conn illustrates how disruptive alcohol could be in the extreme environment of Arctic Alaska in one small village: “many had failed to hunt seal for winter use and starved after a trader brought in a large quantity of liquor” (1980, 14). This kind of break-down within family groups and communities is unfortunately a common story among indigenous groups in their initial encounters with alcohol. “Major disruption occurred when the men left the villages to go on hunting parties and returned sometimes weeks later, empty-handed, indebted, and intoxicated. Meanwhile the women and children were left without food in the villages” (Dailey 1968, 54).
In reaction to widespread alcohol abuse and “the dangers of alcoholism, most conscientious Indians tried to combat drunkenness in their communities with the aid of the Orthodox missionaries” (Grinev 2010, 75). It was often an outside Westerner who was sent to rural Alaskan villages to head schools or law enforcement agencies, and it was these “teacher missionaries who battled the smugglers and hootch manufacturers in coast villages throughout Alaska” (Conn 1980, 9).
In 1879 US Revenue Cutter Service Captain Henry Glass put “his authority behind the missionaries and required Indian children to go to schools where temperance was taught in the classroom” (Conn 1980, 9) and is part of the legacy of schooling in the Alaska and the United States. While it was Western-institutions such as missionaries, education officials, or law enforcement who attempted to regulate alcohol use within indigenous communities, their efforts were pervasive with ethnocentric and biased attitudes. Conn details in his work “Alcohol Control in Village Alaska” that laws had been set up since the days of Russian Alaska with the conviction that Alaska Native people were (and remain to be) notably prone to alcoholism, and did not possess the will or the wit to respond to alcoholism within their own community (1980, 1).
Alaska Natives throughout the state have done remarkably well in their attempts to hold on to their traditional cultures despite many difficult factors. Since contact with first Russian and then European colonialism, indigenous peoples have had to reconcile huge differences between where their worldview originated and where they find themselves today. Diseases, ineffective healing practices, introduction of new technologies, conversion to new religions, and adherence to unfamiliar legal requirements were often activities that were incompatible with traditional spirituality of Alaska Native people. Alcohol use among Native Alaskans is often looked at as “the problem” facing these groups, but this fails to acknowledge that drinking alcohol to excess with regularity is one symptom of a dysfunctional relationship between Alaska Native people and those who have entered their lands. This relationship is marked by an unwillingness of one side to recognize the other as an equal, and this side holds all the power. It must be recognized that Alaska Native people have issues that will require a holistic Alaska Native solution.
Conn, Stephen. “Alcohol Control And Native Alaskans– From The Russians To Statehood: The Early Years – Alcohol Control in Village Alaska.” 1980. Accessed October 29, 2015. http://justice.uaa.alaska.edu/research/1970/7801.alcohol_control/7801.02.alcohol_control.pdf.
Dailey, R. C. “The Role of Alcohol among North American Indian Tribes as Reported in the Jesuit Relations.” Anthropologica, 1968, 45. Accessed October 30, 2015.
Grinëv, Andrei V. “The Distribution of Alcohol among the Natives of Russian America.” Arctic Anthropology 47, no. 2 (2010): 69-79. Accessed October 30, 2015.