Thinking Like a Native Alaskan : The Necessity of Place-Based Knowledge

By Mei Mei Evans, PhD

Mei Mei Evans Poster

Context of the Inquiry

Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley:

“The incursion of Western society has brought about many cultural and psychological disruptions to the flow of life in traditional societies…. Traditional ways of knowing with the attendant life skills and self-regulating processes on which indigenous people have relied for many generations are usually left along the trail in the name of ‘progress.’”  

-A Yupiaq Worldview – A Pathway to Ecology and Spirit


To determine critically, by reading and writing, how we might best

prove to be “good ancestors” for future generations of life.

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Focus of the Inquiry

Hypothesis:  Place-based perspectives offer a corrective to contemporary mainstream systems of knowledge.  Specifically, “thinking like a Native Alaskan” enriches current understandings of events like climate change and species extinction.

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Course Design and Implementation

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The Books of the Year:

Seth Kantner, Shopping for Porcupine – A Life in Arctic Alaska:

“The dying of subsistence as a lifestyle doesn’t negate the importance of wild food from the land, for many of us essential to feeling and being alive.

“… [H]ere, as in the Old West, it is what we’ve lost that marks who we are much more than these things we’ve gained.  I’m sad, aware that in my short years, gathering off the land as the mainstay of a lifestyle has all but gone extinct.  Gone with it are much of its logic, lessons, and values.”

From a Student Essay:

“We have lost self-respect as well as respect for others and the environment.

            “… I truly feel that we went off course as a human existence when we strayed from place-based knowledge and individual thinking and reasoning.  This process … is the key to changing as a whole world and humanity, and going back to putting an emphasis on the importance of place-based knowledge.  For a change to occur, we must change on an individual level, which will slowly spread through the world.  Together we can do this.”

- First-year Student, APU


 The Books of the Year:

Charles Wohlforth, The Whale and the Supercomputer:

“When culture became a choice, an individual could no longer claim to be merely its creature, driven by the dictates of an ideology given at birth.  You were obliged to examine, at a deeper level, who you were, what you were, and where you fit in with the living things around you.”

From a Student Essay:

“To me, home is present when the actions of each individual are related to creating a positive atmosphere for the entire community.  Relying on community and place-based knowledge is key to finding simplicity and quality in life…

“[Charles] Wolhforth puts the whole situation in perspective [when he quotes a public policy expert]: ‘We need[ ] modern science, but we also need[ ] a ten-thousand-year old science based on human experience of concrete places and events’ (278).”

-First-year Student, APU

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As I embarked on this project, my intention was to “test drive” my ideas with my Fall 2009 section of Argumentation (Alaska Pacific University’s freshman composition course), and then to teach the (presumably) improved version in Spring 2010.  However, my Spring 2010 class has only two students in it, so I am combining results of both teaching experiences for my Difficult Dialogues work.

My overarching ambition for the class has been to have students think critically, by means of reading and writing and classroom discussion, about what it means to be a human being in the world today.  How do we live meaningful lives that nevertheless ensure that future generations will be able to do the same?

My learning from the Spring ’09 faculty intensive included the value of slowing down my instruction, the importance of direct observation, and the necessity of place-based knowledge.  In order to incorporate these into my teaching, I devised an assignment sequence that built cumulatively on a variety of practices:

·        One of the first class activities involves spending time out of doors, in the vicinity of University Lake.  My instructions to students are to spend up to an hour outside paying close attention to their observations.  I suggest that they refrain from talking to one another or to others whom they might encounter, in favor of focusing more completely on what they notice about themselves and their reactions to stimuli in the environment.  Although they are told not to write anything while out of doors, once they return to the classroom everyone does some in-class writing before we share our experiences.

·         This activity is incorporated into two formal writing assignments, the first of which is a reflective paper that invites students to think about the meaning to them of places that have been significant or even formative for them, with specific reference to the importance (or lack of it) to them of the real or the romanticized “Alaska.” 

·         The second formal essay, assigned at the end of the course, asks students to present an argument as to why someone looking at going to college should (or should not) consider going to college in Alaska.

The Books of the Year

I also assigned a paper focused on the 2009-2010 UAA/APU Books of the Year:  Seth Kantner’s Shopping for Porcupine and Charles Wohlforth’s The Whale and the Supercomputer.  These were taught in conjunction with Velma Wallis’s Two Old Women and the Canadian feature film The Snow Walker to stimulate thinking, discussion, and writing about Western vs. indigenous ways of knowing and relating to the land.

Two Readings on Species Extinction

Finally, I assigned two 2009 essays addressing species extinction, Jennifer S. Holland’s “Race to Save the Frogs” (National Geographic, April 2009) and Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction?” (The New Yorker, May 25, 2009), both notable for the absence of place-based observations.  These readings, particularly when considered with and against the Books of the Year assignment, really allowed students to evaluate the importance of indigenous knowledge to a complete understanding of the world and our place in it.

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Faculty Contact

Mei Mei Evans, PhD.

Associate Professor of English

Alaska Pacific University

4101 University Drive

Anchorage, Alaska 99508