On Paper: Validity, Writing and an Oral Tradition

To listen the story instead of reading, click here.

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Cordelia!”

“No, what’s your Iñupiaq name?” 

“Qiġñaaq.” 

“ Is it on your birth certificate?”

“No.” 

“Oh. So it’s not your real name.”

To myself — “He doesn’t think, if it’s not in writing, it’s real.”

This, and moments like this, would occur repeatedly. Pinpricks in the moment compounded into clear pain, and the theme of my early 20’s was detangling my own identity in response to these messages and unraveling this pain.This is how I began a blog about Indigenous issues highlighting identity, called Nalliq. For Part One of this two-part essay, click here

___________________

People can sense doubt, and they can sense when they are perceived to have fallen short. 

Humans also have a remarkable capacity for pattern recognition. 

10 years ago, everything was fresh and new: knowledge about the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), federal Indian law, the history of our region, new people, and more information about what it meant to be Iñupiaq. I was enthralled with everything I was learning, and I was excited to tell my colleagues at my Alaska Native Corporation what I had found. 

One of these lessons was learning about Project Chariot; I was shocked that in 1958, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission attempted to build a deep-water port, 30 miles from Point Hope, a town of 1000 people in Northwest Alaska, by detonating 5 atomic bombs. It sounds incredulous, and it is. This was only 30 years prior to my birth, and not only had I never learned about it in school, nobody else in the workplace (except Iñupiaq people) seemed to know about it either. 

A peddler of information, I needed to tell everyone about this. My uncle, who was in leadership in our company, saw my interest in educating and I was tasked with creating cultural orientations, which gave me even more opportunity to both learn and share across departments. 

And nearly every time I shared about Project Chariot: doubt. 

As shared in Part One, what ensued was the ritual of sharply analyzing the minutia of these interactions. There was a specific formula at play: 

Something astonishing + having never heard it before = doubt. 

Repetitively. Consistently. You could bet on it, plan for it, count on it. Telling additional information did not matter. 

Then a happy accident: The same formula (I shared, they doubted), but then I said, “There’s a book about it.” 

Full-throated, instant transformation. I wasn’t pulling people anymore; we were gliding. 

So. I used it, deliberately. It was my tool. It helped me, and it saved me so much energy and time. 

Chariot!” 

*Doubt* 

“There’s a book about it!”

“Oh, okay!” 

So: Very real events that happened to my very real relatives, who lived through them and advocated against them, which occurred not long prior to my birth, is cause for doubt. But the existence of a stack of papers written by an unknown person with unexamined content — that is what is valid? [The actual book is wonderful and you can find it here]. 

And that was how I learned that for European-American/White peoples and cultures, validity is in paper.  

But What Happens When You Come from an Oral Tradition? 

With White people, validity is in paper. For Alaska Natives, the validity is in us

“No, what’s your Iñupiaq name?” 

“Qiġñaaq.” 

“ Is it on your birth certificate?”

“No.” 

“So it’s not your real name.”

Many of us don’t have our Indigenous names on our birth certificates. 

Writing, birth certificates, the US government, offices, bureaucracy — it’s all cultural, and it didn’t come from us. Some choose to, and that’s great, but many also don’t. These cultural markers are also tangible: You can see paper, and hold it in your hand.

But I am real. My Iñupiaq name was given to me by my very real mother, who named me after my very real Aapa, who was given the name by those who were similarly very real to him. We have our own system. The validity is inside us.

If you’re not part of our community or network, you may not see it. It’s actually not likely that you will. It will look invisible to you, because it’s embedded in our relationships. I posit it’s likely why colonizers thought we didn’t have a system of governance or economy, when we did and do. 

The system is in us

The implications of these cultural differences are far-reaching and profound.  It affects, shapes, impacts, and informs nearly every aspect of Alaska Native lives. This is also what colonization looks like. Below are some examples. 

Example A: Credentials

I have had the honor of being invited to speak at various organizations about culture and cross-cultural differences. It’s a wonderful gift and a true honor I do not take for granted. Entering spaces, sometimes I feel non-Native people wondering what my background is in terms of degrees and/or certificates, and what “authorizes” me to be speaking to them that day. People are also often polite, and end up figuring that they’ll find out as the presentation or dialogue commences. As it happens when you show yourself, by the end, they’ve come to understand and are no longer wondering, but I do feel that at the beginning, almost every time.

What I want to say in those scenarios is: consider your manager. Do you trust them? Have they proven to be of sound judgement? Now take all of the confidence and trust that you apply to your manager, and apply it to the speaker. The credentials are in the relationship: the judgement of the manager who arranged the dialogue, and the relationship between the manager and the speaker. To question the speaker is to question the judgement of the person who arranged for the speech. The validity is in us. 

Example Ch (I’m using the Iñupiaq Alphabet): Adoption

“I adopted him.” 

When we say this, people think of the Western bureaucratic adoption system, with records and registration. People expect to see it on paper. But we decide who our family is. We adopt, even across backgrounds. My own cultural group is a very adopting people. You do not have to be Iñupiaq by blood (and it’s similar in other Alaska Native groups), to be a citizen of our nation, or a family and community member. Additionally, Aapas and Aakas, or Ataatas and Aanas or other relatives will adopt the children of their children. They just say they’re theirs, and that’s it; that’s how it is. I caution people not to say it’s not “real adoption,” because it’s not logged in the Western bureaucratic system: the system is in us. 

Example G: Community Leadership and Job Titles

Culture comes from the environment. 

Job titles, certificates, resumes, degrees, trophies and awards; these are developed from an environment and context where people are more culturally transient and are strangers to each other in contrast with communities where people are known from birth to death. You don’t need to talk about your accomplishments, because people already know; they see every day of your life. 

But what do job titles tell you? In a transient culture, they provide all kinds of instant information and possible hints at who a person is: skills, strengths, interests, hobbies, how someone has spent their time and can even be indicative of identity, politics, cultural background, experience and more. Similarly with trophies: if you are in a new community and you’re being introduced, and it’s mentioned that you’ve won ____ award, it provides information again, about who you are, how you’ve spent your time, and/or how your community regards you, among other things. This is the system that European-Americans operate from; again, culture comes from the environment. 

But being Alaska Native, there are now two coinciding systems: The Western professional hierarchy and our own system of relationship.  Something I’ll see commonly is that someone in our community will have a “lower” position in the Western organizational hierarchy, yet they’ll be one of our community leaders. If you’re not tapped into our system, you might not see it as it’s often invisible to Westerners as it is subsurface, intangible culture, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist: it’s just as real and valid as any Western organizational chart. They’re our leaders because of the quality of their character, how they have lived and treated other people, over the course of their lives and who they are, as a person, at their core, among other reasons. 

So what can happen is that in a Western office, there’s a Native person with this “lower position,” yet confusion may ensue when others in the workplace see them as regarded in accordance with who they are into our communities. This can look like White employers:

  1. Wondering why a Native employee is:
  • Receiving invitations to speak at, or attend, events that do not relate to the employee’s job title and/or employer organization;
  • Receiving invitations or being present in meetings that feels like it “should go to the supervisor,” because it’s more “elevated” than the title or position of the actual recipient. 
  1. Wondering why a Native person has “such good relationships,” with _____(elected official, person in leadership, etc.) when that’s a relationship that is perceived to be had at a more executive/managerial level; 
  2. Underutilizing the full capacity, expertise and potential of the employee because they just see their job title and resume, and not the fullness of their experience as their community knows them, to include life experience, among many other scenarios. If you have other examples, please message me. 

This also speaks to the Western cultural trait and value of segmentation (which I once read was born of the Enlightenment) where you bring a portion of yourself to work and leave the remainder of your person at home. 

Example Ġ: Traditional Knowledge

The value of writing often shows itself in questioning oral stories and Alaska Native/Indigenous knowledges. 


I remember visiting my Ataata with colleagues, and as he told us the nearly knee-high grass outside his house in Wainwright used to be only a few inches high as a boy, you could feel the politely suppressed doubt. 

A gentle reminder that people can sense questioning and doubt. 

It made me wonder — if he had said this, and someone had written it down, and my colleagues had found it in a book, would they believe the same words, because it was on paper

An anthropologist recently shared with a group I was in, about how in her 30 year career in Alaska, she has yet to find an instance where oral history had been wrong.

(I also once read that Inuit people found dishonesty improper to the degree that many had to learn from Westerners what lying was. [If someone knows more about this, please reach out]. This theory is still in development, but I softly wonder if there’s a Western cultural position of the degree of human fallibility that feels different than my own people, because with our own people, I feel like if I say something, it must be true. I share this only because it’s relevant to understanding why Western ways rely so much on paper and doubt people so much). 

Example H: Naming

Birth certificates are European-American cultural objects and Native peoples have naming systems that completely exist outside Western/American naming conventions. As I shared earlier in this essay, my Iñupiaq name Qiġñaaq, for example, is not on my birth certificate, but it is “real” because I am real, my culture is real, and my mother is real, and she named me after my very real, and valid, Iñupiaq grandfather. The validity is in us. 

So what’s the point? 

Is paper and writing bad? No. 

Bentham Ohia, Maori, poses the question, “What counts as knowledge, what knowledge counts, and who decides.”  I write this to explore validity — what is valid, and who decides. For Alaska Native peoples, we can. 

I have a White friend where almost anything I put forth is met with disbelief and doubt, until I can point her to a source in writing. I had a White supervisor who would question how I knew something I had asserted but never question my White, male colleague with similar professional experience and background. Over time, the persistent questioning in both relationships was enough to make me think subconsciously, “If they’re questioning me, I must be someone worth questioning,” eroding my self-trust until I realized it wasn’t about me at all, but it was them. 

It’s also called gaslighting, and it’s happening at a massive scale. 

Native Peoples:

These messages of questioning and doubt are so ubiquitious (can be found everywhere) and persistent, it’s like pushing back against a gas: What can happen is that we as Native people can absorb these messages, but if we:

  • don’t know that it is culture, 
  • that it’s Western culture, and 
  • that it’s just culture, we could see it as an indictment about ourselves in the way that we have and do. 

I write to raise awareness so that we know what is happening in the moment, and where it comes from, even if the person asserting the message does not. 

White Peoples

My 30 years of life have taught me that White people are hard pressed to detail their own culture, to the extent of wondering if they have a culture at all. Further discussion about intangible culture, such as what can be found beneath the surface of The Cultural Iceberg, is challenging as many White people have not experienced intensive examination by another force in the way that Alaska Native peoples have been examined by Westerners. (It also makes sense that we as Native people have answers about ourselves ready, because we’ve been studied in the way that White people living in White-dominant spaces, have not). 

I write this so White people can see the unintended impact of assertions of culture — a culture that again, they may not know they even have. It’s like having an instrument in your hand that you didn’t know you were holding. 

Further, organizations now talk about decolonization, but we don’t know what it looks like because many White people in my experience, are challenged to relate the specific traits that perpetuate ongoing colonization and erode Native cultural practices.

Conclusion

If we don’t know these messages are culture, the doubt imposed upon us as Native people can teach us to doubt ourselves. But the opposite can also happen: we can validate our ways, and in doing so, strengthen our own Indigenous systems. If we understand these dynamics and show that we continue to retain full understanding of our systems as being valid, then Westerners will receive the message that they are. But if we doubt, then Westerners doubt. 

The ramifications are extensive and the consequences are profound. 

This happened to me just last week, about something I said to someone White. It was something I knew (that Greenlanders came from where my family is from, 800-1000 years ago) but per the forumula, because it sounded incredulous to her and she had never heard it before, there was doubt. It wasn’t until I pointed to a resource that she believed me.  It happens all the time. 

But when it happens now, I know. It doesn’t hurt me anymore, because I can see it for what it is: culture. 

Writing is a verb. To Westerners, it is also a value. 

As Native peoples, we have our own values. And the validity is in us. 

Quyanaq.

———————

What is Culture Recap:

Culture is everything. It’s also everything that you know as your normal and your default. Looking at The Cultural Iceberg, subsurface and what I call “intangible,” culture, is often invisible to oneself. It’s your normal. But it can also be thought to be what IS normal, such as thinking your way is the default, with everyone being who’s different, when we all have our own stuff. For more information on this discussion, visit my Instagram: @cordelialaska.

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