Alaska tourism and the white man’s native

Review of "So, How Long Have You Been Native? Life as an Alaska Native Tour Guide" by Alexis C. Bunten.

 

So, How Long Have You Been Native? Life as an Alaska Native Tour Guide
Alexis C. Bunten
272 pages,
softcover: $26.95.
University of Nebraska Press, 2015.

Alexis C. Bunten understands what it’s like to be an outsider. A mix of Alaska Native, Swedish “and something else, French Canadian, I think,” the writer spent her childhood moving across the country, from Hawaii to South Dakota to Alaska and Washington state. She may have faced less outright discrimination than her mother and grandmother, but prejudice was still a fact of life. “Starting with the kindergarten role of ‘Thanksgiving Indian,’ ” she writes, “I was always inexplicably assigned the villain parts in grade school plays.”

That outsiderness forms the backdrop for her first book, a first-hand account of the cultural tourism industry in Sitka, Alaska. So, How Long Have You Been Native? was inspired by the two summers Bunten spent working as a Native guide for Tribal Tours, a company owned and operated by the Sitka Tribe. The book deconstructs how tourism — “sorely undervalued as a suitable anthropological field” — influences modern Native identity. “The (Native) culture on display,” she writes, “plays a bit part in a larger performance reflecting the dominant culture of the tourists themselves.” One local wryly calls the guides “Stepford Natives,” noting their perpetual cheer and willingness to go along with their customers’ cherished fantasies of a whitewashed past. Not to mention their idealized notions of the present: “Alcoholism, neglect, jealousy and violence (don’t) exist in the world of the Stepford Natives,” Bunten observes. “The veteran guides carved out larger than life personas. … It protected them from having to deal with never being able to live up to guests’ expectations of what it means to be Native.”

With journalistic precision, Bunten explores topics as varied as the influence of cruise lines on the Alaskan economy, the history of the Tlingit people and the ongoing effects of colonization on tribes. Despite occasionally awkward attempts at softening the narrative with lighthearted banter or extraneous personal asides, she succeeds in creating a sharply focused picture of cultural tourism today, especially in villages like Sitka, where between 10 and 20 percent of the local jobs are tourism-related. By fusing economic data with the personal experiences of Native guides — including her own — Bunten exposes the side effects of turning one’s culture into a valued commodity.

“Our clients longed for us to be further removed from modernity than themselves,” she writes. “And we complied by talking about nature, subsistence, ceremonies, and demonstrating other signs of ‘primitivism’ — but we did so on our own terms.”