Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Abridged Book Review: "Cultural Politics and the Mass Media: Alaska Native Voices"

In "Cultural Politics and the Mass Media: Alaska Native Voices," Patrick J. Daley and Beverly James address Alaska Natives' use of mass media as a means of resisting colonization and cultural assimilation. With case studies concerning newspapers, radio and television, the authors show how Alaska's diverse Native groups (including Athabascans; Tlingit Indians; and various Eskimos and Inuit) were able to adapt mass media for their own means.

This is not primarily a geographic work. It is, as the title indicates, primarily an account of cultural resistance - a study of the tools Alaska Natives employed in seeking to maintain their traditional ways of life. Secondarily (again, as the title indicates), this is a study of mass communication - a look at the ways in which media were used, the frames that were applied to certain issues, etc. However, the very nature of this sort of work requires a consideration of geographic concepts. In Alaska, space is always a critical situation. Communities can be separated by hundreds of miles, often without roads, meaning some communities may be accessed only by boat, airplane or sled. Moreover, thousands of miles separate Alaska from its colonial rulers (Moscow) and its neo-colonial rulers (in Washington). Place, too, is important, in part because of the meanings that Alaskans (both Native and non-Native) attached to places.

The Introduction lays the groundwork, introducing the reader to Alaska's history and its peoples. It also introduces the reader to concepts important to each of the three above-mentioned disciplines. Most important, I think, is the rejection of an "essentialist" view of indigenous cultures - the view that a culture must always remain as it was at some fixed point in the past, else it has lost itself. Culture, the authors argue, is dynamic, and cultures always have and always will borrow from one another; that does not prevent their maintaining some cultural integrity.

Chapter 1 recounts one of the state's earlier mass media products, a school newspaper published at a boarding school where the emphasis was on "civilizing" the local Tlingit (pronounced KLINK'-it) Indians. In this chapter, the reader sees an attempt to use mass media as a means of promoting assimilation, and gets a preview of how some media properties would continue to treat the state's Natives. But readers are also shown how the boarding-school experience and exposure to mass media would help Alaska Natives defend themselves later on.

Chapter 2 tells how a group of Tlingit used their occastional newspaper, the Alaska Fisherman, to resist colonial-style economic exploitation, particularly at the hands of the fishing industry. The newspaper was founded by a Tlingit group, but its Tlingit editor skillfully framed issues not as Native-vs.-White, but as local-vs.-outsider, arguing that the industry's methods dispossessed Native and non-Native subsistance fishermen alike. Furthermore, the paper never failed to point out that the big industry players (and their allies in Washington) lived far, far away and had no interest in the well-being of Alaskans. This us-vs.-them narrative, with the far-away fishing industry as "them," allowed the Alaska Fisherman to play down differences between local Whites and local Natives, pitting them as a unified voice against an exploitative enemy. The paper also utilized time in ways particular to his readership, including delaying publication of major stories while his readers were away fishing.

Chapter 3 examines a later newspaper, the Tundra Times, that was founded by Yupik and Inupiat Eskimos to voice opposition to a plan to detinate nuclear bombs to build a harbor north of the Bering Strait. Later, Athabascans were brought into the enterprise when new interpretations of hunting treaties threatened subsistence practices of both groups and a proposed dam and reservoir would have resulted in the flooding of dozens of Athabascan communities and the dislocation of thousands of people. While the state's mainstream media framed the harbor and dam as "progress," through the Tundra Times the Natives were able to effectivly create alternative frames, emphasizing land rights and environmental issues. They mobilized their own constituencies, while disputing the notion (promoted by the state's mainstream media) that Alaska Natives supported the projects. Place played a major role on both sides. Supporters of the project sought to show that Alaska a was a modern state, capable of anything that could be done elsewhere in the United States, and they framed their arguments accordingly; moreover, they described the area to be flooded by the reservoir as "ugly" and the area of the nuclear fallout from the harbor as simply a bunch of snow. The Tundra Times, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of these same places in Native lifeways.

Chapter 4 reports of the growth arrival, emergence, and eventual fading of Native radio. In a tale reminiscent of "Communication and Empire," the authors tell how wired and wireless communication arrived in Alaska primarily to serve military needs, and secondarily allowed for commercial exploitation. However, when Congress in the 1960s made available money for community radio, Alaska Native communities were quick to take advantage. Again, place was critically impotant, not only because of technical challenges rarely presented elsewhere (how many radio stations, due to a lack of roads, have to share a tower with an airfield, necessitationg negotiation between the station, the FCC and the FAA?), but also because Eskimo dialects differed from community to community requiring local programming to be in the local dialect. Stations along the Eskimo-inhabited western and northern coasts opted for lots of cultural programming, helping to perserve their language and their stories.

These successes, however, were not replicated when public television arrived in Alaska, as told in Chapter 5. The requirement that most programming be in English, and even the technical preferences of television editing techniques, made it virtually impossible for Native peoples to tell their stories their way. While Native radio (until funding cuts forced consolidation and eventual elimination of most stations) proved the power of local programming to promote cultural resistance, the experience with television showed how rules geared toward the regional at the expense of the local resulted in programming that viewers found to be irrelevant to their lives.

The book leaves some modern developments unaddressed: Have satellite communications changed the way Alaska Natives have made use of mass media? Has the Internet penetrated these communities; if so, to what extent and to what effect? Still, for the period it covers, this book does a fine job of showing mass media can be tools for cultural resistance, and how an understanding of geography is essential for examination of some mass media enterprises.

1 comment:

Jason Norin said...

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