Alaska natives, more bears, and Safina’s Becoming Wild
by Rob Tiller
These are in many ways dark and difficult times for both humans and other animals. Humans get most of the headlines, so I’m focusing here on other animals. I’m still processing my recent experiences with brown bears in Alaska, and still working my way through their pictures. Some of these moments were shocking, and some were wonderfully peaceful.
Also, when I was in Anchorage, I learned a bit about the native Alaska cultures. I discovered that there’s no single simple story, but a lot of complex and still evolving stories. At the Alaska Native Heritage Center, I took a tour and got an overview of the many distinct indigenous groups with their own languages, customs, and cultures.
At the Center, I got a taste of traditional music and dance, and the various kinds of houses and tools that the different groups used. The music used drums and voices (no other instruments) along with choreographed dance to tell stories. The music was not my preferred style (lots of close repetition), but I was glad to know that native Alaskans made and enjoyed music.
I also enjoyed the Anchorage Museum, which had exhibits of traditional crafts and documentary videos about native village life. It turns out that there were quite a few different strategies for surviving and creating community in pre-industrial Alaska.
In addition to coping with the harsh reality of their climate, when Europeans arrived, the indigenous people got horrific epidemics, violence, and oppression. And native communities have many serious problems today, including poverty and substance abuse. But the fact that these cultures weren’t entirely destroyed is strong proof of their fortitude and resilience.
I’m certain I only scratched the surface of Alaska cultures, and have a lot to learn. But one thing I definitely got: the term Eskimo has a lot of baggage, and is considered by many a nasty slur. As a schoolboy, I was taught that the word referred generally to the native people of Alaska. But like a lot of my early lessons on other cultures, this was both wrong and misleading. Some Alaskan natives still use it to denigrate other Alaskans, but probably the best course is to avoid the term.
I’ve been reading more of Carl Safina’s new book, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace. As in his previous book, Beyond Words, Safina teaches about the abilities and accomplishments of different animal communities. Beyond Words concerned elephants, wolves, and killer whales, while Becoming Wild focuses on humpback whales, macaws, and chimpanzees.
For these various creatures, Safina pulls together recent scholarship as well as his own observations. At times it drags a bit, but there are moments of great beauty and insight. Safina shows that these non-human animals have personalities, communities, and cultures, and their lives have inherent value. This is message is not complicated, but directly contrary to what most of us were taught, and it takes time to get it.
I hope Safina, or someone with similar commitment and talent, does a similar study of brown bears. Even just a few days with them was enough for me to start seeing that they were individuals, with their own personalities and customs. They seemed to have friends, and to be devoted to their children.
These animals have gotten only slightly better PR than sharks. In the popular imagination, they are mindless killing machines, rather than mostly peaceful co-inhabitants of the planet. Even in this sparsely populated area of Alaska with abundant food sources, the bear population has greatly declined, and the bears continue to be threatened by humans.
I was very disturbed to learn that in Katmai Preserve, the government grants licenses to hunt them for pleasure. Humans are twisted in many different ways, but still, it’s hard to understand how people would find such killing to be fun.
It would not be surprising if the bears were angry at humans for taking their territory, food sources, and the lives of friends and children. But I didn’t observe this. Some were leery and careful to keep their distance, while others were curious. A few times they approached us, but speaking to them in a firm voice was enough to direct them away, and they went on with their lives.