Updated: Jun 9, 2020
Perspective written by Stacey R. Lucason
The Qargizine, Fall 2017 #8
This piece is another take on Northern Philosophy: in reply to Warren Jones’ “The Philosophy of the Circumpolar North” published in The Qargizine, Summer 2017.
While respect is owed to our own living Indigenous Philosopher, elements of the emerging Northern Philosophy discussion are missing from his initial article. Yes, the land has shaped us into who we are. Yes, to live up here demanded a level of excellence rarely seen today. Yes, our Ancestors had a fully functional society with ethics and explanations for the natural world. However, what should one do with this information? Just because there was a Northern Philosophy, is it applicable anymore in a world that has seen more than 100 years of assimilation practices?
To reiterate what stood out the most from Jones’ Philosophy is an articulation of the ethics within Yuuyaraq: Reason, Self-Control, and Awareness. These are central components of a fully functional being in Northern Philosophy. A person needs to be able to see what is happening around them and understand how to fit into the environment; he must be able to figure out what to do in response to this world, and have the discipline to act rightly or he would perish.
The severity of the North ensured that only those successful at integrating these ethics into their every action survived, shaping the Yup’ik worldview and culture. Our Ancestors were successful though- they thrived here.
Similar environments across the North also shaped their peoples to live well, or die trying, and so we recognize similar ethics among Indigenous peoples from Russia to Greenland.
However, this account of our shared Northern Philosophy does not mention the deep respect and love of our people for each other. If I had a sister, her children would be my children. On the one hand, this was a necessity in a world where a parent may fall to a harsh reality at any time. On the other, this quirk in our family structures illustrates how close our families were. Western peoples may care for their cousins, but do not call them brothers or think of them as close to their own hearts.
This depth of love is not unique to Yugtun speakers, or even to Alaska Native peoples, but as a concept is translatable to Native and non-Native people living here today. Given the need in many of our communities, loving deeply is a good place to start if we’d like to see Alaska thriving again.
I don’t mean to suggest a generic or light love is still necessary to surviving here; that is not enough. What I’m talking about is taking in your sister's’ children so they might live as your own. Feeding your elderly neighbor like he was your own grandfather. Reducing the artificial barriers of Western constructs that limit deep love to “immediate” family instead of recognizing the bonds of one’s whole community. This too is part of a full Northern Philosophy because we cannot be human without each other.
Our Ancestors understood the difficulty of the world and met those demands by working hard in the face of adversity. This trait lives on in the resilience of our Native people. We have survived Western colonization and are working to revitalize traditions that have slumbered for the past hundred years. Many of us recognize the limits to Western education, Western policies, and every day are doing the work to integrate our Ancestor’s knowledge into this imperfect system we now share with people from around the world.
In addition to reason, self-control, and awareness, we need to add love and purpose to the characteristics one needs to practice in applying Northern Philosophy in everyday life. We cannot thrive without love and we cannot move forward without purpose. This part is where I’d like to start to answer what to do with this information.
Anchorage is proud to be home to more than 100 languages, yet is still immature in its approach to building a community. Many other towns and villages in Alaska have Indigenous, English, and immigrant members of their nascent communities, and even people in rural places fortunate to be grounded in their own cultures can find value in discussing a shared Northern Philosophy to use when travelling or visited by outsiders.
To move forward, we all need a framework that works. It begins with recognizing that this place is still hard. For example, the village of Tununak doesn’t have a runway right now because the warming planet has pulled the ice from beneath their pavement. That means no mail, no imported veggies, and a chilly four-wheeler run across the tundra to fly out. The people living in Alaska must remember that our modern conveniences may not always be here. Our Ancestors learned how to live and thrive here; these practices must be actually practiced if we are to share them with our children and live well.
We build purpose into our daily practices by understanding the origins of our values, do not waste because tomorrow there may not be enough, and by sharing this understanding with those who share our lands. Alaska, and almost everywhere else in the circumpolar North, is now home to both Indigenous and non-Native peoples. This philosophical framework can serve as a point of connection between those who are fortunate enough to live here.
Living with purpose takes substantive effort. It may not be politically easy to push our school districts to honor our local languages and be willing to teach them alongside colonial languages. It may not be convenient to remember harvesting practices beyond dipnetting, but is crucial to keeping this knowledge alive.
We must still be aware of the world that is before us and alert to its hardness. We must reason and understand our place in it, and have the self-control to act rightly. But we must also love each other and recognize the importance of what our Ancestors learned here by teaching it to our children and others who are here now. This is living well in a Northern Philosophy.