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What is a Cultural Exchange?

A cultural exchange can be an intentional act of bringing two or more people together to exchange information about their differing backgrounds to understand each other. It can happen as a part of an official program or it can happen informally.

There are many people who go to the village for work or as tourists, and sometimes a cultural exchange will happen on their visit. More often than not, in those cases, people might not get a full picture of what it is like to live in that village. Just as someone from the village comes to the city wouldn’t necessarily get a full picture if they are not staying there for long.

Chris arrives in Bettles, Alaska in 1996! Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Chris arrives in Bettles, Alaska in 1996! Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Cultural exchanges can also take place between friends. I went to college with Chris from Wisconsin. She had a million questions about Alaska, Alaska Natives and what life was like in the village. As I answered the questions, I learned a lot about my culture by verbalizing it to her. She learned a lot about how we live, what we eat, what it’s like to live in the village through many conversations.

Chris had a thirst for knowledge and was studying to become a teacher. No matter how many stories I told her or how many pictures, she didn’t really know how it was really like to live in a village. During summer break in 1996, I invited Chris to visit me in Alaska. She arrived in a small airplane in Bettles, Alaska. My family was planning a boat trip down the Koyukuk River from Bettles to our hometown of Huslia. I was excited to go home to see close friends and relatives. The trip took a few days and we camped out along the way.

My late grandmother, Lydia Simon, was with us on the trip. Chris got to see generations of Athabascans up close and personal along the way. She learned the importance of sharing food and clothing.

Chris says, “I learned that the idea of family, especially extended family, was very much intact. This is during the 90’s when it seemed like the idea of family was in decline in the rest of America.”

Chris shoots a gun while my brother is goofing around. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Chris shoots a gun while my brother is goofing around. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Chris and Tanya sitting at the Huslia graveyard. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Chris and Tanya sitting at the Huslia graveyard. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Chris got to see how big Alaska is and how we travel. The river serves as a highway to get from one village to the next. In each village, the main mode of transportation was four-wheeler ATVs. Chris enjoyed playing basketball and softball in Huslia. I am not sure if my stories prepared her for the reality, but she had a great time.

This cultural exchange would not be complete until years later when I went to Chris’ wedding in Wisconsin in 2007. The wedding was at her aunt’s farm in rural Wisconsin. The house was over 100 years old, and owned by the family for generations. It had a cellar, which I’ve only ever read about in books. We took a walk around the farm.

Angela and Chris in Wisconsin in 2007. Photo by Melissa Gerald
Angela and Chris in Wisconsin in 2007. Photo by Melissa Gerald

The church was also old and one where may family members also wed. Everyone was nice and welcomed me with open arms. I learned about many of their wedding traditions, with German influence. It was absolutely beautiful, and I was glad to learn about Chris’ background and see where she grew up.

People have many questions about Alaska Native people and culture. I have questions about what it’s like to live in the Lower 48. We can read about the Alaska Native culture in book, but it is difficult to really know what it is like until you experience it in person. Chris and I have a deeper understanding of each other and our backgrounds. Although we have many difference, we found we also have many similarities.

There are many ways we can create cultural exchanges. It can be between two friends, like Chris and I. They also take place through programs, like the Sister School Exchange program with the Alaska Humanities Forum.

It can also be through conversation with someone from a different background. That can happen very easily in today’s electronic world. I find myself talking with people around the country and sometimes the world through Twitter. Cultural exchanges are way to open your eyes and experience the world. I learn a lot about my culture when I articulate it to others. Perhaps you can do the same.