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"Touching the Yupiaq Heart"

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

University of Alaska Fairbanks , AK
United States

May 13, 2012


President Gamble, Chancellor Rogers, regents, faculty, and most of all, members and families of the class of 2012.

It is an honor to address the graduating class of this flagship university that has served America’s last frontier state so well.

It is the norm for graduation speakers to bring alleged wisdom from their backgrounds to give quickly forgotten advice to graduates.  But I recently read a profound review of the culture of an Alaskan native people, the Yupiaq, by Oscar Kawagley, once an esteemed professor at this university, and quickly came to the conclusion it would be more appropriate to emphasize what Washington could learn from Alaska rather than vice-versa.

Prof. Kawagley noted that the Yupiaq people place great emphasis on maintaining balance and harmony in their social and natural environments.  This emphasis on balance and harmony stands in stark contrast with the nation’s politics where the political environment ignores the beauty, the nuances and subtlety that is nature’s norm.  For contemporary political man anything that doesn’t fit a particular ideological or partisan box is dismissable.  Manufactured antagonism is a game.  By contrast, the Yupiaq remind us that watching and listening and responding to nature requires pragmatism.  In nature’s infinite, constantly changing arrangements no situations are alike.  Balance cannot be found in inflexibility.  Harmony, indeed survival for the animal kingdom, requires continual imaginative adjustments.

Moments of silence and introspection are revered by the Yupiaq.  They relish living quietly and learnedly with nature, away from the shrill 24 hour news cycles where commentators produce a steady cacophony of argumentation over inconsequential subjects, and politicians churn out a daily slew of irrelevant press releases, as if the public is waiting breathlessly for their latest views.

The Yupiaq respect and quietly learn from the movement of animals, the wind and trees.  They seek pattern and order in nature and are uncomfortable with chaos.  The dignity of existence is based on caring, sharing, cooperation, harmony and connecting with nature. 

In near Buddhist terms, the Yupiaq hold that the highest level of human knowledge is self-awareness in harmony with nature.  They believe knowledge of oneself is power, but power totally unlike the ambitious egoism of political man who cannot resist attempting to impose know-it-all ideas and sometimes life-styles on others.

The values of the Yupaiq and other Alaska native peoples have ties to the ages.  By contrast, the Western civilization we consider advanced has just emerged from the bloodiest century in history, a century in which “isms” of hate – fascism and communism – precipitated unprecedented loss of life and purse. The hate that enveloped European outposts of advanced culture -- the lands of Wagner and Tchaikovsky, Kant and Tolstoy -- cannot be considered historical aberrations.

We are still working to understand how Marxist dogma spurred class conflict and the creation of the gulag.  At the other end of the totalitarian spectrum, we are still groping to comprehend the magnitude of the Holocaust and the moral compass of those who conceived of Auschwitz as well as those so indifferent, afraid, or engulfed in prejudice that they didn’t object to the gas chambers.

Propensity to hate appears to be a condition of man magnified in association with the like-minded. In this context, perhaps the most profound observation of the last century originates with a scientist.   Splitting the atom, Einstein warned, has changed everything save our way of thinking.

In this century’s tempestuous world where the only relative constant appears to be human nature, survival as well as freedom and prosperity will depend on whether peoples of the earth come to respect and give value to other people of other backgrounds in other places.

There is always a tension in a society such as ours that is based on firmly held ethical and religious values but which protects diversity of thought as a fundamental right. Transforming this tension into positive political energy is the genius of our Constitutional system. Process is our most important product.

This emphasis on process as opposed to outcome has never been more important. This is true in the broader aspects of our culture as well as in government policy.

Whether it be an athletic team or corporation, the Boy Scouts or a legislature, the goal should be to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.  When people can’t work together, synergy breaks down and the center weakens.

The making of public policy, in particular, requires cooperative give and take. Seldom is there only one proper path determinable and configurable by only one individual or one political party.  Politics does not lend itself to certitude.

To be certain about something, a person generally knows a great deal or very little. The first condition is preferable to the second, but imperfect judgment depicts the human condition. The best and brightest are not immune from great mistakes. That is why humility is such a valued character trait, and why civility is such an important part of a civilized society.

Unfortunately, perhaps because of the wars we are fighting and the weaknesses in the economy; perhaps because of social inequities; perhaps because of discombobulating aspects of globalism and the loneliness that seems to haunt modern living; perhaps because of the outbreak in ideological manipulation of mass communications; perhaps because so many have lost confidence in money-conflicted politics -- citizens are increasingly angst-ridden, disrespectful of their leaders, other faith systems, and each other.

In the history of the Republic, there have been more troubling challenges than we have witnessed in recent years.  The poet Walt Whitman once described America as an “athletic democracy.”  What he meant was that politics of his era was rugged and spirited.  Anti-immigrant, especially anti-Catholic, sentiment and toleration for human degradation implicit in slavery captured more than a little of 19th Century American thought and many of our social structures.

Uncivil behavior is nothing new.  What is clear, however, is that over the past several decades there has been a coarsening of speech and a splintering of public attitudes.  Our ability to work together for the common good has diminished.

It is difficult, for instance, not to be troubled by the caustic labeling of contemporary American public officials as “fascist” or “communist” and to hear citizens, even significant public figures, toy with hints of history-blind radicalism – the notion of “secession.”

One might ask what problem is there with political hyperbole.  Plenty.  The logic is the warning.  If 400,000 American soldiers gave their lives to defeat fascism, if tens of thousands were lost holding communism at bay, and three quarters of a million died in a civil war to define and preserve the union, isn’t it a citizen’s obligation to apply perspective to words that contain warring implications.

There is, after all, a difference between holding a particular tax or spending or health care view and asserting that a fellow American who supports another approach or is a member of a different political party is an advocate of an “ism” of hate that encompasses gulags and concentration camps.  Some frameworks of thought define rival ideas; others, enemies.

Words, in the final measure, reflect emotion as well as meaning.  They clarify – or cloud – thought and impel action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes baser instincts.

That is why ethics are so important.

From a Christian perspective, little could be more relevant in a world rent with religious strife than St. Paul’s warning to the faithful in the early church that we all see through a glass darkly.  Metaphorically, Paul may have made the ultimate case for humility.  If we cannot presume to know the will of God, should we not be cautious of thrusting our judgment on others?

In similar vein, Old Testament Scripture proclaims that the Lord calls upon us to “reason together” (Isaiah 1:18).  Later, in the New Testament, we are urged to “Be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19).  And when speaking, Paul advises: “Let your speech be always with grace,” (Colossians 4:6) and “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4:5).

Another teaching, this one from the Koran, counsels that “…it may be that God will ordain love between you and those whom you hold as enemies” (Chapter 60:7).

Faith-based values coupled with respectful civility are the key to protecting and embellishing the “city on a hill” that the Puritans referenced so reverently and the founders and succeeding generations worked so assiduously to enlighten with tolerance.

It is not crucial that you, the Class of 2012, have values precisely like those of your parents and grandparents.  Times change.  Choices widen.  But it is important that you develop an appreciation for the transcendent and the disciplining role of conscience.

Accordingly, as your graduation speaker, my charge to you is to seek balance and harmony, respecting fellow man and nature’s gifts. 

Be imaginative and thoughtful, caring and sharing. 

Know yourself and seek to understand others. 

Whatever your background, do not be afraid to let the Yupiaq touch your heart. 

They have mine.

Thank you.