Civil Society for the 21st Century
Civil Society for the 21st Century
This article series, presented in partnership with Independent Sector, explores important issues of civil society in the 21st century: its origins and evolution, its boundaries and blind spots, its values and variety, its obstacles and opportunities.

In my Alutiiq language, the word for “good” is asirtuq. In English, it literally means “it is good.”

As an Alutiiq, my worldview and cultural values give me a specific lens through which to understand “common good.” It is a lens rooted in important questions about relationships between people, people and the environment, and people and institutions. It is also rooted in questions about the relative benefit of organized society to individual people. Civil society may benefit from a broad and inclusive examination of our worldviews and values as a path to better defining and defending the essential role of the nonprofit sector, and how it contributes to the common good. By examining my Alutiiq worldview and values, I gain insight about how the nonprofit sector plays a role in serving the common good.  

My maternal grandmother, Glaphera “Gladys” Pearl Lukin, was born in Afognak, Alaska, in 1929. She was the fifth of 11 children born to her mother, Katie Noya Ellanak, and she and her family moved among the small Alutiiq villages (several hundred people in each) of Karluk, Ouzinkie, and Port Lions, near Kodiak—the top of the Aleutian Island chain. She spoke English in school, Russian in church, and Alutiiq at home. For a period of time, she attended boarding school in Eklutna on the mainland of Alaska, and she left Alaska in 1949.

In harsh, remote, rural environments like the one in which my grandmother lived—where people historically relied on a subsistence way of life (taking our food from the land)—common good is about what is best for the collective. The common good has helped ensure the Alutiit’s (plural of Alutiiq) continued existence as a unique people. It draws on the teachings of our ancestors to raise healthy, thriving, spiritually strong children who are secure in their identity as Sugpiaq. This is our Alutiiq word for ourselves, which translates as “the real people,” a general word for human beings that is distinct from our ancestors—the ones who came before—and spirits.

Many Native cultures in the United States and Indigenous cultures around the world are relational at our core. We are organized around extended families and kinship networks that create a natural helping system and protective capacity for uswiillraak, or “children.”  As “the real people,” we have clear responsibilities to other human beings—including those who came before us and those who will come after us—and to the environment on which we depend. These responsibilities are encoded in our values and creation stories, which some cultures view as their original instructions from the Creator of the universe.

The Kodiak Alutiiq worldview specifies that there are “a set of interrelated and valued elements that sustain our well-being.” The spheres of well-being include physical, emotional, social, ethical, and cognitive, and each has several aspects:

The physical sphere (nuna, or “place”)

  • Ties to homeland
  • Stewardship of animals, land, sky, and waters
  • A subsistence lifecycle respectful and sustained by the natural world

The emotional sphere (anerneq, or “breath, spirit”)  

  • Faith and spiritual life from ancestral beliefs to the diverse faiths of today
  • Humor

The social sphere (suuget, or “people”)

  • Our people (community): We are responsible for each other and ourselves
  • Our elders
  • Our family and kinship of ancestors and living relatives

The ethical sphere (lla, or “universe”)

  • Sharing: We welcome everyone
  • Trust
  • Respect for self, others, and the environment is inherent in all values

The cognitive sphere (keneq, or “fire, process”)

  • Our heritage language
  • Learning by doing, observing, and listening
  • Traditional arts, skills, and ingenuity  

Taken together, what does this set of values tell us about common good? Four main themes stand out. First, the Alutiiq worldview, like that of many other Indigenous cultures, emphasizes interdependence—out of necessity, we rely on one another. We are taught that each human being has different gifts and talents (provided by the Creator), all of which the community needs. Community members therefore have the responsibility to contribute their gifts and talents; we are bound together, and each person is indispensable.

Second, to ensure that all of these gifts and the natural resources on which our survival depends continue to support our existence, stewardship is essential. We are responsible for ourselves, other people, and the environment around us. We cannot afford to discount or ignore the very things that will allow us to continue to exist as humans, and specifically as the unique Alutiiq people we are.

Next, spirituality, including faith and prayer, is integral to how we are bound together, and how we care for the relationships and resources that sustain us. Our interdependence and spirituality connect us to something larger than ourselves, give us purpose and meaning, and provide a sense of belonging, which all humans need.

Finally, it is not enough to conduct ourselves properly with regard to human and environmental relationships; we are called to continue to learn more about our language, history, ancestors, and traditional arts and skills, and to share that knowledge—to pass on what we know.              

I don’t live on our traditional Alutiiq homelands, but I believe these principles are just as relevant in my day-to-day life in Portland, Oregon—where I lead a culturally based nonprofit—as they are anywhere else. The way I demonstrate these practices looks a little different. I do not have access to many of my traditional foods; it’s harder to learn and practice Alutiiq without a physical community of fellow language learners; and most importantly, I’m separated from my extended family, from whom I derive my identity. Yet I still have the opportunity and responsibility to contribute to the common good of my Alutiiq community, and to the broader common good of my diverse local community in Portland. And according to my worldview, I have the opportunity and responsibility to strengthen my own health and well-being through these practices.      

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines common good as “the public good; the advantage of everyone.” My Kodiak Alutiiq worldview syncs up with that mainstream definition, but we have the added benefit of thousands of years of lived experience boiled down to practical instructions for how to achieve it. The Alutiiq people define what the common good is for ourselves, based on traditional knowledge built and passed down over seven-and-a-half thousand years of continued existence in south and southwest Alaska. We know the practices that will provide the best way of life and future for ourselves. We know what will allow each Alutiiq to contribute to our collective well-being, steward our members and resources, conduct ourselves with a spiritual orientation, and continue to share what we know with each other and the world.

I believe the same holds true for other communities and for civil society as a whole. Many of these values and practices are common among other Indigenous peoples across the globe. Civil society has drawn on some of them, and now has the opportunity to thoughtfully consider whether other elements are a good cultural fit for an evolving understanding of the common good and the pathways that help us to achieve it.