Sealaska Heritage

NEWS_Blog_Weighing our words after Celebration 2018

<<back to blog page

Respect: weighing our words after Celebration 2018

By Jessie Barker (Aarhus University, Denmark, and the Behavioural Insights Team, UK)
With thanks to Celia Denton (University of Alaska, Anchorage), Jerreed Ivanich (Johns Hopkins University) and Caitlin Stern (Santa Fe Institute)

I arrived in Juneau the day before Celebration, the zipper on my suitcase almost broken from trying to close around a bagful of clipboards. The cool, grey summer weather reminded me of my hometown, London. But what brought me almost 4500 miles across the globe to Southeast Alaska?

As a researcher of human behavior, I’m interested in when and why people help each other: who they give help to and in what situations. A lot of studies show that people are often most willing to help family members, and in fact my trips to Southeast Alaska started with family – visiting in-laws in Haines. When I first learned about Southeast Alaska Native culture, I was fascinated by the importance placed on helping, encapsulated by the core cultural value called Wooch Yáx in Lingít, Gu dlúu in X̱aad Kíl, and Ama Mackshm in Sm’algya̱x (often translated as “balance, reciprocity and respect” in English).

My colleagues and I were determined to find out more, and were lucky enough to get funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and to be hosted by the Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) as visiting scholars. We began our project with a survey during Celebration 2016 of how people felt about their Native identity and their expectations about helping others. Most of our participants were Tlingit (we were partially based in Haines and so spoke to many participants there and in Klukwan), and we found that both clan and home community (kwáan) membership shaped people’s helping interactions.

Although we learned a lot, we felt that we came away asking more questions than we answered, and as none of us is Native, we knew we needed not only to come back but to bring more Native involvement into the project. Fortunately, SHI kindly agreed to host us at Celebration 2018, and we secured additional funding from NSF to hire seven Native/indigenous student researchers (Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Alutiiq and Tahltan).

Our 2018 research had two components. The first was a type of study often used in economics: a decision-making activity where people imagine an interaction with an anonymous partner and get paid depending on their and their partner’s decisions. Here, we asked Tlingit and Haida people to imagine the specific context of salmon fishing, and whether they would help someone from the same clan or community gill-net, or instead fish with a rod on their own. (The results suggest that when people were from the same community, they were more likely to gill-net with someone from the same clan.)

These economic studies allow researchers to test theories about helping, but their results about specific decisions people make are not necessarily generalizable. For this reason, in the second part of our research we interviewed people (anybody who self-identified as Alaska Native) to find out about the broader context in which people help each other, asking them who they help (and are helped by) in different situations in everyday life, such as gathering and sharing food, repairs and construction, child-rearing, and volunteering time for others. Testament to the fantastic work of our student researchers, we interviewed over 150 participants – this was even more than I had hoped for, and left us with a lot of transcribing for the rest of the summer!

Because so many participants were generous enough with their time to speak to us, we were able hear a range of opinions and experiences. Although we have not yet finished listening to and transcribing the interviews, two key themes have emerged thus far: first, that there is a diversity of ways in which people connect with their Native identity, but second, that running through this diversity is a shared cultural value of helping others, be it through collecting traditional foods together or simply going to the grocery store for a neighbor. An SHI blog post in Fall 2018 echoes this importance of coming together to help others.

However, we of course did not get to hear the opinions of people who chose not to take part in the study. It was not until after I was back in London that I realized that Tsimshian people had felt excluded because they could not take part in the decision-making activity. I had come to the activity from the perspective of a researcher, interested in clan identity from an academic perspective without thinking through the cultural context in a sensitive way. For that reason we did not initiate efforts to consult with them to ensure that they felt included in our research. We had intended our research to benefit the people involved, and so were very sorry that they were under-represented in our study.

This helped me realize once again much I have to learn, and how rich and complex is the history of cooperation and conflict among and within Southeast Alaska Native tribes. But a shared commitment to helping others – Wooch Yáx, Gu dlúu, Ama Mackshm – can bring diverse people together even in the face of difficulty. I hope that even if our study highlighted the continuing importance of healing historical divisions, it can bring cooperation to the fore, and contribute to the current resurgence of Alaska Native culture and its core values. Respecting each other’s past, we can build a strong future together.

If you would like to hear more about the study and the results, or are interested in voluntary work to transcribe some of the interviews, please contact