5 Questions About Through Their Eyes

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Michael Koskey discusses Through Their Eyes: A History of Eagle, Circle, and Central, co-edited with Laurel Tyrrell, and Varpu Lotvonen.

Read Miriam Laytner’s review of Through Their Eyes online and in the forthcoming issue of OHR.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

This book is about the coming together of people from different cultural backgrounds in an environment that requires cooperation for survival and wellbeing in life.  Though the settlers arrived from the Lower-48, Canada, and other countries, and though they brought their traditions with them, the settlers found that they also needed to adopt local customs and traditions to get by, and to get along.  Though the Indigenous peoples of the area (Hän and Gwich’in Dené (Athabascan)) remained somewhat socially separated from the settlers, mixing did occur, both culturally and among families. This mixing has led to the mutual adoption of some of each other’s customs, at least to some degree, and the creation of a condition of interdependence that binds the otherwise disparate people to one another, and to the lands and waters that sustain them all.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Oral history is fundamental to the research that led to this book, as it was the central source of information for the communities of Central, Circle, and Eagle that are the communities-of-focus of this book.  Oral history was the source of most of the information in the book, and alongside ethnohistory and archival research, a community-based perspective on their community’s history was compiled.  Oral accounts were transmitted through interviews, which were audio-recorded.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

Oral history is a methodology that enables the people of a community to account for themselves their recollections of important sociocultural historical events in their personal lives and the community’s past.  This empowers the community by enabling the telling of their own (his)stories in relation to the history of the community.  The contextual information provided by such oral historical accounts greatly enriches the understanding of historical events, and in the case of this book, this includes both Indigneous and settler accounts.  Besides the history provided through these oral history interviews, narrators provide a great deal of social and cultural information , and through this we were able to discern patterns and interdependencies within and between communities.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Well, assuming that they are interested, it provides an oral historical account of the process of intercultural contact through the settlement of eastern interior Alaska by outsiders among long-established Indigenous peoples.  Unlike in many accounts of colonization, the arrival of American (and other) settlers was relatively peaceful, and no wars were fought between the settlers and Indigenous peoples.  Under conditions of trade, the Indigenous people and settlers came to rely on one another, whether by necessity or choice (or both), and this sociocultural process was made evident by the respondents’ oral historical accounts.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

Most important to remember about this book is that the settlers were utterly dependent on the local Indigenous peoples in the early years of settlement, but this quickly balanced, mostly through trade, into an interdependency as local Indigenous peoples became interested in obtaining manufactured goods from the settlers.  Those families in communities who were open to learning from local Indigenous peoples fared well and adapted to local conditions, while those who didn’t usually left the area within a generation.  Mutually supportive interdependence has changed cultures but has also made life easier in many ways for the diverse population of Alaska’s eastern interior.