Written by Samuel Clark
As a Yup’ik (Inuit) man, I was raised in what many would consider a unique upbringing that has influenced the way I view the relationship between individualism and civic republicanism. Tribal cultures, particularly Native American cultures have a strong sense of community and support of their kin (and extended families). While not all tribes function the same way, most that I have come to know highly value their community.
This is evidenced by community-centric practices such as the sharing food and game with other members of the tribe. I can say from firsthand experience that in most hunting and fishing seasons, if a family in the tribe has had a bad haul, they can without a doubt rely on someone else in the community to look out for them.
Traditional Smoked Fish Drying Rack
The life Kemis describes in Barn Raising is a direct parallel of tribal life. It is a common notion in tribal Alaska that life is far easier for all, if everyone bands together for common goals. It may be anecdotal evidence, however, what I have come to assess in my life in a rural community, is that despite all the small town politics and drama between families, the community always takes priority. Kemis would argue that because of the rough lifestyle of rural living, civic republicanism (or some form of it) is a luxury that citizens cannot opt out of. This explains the trend to favor confederations as political structures, and further suggests that Alaska Native tribes (or tribal systems in general) would be staunch federalists.
Yup’ik Men in A Hunting Party
A major critique of Kemis is that the rural model doesn’t fit for all societies, especially urban communities. While the point stands, arguably, these republican values also leak into the life of urban Alaska. While the larger cities like Anchorage tend to favor the individualistic, many enclaves of tribal citizens exist and they bring their local values with them. Community events such as potlaches are commonplace for urban natives and chances are, if you look hard enough you’ll find some link to an extended family in the city.
While society as a whole in tribal communities is highly community-centric, there also tends to be streaks of individualism and expression that break the mold. Dancing, crafting, and storytelling are just a few of the ways that cultures such as mine show personal vigor, as well as coordination in a group. Even further supporting this spirit, as a culture that values tricksters, the Yup’ik would tell stories of great men who embodied the typical individualists. What this tells me is that like most cultures, tribes have somewhat of a mix of the two, however are heavily leaning toward civic republicanism.