So, How Long Have You Been Native?: Life as an Alaska Native Tour Guide

Aug 21st, 2016 | By | Category: 28-1: Volunteerism, Media Reviews

So, How Long Have You Been Native?: Life as an Alaska Native Tour GuideBy Alexis Bunten
University of Nebraska Press (2015)
251 pages

Review by Medeia Csoba DeHass

Based on her dissertation research, Alexis Bunten uses autoethnography as her main method to take her readers through the summer she worked as a tour guide for Tribal Tours, a nonprofit branch of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. Her choice of methodology allows her to combine engaging storyline with reflections on history, social interactions, ethnographic methods, and the challenges of living in multiple worlds. In her expertly woven narrative, fictional and real characters come to life, and by the end of the summer we find ourselves invested in the success of Tribal Tours in their plight to overcome small town politics and global market forces.

The chapters trace the Alaskan tourist season from May to September as we accompany Bunten from the initial job interview until the end of the season. We follow the characters’ transformation from private persons to public personae who can represent the “real” Alaska Native to the over 2 million visitors who come to the 49th state each year. We discover how the tour guides struggle to balance their reserved, culturally appropriate behavior with that of a successful entrepreneur who is both outgoing and informative. We see them fail and succeed, but above all, we see them continually negotiate what is public and what is private. How much of their heritage is appropriate to share, with whom, and in what contexts? What should be taught about Tlingit heritage in a two-hour tour? How do guides balance their pride in sharing their culture with the constant challenge of having to dispel colonial, racist, and sexist stereotypes?

In this sense, So, How Long Have You Been Native? is about continual transformations. As the characters fluidly cross between their private and public lives, we are invited to think alongside Bunten about the insider-outsider status of an ethnographer, Alaska Native identity politics, Indigenous business practices, and research ethics. These discussions are kept short and supplemented with additional notes in the back for readers who wish to learn more. Bunten’s goal is to produce an ethnography of the Indigenous tourism experience and not of the Tlingit people of Sitka. She covers the Russian and American colonial periods, the Tlingit clan system, and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, but does so in a tour guide fashion and not as an in-depth study. It is never too overwhelming and always thought provoking.

As humor weaves through the book, it would have been useful to include a discussion about its significance in Alaska Native cultures, particularly teasing. For instance, humor is often used as a tool to deal with difficult situations or to provide an opportunity to correct someone without engaging in a direct confrontation. Moreover, teasing and the relationship it creates between people are also akin to the interaction that plays out between tour guides and their clients as they co-construct their reality.

Overall, So, How Long Have You Been Native? is a masterfully executed autoethnography that will reach a wide audience far beyond the narrow scope of academic readership.

Medeia Csoba DeHass, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of anthropology and Alaska Native studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage

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