<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <b>The Nature of Tradition</b> <p> <p> <i>I couldn't sit down and make a list of things that I could do, or I was taught to do [traditionally]. When did you learn to use a fork? I doubt that you'd be able to remember that. <p> You just osmose some of this. I never thought of it as a learning process. It was just something that went on around you all the time, so you picked it up from that lifestyle.</i> <p> MARIE LAWS, TLINGIT, 1991 <p> <p> <b>Tradition is</b> an elusive concept. It is generally regarded, at least by those who are concerned that it will disappear, as something tangible, precious, and fragile. Most of the people concerned that tradition will disappear, however, are not those who actively participate in its perpetuation. In the context of this book, such worried observers can be identified (not as Native artists, usually) but as scholars, culture workers, curators, and non-Native Alaskans with a wide variety of interests. Most scholars who study material culture—folklorists, anthropologists, historians, and archaeologists among them—take a somewhat less hallowed view of tradition as an entity, emphasizing instead its direct relationship with the forms of the past, even the recent past. <p> In Alaska, the idea that tradition is a venerable thing is especially prevalent. The dichotomy between the terms "traditional" and "contemporary" and the boundaries established by their use are important. These identifications keep people thinking in a certain way, thus affecting funding for the arts in Alaska and elsewhere. They also guide choices in museum acquisitions and exhibitions, Percent for Art projects, and private collections. Most seriously of all, this outlook shapes how particular artists are perceived by others. Perceptions of what is "traditional" often result in stereotyping and may affect artists' personal aesthetic and the work they will be able or willing to produce and market. <p> One objective of this book is to explore the definitions of the concept of tradition as it has been constructed by scholars and to introduce readers to these issues. A second mission is to juxtapose these views and definitions with those of Alaska Native artists, performers, and Native scholars who rely on the existence of tradition in their personal (cultural) and professional (art-producing) lives. Many outsiders to Native culture either assume that Native lives have changed beyond recognition or hope they have remained "traditional." This text is a response to that kind of thinking: a presentation of the words and works of some of the Native artists I have worked with for more than two decades. Their narratives form the core of this book and are its most important offering. <p> <p> <b>Defining Tradition</b> <p> Most Native artists don't spend much time contemplating or defining tradition, although they may be uncomfortable with how they are labeled in relation to it. Their work and words provide a cultural and aesthetic window through which to examine the foundation of a past that is always present, even if assaulted by outside pressures. Tradition survives. Just below the bustle of everyday life in Native culture, there is the bedrock of the past. There are terms for this in the Yup'ik language. For example: <i>ella maliggluku</i> means circling, following the natural course of the universe clockwise, "to create a boundary against evil and promote a successful future" (Fienup-Riordan 1996:127) or bringing what has been hidden "back up" or "into the light." <p> H. G. Barnett (1953:411) provides an interpretation of the underlying aspects of tradition that often result in the resurfacing of the familiar: "It is a part of the necessary economy of everyday living that all of us assume that there is a constancy about the objects of our experience." This view of tradition is analogous to the position taken by Franz Boas on the origins of traditional art forms. In his classic <i>Primitive Art</i> (1955:349), Boas writes that "art arises from two sources, from technical pursuits and from the expression of emotions and thought.... Artistic enjoyment is, therefore, based essentially upon the reaction of our minds to form." <p> The conflict between one's own view of what an object may mean in comparison with the view of members of the cultural group who produced that object may be less than obvious. This book began from a discussion of objects collected for a major Percent for Art installation at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, which remains on permanent display there. In a discussion of that exhibition, Ronald Senungetuk (1995), an Inupiaq scholar, artist, and curator, wrote: <p> In my observation of Alaska Native art and culture in the last twenty years, I have seen a tremendous diversity in the will of the people to express. This will to express can be traced back to at least 500 BC. The desire to express beauty, as well as to make functional forms, and, very often, embodiments of symbolism for environmental and animal allusion, is a requisite that provides a foundation for continuum in the traditions that are represented in this exhibition. <p> <p> After that exhibition was completed, I curated several other installations of Alaska Native art in other, mostly rural, Alaska locations. I subsequently expanded this text to include some of those objects and dialogues (internal, with artists, and between selection committees and project administrators, including myself ) as these exhibitions were collected, curated, and then installed. <p> At Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue, for example, I suggested to a committee with a majority of Inupiaq members that perhaps Native masks might be purchased with Percent for Art funds for the lobby of this large regional public facility. The center serves a Native constituency of twelve Northwest Alaska Native Association (NANA) villages both inland and coastal, including the whaling village of Point Hope. The response of the committee to my suggestion was immediate and negative. "Masks," said one jury member, "are made only for the tourist trade." Others commented that masks symbolize shamanism in the minds of many elders and that shamanism, because of strong Christian beliefs throughout the area, was an inappropriate topic for a public facility. Masks made many committee members very uncomfortable. By the close of the discussion, I realized that the suggestions I had made were, to paraphrase Jonathon King (1986:73), a reconstruction and appreciation of masks as art depending entirely on aesthetic judgments based on non-Native values. We compromised, however, in that I hesitantly added several masks to the Inupiaq art collection itself, all by prominent regional Inupiaq artists. None referred directly to shamanism, but all were current, inventive interpretations of old forms. Jury members and visitors to the facility have not objected to them. <p> Even if the object chosen for public exhibition is appropriate for Native and other viewers, another subtle yet damaging action may be in the nature of an interpretive text attending the work of art. Such text may be something brief, like an exhibition label, which seems harmless enough but has the power to mislead or misinform a large audience. When interpretation is biased or inaccurate, it implies that members of Native cultures cannot speak for themselves. This situation is being remedied all over the globe, as Native people curate their own exhibitions and curators work on community-based projects as we did at Maniilaq. <p> The intention of this book is not to establish an enduring definition of tradition. Jonathon King (1986:65) calls the term itself a "semantic booby trap," stating further that "if societies change continually, often as a result of foreign influence, then the concept of tradition in culture and art cannot be viewed as absolute." My own research among Alaska Native artists from a number of different culture groups indicates that tradition is not product, but process. To Native peoples, tradition is an elusive and changing phenomenon subject to a variety of influences. Tradition is the dynamic enactment of value and form by human beings; it is process. Further, tradition is not simply of and about the past, it is the present and the future. Yet tradition and traditional forms can also be hegemonic, selective, aggressive, inventive, reactive, emergent, and re-emergent. <p> Generally, the people most concerned about the supposed demise of tradition stand outside such traditions looking in. Members of dominant groups often wield economic and political power that influences the way tradition is shaped, bent, and carried forward. This is true whether a particular tradition is influenced by a culture apart from its performers or a faction (like clan or kinsmen) originating from within the group itself. The aesthetics of dominant groups and subordinated ones often are markedly different. For example, at Celebration, a biennial festival of dance in Southeast Alaska, not all performers have equal access to clan and family at.óow (heirloom treasures), because they are from different lineages, possess dramatically variable wealth, and have experienced European contact and cultural change in distinct ways. <p> The late Inupiaq sculptor Melvin Olanna from Shishmaref regarded the concept of tradition itself, the exploration of scholars into its nature, and its rediscovery and revitalization by locals with a certain amount of suspicion, saying in 1991: <p> I don't think people give that much of a damn about tradition. I think it's just Western vocabulary that they bring up "traditional" all the time. But I think when it comes to Native people themselves, they will refer to these things as: "Our forefathers, our fathers did it this way or that way. Or my grandmother said that it was not right for me to do it that way." <p> <p> Olanna's comments might be seen as an attack by a traditionalist on tradition itself—the insider rejecting any external judgment, whether that implied by Western vocabulary or the forms of guidance imposed by Native people themselves, conscious of the rules of their ancestors. Olanna did not consider himself a traditionalist; he spent a lifetime learning new techniques, experimenting with materials, and expanding his personal aesthetic. Yet he also remained true to the values of his culture and to the words of his elders. As an artist, he worked much of the time with local materials at a studio in his home village; as a hunter and provider, he shared both subsistence foods and food for thought with his kinsmen and with others (Fair 2002). These are pure expressions of traditional Inupiaq values. <p> As Regina Bendix (1989:132) notes in an examination of display events at the William Tell festival in Interlaken, Switzerland, tradition is often reinterpreted for a reason. At Interlaken, festivities affirm "local and national cultural identity in the face of seasonal mass foreign invasion." Similarly, in western Alaska, Yup'ik elder Henry Bighead (Marayuk) selectively renewed certain festival elements and historical details for a potlatch at Stebbins in 1982. Yup'ik traditions were revitalized in Stebbins to shore up local group identity and secure the future of the village (Fienup-Riordan 2004). <p> <p> <b>Tradition, Culture, and Process</b> <p> The continual presentation and interpretation of tradition is how one becomes and, to some degree, identifies oneself. A portion of a June 29, 1992, interview by Inupiaq Ruth Kalerak with Yup'ik artist and performer Chuna McIntyre, originally from Eek, Alaska, underscores this point: <p> Kalerak: What does tradition mean to you? <p> Chuna: Tradition is in the same line with continuance. When you continue something, that is part of your tradition. Many people look at tradition as something very static. You stop at some point [in your work] because that is something traditional. But that is wrong. Tradition is something that is ongoing—as long as we are here as a culture and a society. <p> Kalerak: So you feel that tradition never stops? <p> Chuna: Yes. It is not only part of your heritage, it is part of your psyche. It is deep within, all these things that we know about from our traditional society are part of our tradition. There is a difference between when you talk about something that is traditional and when you talk about a tradition. Tradition is ongoing no matter where we are, who we are, and what we are doing. <p> <p> The characteristics of selection and expression make the search for a definition of tradition, or even the clear-cut affirmation of its presence, inherently difficult and perhaps even arbitrary at times. And it is not only scholars who explore the nature of tradition—poets and other writers do as well. Creative potential is inherent in the idea of tradition. The constancy invoked by memory and creativity are provoked by desire; this is the "bringing it up" of Yup'ik elders and is, I believe, the definition of tradition that comes closest to the Native point of view. T. S. Eliot (1960:47–59) explores how tradition is carried forth in his essay "Tradition and Individual Talent." He maintains that "If the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, 'tradition' should be positively discouraged." <p> Tradition has often been used as a synonym for culture itself, although it is only one component in construction and transmission of culture. Tradition is dynamic enactment, and is affected by and reflective of many forces. <p> The process of tradition may thus result in the careful (though often very personal) selection and revitalization of particular elements of culture, certain parts of a fluid whole, similar to what occurred during the Stebbins potlatch revival. The selection process may result in festival events, linguistic transformation, or the revitalization and perpetuation of material culture, all of which may be overseen by rules and ritual brought forth from the past while being simultaneously reinvented for the future. <p> For the exhibition Tradition, Innovation, Continuity, St. Lawrence Island artist Christina Alowa submitted old-style dance boots made of winter-bleached and alder-dyed dehaired sealskin. Sewn to the shanks of these boots are sherbet-hued plastic beads that may not represent what non-Native viewers consider traditional. Some observers commented on the beads; they thought they were tacky. Alowa herself could barely conceive of why her audience imagined that she should not use materials that were colorful, available, and economical. The beads stayed in place. <p> One of the major dichotomies raised here lies in the modes of production used by traditional societies in comparison to so-called modern ones. Simply put, traditional societies are widely seen from outside as less technological, less-than-literate, and minimally urbanized. <p> The view of tradition in which innovations stand out dramatically against the background of culture invites questions of timing (see Noyes 1989). In order to know the background of continuity against which we may gauge change or lack of change, we must have measures for doing so. That yardstick must be the knowledge of an elder or some other record: written, oral, or manufactured. Jonathon King (1986:65) puts this issue somewhat differently, noting that tradition is a "relative term, used, for instance, to compare one situation or object with another, or to describe an art object with respect to a given corpus of related material. As such, it is a heuristic device, inseparable from the equal but opposing idea of nontraditional art." <p> <p> <b>Tradition and Repetition</b> <p> Folklorist Michael Owen Jones has used a hands-on approach to defining tradition, which he formulated during an extensive study with Chester Cornett, an Appalachian chair maker. The actions identified by Jones that perpetuate tradition include several distinct steps. One of these steps, says Jones (1989:239), is that "traditional artists repeat certain design elements." The implication here is that change may come, but it will come slowly and things will look, in the meantime, pretty much the same. Throughout this book I will use art produced by numerous Alaska Native artists, as well as their comments on tradition, to illustrate the ways in which this process of repetition works for them. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Alaska Native Art</b> by <b>Susan W. Fair</b> Copyright © 2006 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.