Please note: Photos in this post contain racist imagery and terms.
“Alaska Native” can refer to members of several different tribes including Aleut, Athabascan, Alutiiq, Haida, Inupiat, Tlingit and Yup’ik, among many others:
Image credit: University of Alaska Fairbanks
But too often in Historic Alaska newspapers, (primarily) white men and women represented Alaska Natives in ways that relied heavily on stereotypes to reduce populations of people to caricature.
The issue of Native American representation looms large, in part due to the most recent National Geographic photo essay on the prevalence of Native American imagery on a global scale, the ongoing exhibit “Americans” at the Museum of the American Indian that highlights the current and historic use of products that employ Native American imagery in everyday objects, and an essay from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery on the harmful, reductive nature of Native American stereotypes.
As a reflection of the times in which the papers were printed, writers used racial slurs or derogatory names to describe nonwhite peoples. The sheer number of pages with the highlighted epithets points to the commonplace nature discrimination against Alaska Natives. By contrast, only 3 pages contain the tribal name Tlingit, all of which reference the same advertisement, 0 pages contain Yup’ik, although there are 1424 pages that contain “Eskimo”, a pejorative term for Yup’ik and Inupiaq Alaska Natives, and one considered offensive to many members of the Inuit tribe in Canada.
In particular, the Eskimo imagery used frequently in newspaper advertisements reduces Alaska Native peoples to crude stereotypes- ones that persist in ads to this day.
Advertisers used Eskimos to sell a number of additional products. These remained particularly prevalent in papers across the Lower 48 to evoke the chilly nature of an ice cream treat or a refreshing soda, and relied on the exoticism of both the distant location and its people.
Image credit: Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 09 Nov. 1923. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Image credit: Evening public ledger. (Philadelphia [Pa.]), 18 Oct. 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Image credit: New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 16 Jan. 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Image credit: New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 13 Nov. 1921. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
It is important to note that products used Eskimos to capitalize on indigenous imagery, while simultaneously, missionaries, businesses, and governmental agencies sought to erode the Yup’ik and Inupiaq culture and way of life.
Although these negative stereotypes, words, and imagery with regards to Indigenous peoples exist within a historical context, it makes their abundance no less shocking and reprehensible to encounter.
Some may find this parsing of terms used to describe Alaska Natives in newspapers an exercise in “PC culture” or a retroactive attempt to apply current identifiers to another, earlier time. But as stewards of history, it is the job of librarians and archivists to make these primary sources accessible to illustrate the inherent viewpoints of those who created primary sources: to call out biases that informed their worldview.
The notion of agency is key: instead of (largely) white men and women speaking on behalf of Alaska Natives, newspapers such as the Tundra Times and the New Native sought to restore Indigenous voices within the newspaper sphere. The Alaska Digital Newspaper Project is working to include these titles in the upcoming round of funding.
Image credit: Alaska State Library Historical Collections
While there is a great deal more to be done on behalf of Alaska Native representation, the inclusion of more titles to this project is a step in the right direction.