Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Alaska House: Native Culture in N.Y.C.

Alaska House cultural hub for native people  
With a population of about 30,000, the Native American community in New York City relies on a handful of institutions to keep their native culture alive. One such place is the Alaska House. 

The Alaska House, 109 Mercer St., is a nonprofit organization that represents Alaska through art, education and special events. It focuses on a unique community of people and has been open since September 2008.
“As an ambassador, we have events that focus on Alaskan politics, government, our economy, our environment, cultures throughout Alaska (and) music,” said Andrei Jacobs, 34, gallery associate and Alaska Native. “If there’s any question that a person has about Alaska, somebody here’s going to be able to answer it.”
When visiting the Alaska House, it’s easy to focus on the predominate collection of art. The current installation is called “Dry Ice,” which centers on artists’ interpretations of Alaska’s land and resources. And all the contributing artists are Alaska Natives.
While Alaska Natives are considered part of the Native American community, Jacobs claims there are many things that differentiate them.
“ ‘(Alaska Native)’ is a lawful word. That’s all about the federal government. That’s The Man telling me what I am,” said Jacobs, who is a quarter Yup’ik Eskimo and a quarter Inupiaq Eskimo. “The difference by law … is our treaties. Our treaties were signed in a very different way back in 1971. So I’m a tribal member, I guess, but I’m also a shareholder in a corporation.”
In 1971, President Nixon signed the Alaska Natives Claim Settlement Act to resolve the long-standing issues involving indigenous land claims and to stimulate economic development in Alaska.
“The federal government gave tribes … billions of dollars to get started with these corporations,” Jacobs said. “They could get into whatever they wanted to — oil, building hotels, owning security companies, working with technology firms.”
Another unique privilege of Alaska Natives is their usage of marine mammals parts. The Marine Mammal Protection Act enacted in 1972 prohibits the import, export or sale of any marine mammal part or product in the U.S. But Alaska Natives are partially exempt from this rule.
“You cannot sell a raw piece of marine mammal in North America unless it’s been rendered into art by a Native American or Alaska Native,” Jacobs said, as he pointed to 14-foot baleen resting against the wall. “And the reason for that is they have a traditional and customary use … and they are therefore protected.”
One traditional view that is a significant theme at the Alaska House is the focus on subsistence. A nine-line quotation by Inupiat elder Willie Hensley dominates the wall space at the gallery. It reads, in part: “Subsistence describes a way of life practiced by Alaska Native peoples for ten thousand years. Our lives are intertwined with nature and revolve around the seasons … Through it all, the arbiter of success is in the hands of nature and the skill of the hunter.”
Jacobs said this idea is central to Native Alaskans.
“When I think of subsistence, I think of my identity through language, food and culture,” he said. “If you don’t have food, then you can’t have an identity, then you can’t have language, then you can’t have art, culture.”

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