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Ethnohistory

February 3, 2012

Han: People of the River

I recently read part of a book on the Han people of Alaska and the Yukon. The introduction contained a passage of a familiar sort.

Throughout these pages, we return again and again to the theme of dislocation of the Han and the stressful disruption of Han culture due to changes forced on them by Euro-Americans and Euro-Canadians. Herein lies the tale.

Viewed in the context of global history, what happened to the Han is not some anachronistic, isolated phenomenon. It is part of a well- established historical pattern. The Han experienced much of what the California Indians experienced after the gold rush of 1849 and what the Yanomamö Indians of Venezuela and Brazil are facing from gold miners of the present day, as many square miles of tropical rainforest wildlife habitat are being cut down to build roads and erect new mining camps. These same ruthless capitalist forces have been at work to subjugate and displace indigenous peoples for hundreds of years.

Nevertheless, to simply view the Han as helpless victims is to deprive them of a role in shaping their own history. When necessary the Han have acquiesced to the demands placed on them by the dominant society. But the Han have adapted and have survived tenaciously against all odds. They have sought to change their predicament through land claims agreements and have turned to reviving and reinventing many of their traditions. Starting in the 1990s, Han gatherings and culture camps have built a new social solidarity. The Han are relearning their songs and dances, are attempting to reinvigorate their language, and are actively documenting their own history. (Han: People of the River, pp. xxiv–xxv.)

Victims, but also powerful agents!

Not only is this sort of writing bad and stupid, it obstructs actual learning. At one point I realized (I think) that the Han had been polygamous, but only because the author spent some time scolding 19th-century missionaries for their censorious attitudes towards “different” cultural practices. The author didn’t even bother to actually say what those “different” practices were, perhaps out of fear that some readers might sort of agree that polygamy is a bad thing. So I had to learn a lot about the Han by reading between the lines.

I can tell within a couple of pages whether a book will be any good, because authors’ analytical and expository abilities are quickly revealed.

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