Wednesday, March 17, 2010

HUM 223: A Russian Orthodox priest talks about culture

In class today, I mentioned a Russian Orthodox priest in Alaska who has a very interesting take on culture. And I promised to put it up on the blog. Please read it for class Friday.

He's the Very Rev. Archpriest Michael J. Oleksa, He has worked for many years with Alaska Natives, first as a parish priest in what we would call Eskimo villages (more accurately Yup'ik and Alutiiq) and later at the Orthodox seminary on Kodiak Island and St. Innocent's Cathedral in Anchorage. His doctoral dissertation at the Orthodox Theological Faculty in PreŇ°ov, Slovakia, was on Native relations when Alaska was part of the Russian Empire, and he has written extensively on the Russian Orthodox church in Alaska. Father Oleksa's website has a nice common-sense definition of culture:
What's a culture? What's your culture? Do you have a culture?
Everyone does. The best definition of culture is "the way you see the world." But you can't SEE the way you see the world. Your own culture is always invisible to you. We can look at other people's cultures and not how they differ from our own, but we can't articulate our own very well.
There's more in a lecture called "Listen to the Other Guy's Story." It is taken from his keynote address to the Alaska 20/20 Conference: On the Future of Alaska in ____ sponsored by the Alaska Humanities Forum and the First Alaskans Foundation. An edited version appears on the LitSite Alaska website maintained by the University of Alaska Anchorage. Click on "History and Culture," and follow the link to "Cultural Heritage.")

Oleksa begins with a definition ... oh, I'll just let him speak for himself:
What’s your culture? It’s a hard thing to define, isn’t it? Look it up in the dictionary -- Webster is of absolutely no help. They’ll start with bacteria for one thing … But when we ask, “What is your culture?” how do you define that? How do you conceptualize it? Talking about your own culture is one of the most difficult things to do, because your culture is the air you breathe. It’s the aquarium into which you were born, and it’s very hard to imagine what life would have been like if you had been born in a lake or in the ocean. Your aquarium is your world. That’s one way of thinking of culture, but that’s limiting.

I’d like to think of culture as the way you understand the game of life. All games have certain rules and regulations that govern them, basic skills that have to be learned in order to win. If you were born into the culture that organizes conferences like this, you were born into a culture that takes time very seriously. It measures time. You have proverbs like “time is money,” and “don’t waste time.” You talk about time as if it were a quantity or a location. Time is something you can be on or ahead of or behind, and that’s why you have to kill a lot of time before it gets you.

If you were born in rural Alaska, however, you don’t necessarily have that sense of time at all. It’s a different ball game, and that’s the first point I want to make. If your culture is the game of life as you play it, because it’s the only aquarium you’ve ever been in, we often assume that our ball game is the only ball game there is -- that everyone plays life the same way, according to the same rules, with the same presuppositions and with the same goals. Then, when you go to another culture, you’re suddenly up against another ball game and you realize not everybody’s playing on the same field with the same equipment, using the same skills to score the same points.
See what's going on here? Alaska Natives, to generalize way too much, are not as bound by time constraints as most Americans. They're not as likely to keep watching the clock and split their time into five- and 10-minute segments as the rest of us are. That means they operate at a disadvantage when they get to a big city like Anchorage (250,000 population) where buses run on time, appointments are scheduled exactly and people live by the clock. It's like playing a different ball game.

But Oleksa also says cities like Anchorage have an advantage because they're culturally diverse. You get Eskimos, Athabascan Indians, Aleuts, recent immigrants from at least a dozen Asian nations, Russians, Europeans and Americans of all different ethnic backgrounds. (In fact, you hear people call Anchorage the "biggest Native village in Alaska" because so many live there.) He continues with his culture-as-ball-game metaphor, and then he says culture is also like a story. Let's follow him:
There are more than a hundred cultures in Anchorage. This means we have the opportunity here to learn a whole lot of other ball games. We can all be like Michael Jordan who is competent in his own culture, as he was in basketball, but who took the risk of going off to the White Sox to play baseball for a change. I’d like to interview him about that experience. He was very competent, one of the best ever in his own ball game, but he left it behind to attempt to learn somebody else’s game and did not succeed with nearly the same glory. I’d like to ask him how much more he appreciates baseball players and the game of baseball now that he tried and didn’t become a superstar.

You see, that’s the problem. With our own culture, we can be competent. We grew up with it. We absorbed its rules without even noticing. We understand time and space and nature our way, the way our friends and neighbors do, the way our own native culture did. But here in Alaska, we have the tremendous opportunity to discover new ways of seeing the world, of understanding reality, of comprehending what it means to be a human being -- and not just by learning one more game, but potentially dozens.

We may never be good at the other guy’s game. We should admit that. We’ll always be more competent, I think, at our own. But we can enjoy and delight in the fact that ours isn’t the only game in town. That’s one definition of culture – the game of life as you play it.

There’s another definition that someone pointed out to me a few years ago. It comes from a book, actually. Similar to my idea of culture as game, it’s culture as story. What’s your story? Not your own story, but the story that started in your culture before you were born. Who were your grandparents? How were they educated? Did they have any formal schooling? Where were they born? In what kind of a community? In what part of the world? And your parents -- how did they meet? Where did they come from? What were their collective expectations for you?

This is how culture is transformed into community. A community in the modern world is a collection of cultures harmoniously interconnecting and interrelating. We have to build community deliberately in the modern world. Community used to be there as a given -- your village community, the village of Koliganek that I just left, the village of Old Harbor where I first entered Alaska.

The village is pretty much a homogenous community, already intercultural, because the village has absorbed the newcomers of the last century or two, and indigenized them. It made them members of that community, part of that community’s history, part of its story, members of its church, parents to its children, Godparents to its other kids -- connected harmoniously.

This is harder to do when you have a city of a quarter million and over a hundred cultures. To build community will take commitment and effort. We have to be committed to it. We have to want it. We have to work toward it. ...
So culture and community are connected, and basically culture is the whole system of beliefs and attitudes and customs, art, music and everything else that surrounds us and makes us who we are. Like any other metaphors, Oleksa's are inexact. They don't fit precisely. But they're worth thinking about. How does culture shape us? How does it shape our art? How can our art help us transcend culture?

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