Saturday, January 24, 2009

What is Culture?

Father Michael Oleksa talks about the difficulties in defining culture and the ways in which we tend to misunderstand each other.   Culture may be briefly defined as "the way we look at the world."   But there are too many look at the world differently than women, one generation looks at the world differently than the one before it or after it, people from different places have their own unique view of the world from their own vantage point.   It's as if we are in a beam of light and we can only see what our own beam reveals, not what others see in theirs.  

Culture may be explained as if it were a ball game being played.   One people only know  a game like football, another people only know a game like basketball.   Then they are brought together and told, "Play ball! Have fun!"  If they've never experienced each other's way of playing ball, they think something is WRONG with those other people...they don't know how to play ball!  

Father Oleksa is a dynamic, inspiring and very funny speaker.   He's a Russian Orthodox priest from Pennsylvania who came to Alaska 40 or more years ago, married a Yup'ik woman, learned her language, raised four children with her, and became adopted and beloved by many in Alaska, Native and non-Native alike.   He is a storyteller most of all.   He weaves a tale that draws us in, makes us laugh, helps us see our common experiences, and gives us ways to connect with one another.    His final definition of culture is "the story into which you were born."   He suggests that it's hard to know our culture unless we know the story of our grandparents--where they were born, what words like "school" meant to them, what they did for a living,  where they lived and how they lived.   Most cultures pass those stories down for generations, parent to child, grandparent to child, aunts and uncles and cousins and siblings sharing a common history, one generation after another.  Unfortunately, the dominant Anglo culture seems to be the one whose members do not tell stories, talk about their family's history, pass down the culture.   He suggests that we are Generation 3, with our parents being Generation 2 and our grandparents being Generation 1.   This makes our kids Generation 4 and our grandchildren Generation 5.   If my grandkids (Generation 5)  are unaware of the stories of  Generation 1 (my grandparents), our culture is disappearing.   If we don't know where we come from, it is hard for us to understand where others are coming from, literally and figuratively, as we try to meld our cultures together in this extremely multicultural place.

Rich and I both thought that Father Oleksa was one of the best speakers we've ever had the pleasure to hear.  We continued the discussion on the way home, thinking about our grandparents and how much we don't know, wondering what our grandchildren will know about us, knowing that, sadly, in a few generations, most of our story will be gone.  We don't belong to a culture where grandparents and parents and children sat around on dark, cold nights and told stories of ancestors.  We didn't even live near our grandparents.   We didn't all huddle in a big bed under a soft quilt and talk about our traditions. We didn't sing age-old songs or perform dances that told of our history and our rituals.   We didn't walk from house to house visiting our relatives and establishing strong bonds.   We didn't know the importance of asking questions and preserving our history till it was too late and many of our older generation were gone.

Father also made an important point that Alaska is the place where the Native Alaskan cultures will live and die.   Italian Americans can still look to Italy for preservation of their original culture.  Filipino Americans still have family and friends in the Philippines continuing the traditions of their culture, even if some of the traditions get lost in the US.   Most people who now live in the US can look to the "old country"  (or countries) of their family's origins if they want to delve more deeply into their backgrounds.    For Native Alaskans, that "old country" is here.   There is nowhere else to look and not another place where the culture is lived and preserved.  If the traditions and language and skills and ideals of Native Alaskan cultures are lost here, they are lost forever.    It is our responsibility to help our neighbors and friends to keep their culture alive and well for all of those Generation 5s coming long after we are no longer here.

I wish I could just post a transcript of Father's talk because I know I can't do it justice in this brief summary.   He has many publications, has taught at several universities and has traveled the world educating people about diversity and culture.  His website is and you will find many more references to him and his work on the web.   Take a look!   

At our celebration of diversity in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. last night, we enjoyed the Filipino-American dancers, the Unangan dancers and drummers, and a multicultural brass band from the high school.   We honored students who'd written essays and created posters showcasing their perspective on the topic of diversity.  We met and mingled and talked and laughed and ate.  I think maybe we all looked at each other a little bit differently than we had in the past.

Do you know your story?  What are you preserving for Generation 5?

PS  Sorry for no photos.  We took our small camera, but with the lighting in the gym, the distance from the stage and the limitations of the camera itself, the pictures were not the best.


cookie dough said...

Nice Summary Gigi...I brought home the information the Father Oleska told us about telling our stories for future generations and Troy and I had a deep conversation about it for maybe 5 minutes, that's deep for us!!

Gigi said...

Good job, CD! Did your photos turn out?

Suzassippi said...

Beautiful post, G. I am fortunate in that I knew my grandparents well and spent much time with them, hearing the stories of their parents and grandparents. I even knew one of my great-grandparents. Sadly for me, those stories will end with me as my son does not have any interest in his family history. One of my nieces is deeply immersed in preserving family history, even to the point of writing things down and interviewing our grandmother (her great-grandmother) on video tape. Of course, video tape may also be obsolete before much longer--it almost is now.

I have much written history, both what I have done and what my grandmother and other family members did--it is fascinating to me to know what the first of the family who came here from Aberdeen, Scotland, and from England did and how that is seen in my family even to today.

Betty said...

So interesting! I will check him out. Sunny (friend)is Russian Orthodox and she may have heard of him. I think my next post will be Conversations with my Parents. I will rack my poor brain to bring you some insight about their lives.

Bubbe said...

I loved your post, Gigi. I must say I have had a big interest in our history for a long time, and I sooo wish I could have spent more time with Grandmom and Grandpop. I would really love for us (as a family and extended family) to write the stories we remember. I have a vision of putting them together in a book some day. So, Mom, you talk to Aunt J. and Uncle B. and ask them to write theirs, and have them ask their kids to write theirs and any of the other cousins you have out there, too. Even if they don't feel they're great writers, it's ok, though I'll bet most of them are pretty good- but I'll be happy to edit, etc. and if the book sells, we can put it in the scholarship fund or something! I am SERIOUS!

Alaska Steve said...

I think the ease of modern transportation has scattered families to the four winds - I know it has in my family, with kin in Maine and Alaska and lots of points in between. We are all so independent now, the need to have families gather at fish camps or hunting camps or potlatches or to help with the harvest is almost gone and I'm not sure what will develop within society to keep the bonds intact. Studies have shown the internet can actually serve to further isolate individuals - I certainly don't feel that way - so I wonder where we are heading as a culture?

Thanks for the summary of Father Oleska's talk (I unfortunately missed it) and for the thought provoking comments!

Gigi said...

Kath, I would be all up for it if you will be the organizer!

Suz, J. may change his mind eventually so it's good to still keep those memories alive. Even if he doesn't, there are others who want them, sounds like! Nice that you have a good bit of history. We have some but not as much as I would like.

Mom, the more you can document, the better!

Steve, yeah, I wonder where we are headed, too...maybe creating new traditions that allow for the changes in society but still maintain our bonds somehow. I think the internet has actually helped in lots of ways (or maybe I should say it has the potential to help, depending on how people use it). Even though we are scattered from our families and friends (my siblings and I live in 4 different states and our kids have added several more to the mix), we can email and blog and link up through technology so we don't feel quite so far away from each other. I remember writing snail mail letters to my grandparents and to friends as I was growing up and this just feels like a quicker method of maintaining that contact. And the resources are amazing--I haven't been one to get into geneology in a big way but looked on last year and was pleasantly surprised to find several family documents I didn't know existed--census forms, draft registrations, military records, etc. Pretty cool if I decided to get serious about research.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jane!
Thanks for the post. I was bummed out to have to work and miss his talk. My family always shares stories and I think I've been taking it for granted. On uneventful days I'll try writing those stories in my journal instead of the typical weather report.