Hey there, another late letter from me. Yesterday we departed Anaktuvuk Pass, AK, and it was a chaotic rush—saying goodbyes, returning borrowed things, figuring out the protocol for packing a pair of antlers. Btw, have you checked out the Wikipedia entry on yourself?
About a week into my recent stay in Anaktuvuk Pass, a mostly Iñupiat community in northern Alaska, my partner sent a text asking, Why is the most notable person in that town a white dude?
I didn’t know, at first, what she was talking about.
Before I traveled to AKP, as locals often call it, I’d read many papers and a few books about the town and the people who live there, the Nunamiut, the “people of the land.” I knew they had been the last nomads in the United States, settling only in the 1950s. And I’d become familiar with many local families—Aghook, Maptegak, Kakinyah, Etalook, Paneak—each of them indigenous, some of them famous. None of them white.
After a little text confusion—you know, fingers moving faster than thought—I came to understand that my partner had been reading the Wikipedia entry on AKP. And she pointed me there, to a section called Notable People, wherein was the white dude, an “explorer” named Dennis Schmitt.
I’d never heard of him. At the time I happened to be sitting in the lobby of the town’s only school, and as teachers and students wandered through, I asked half a dozen of them if they knew who Schmitt was. None did. So I pulled out my computer, clicked to Wikipedia, and it all came flooding back.
If someone creates a Wikipedia entry that makes your hometown look a little like a dump, should you care?
Several months earlier, I had read this entry. It was short and clinical in the Wikipedia way, with sections on History, Demographics, and Climate that essentially gave me to know that AKP is a cold place where the indigenous population lives in substandard housing.
Under the Further Reading tab there were only three books, none more recent than 1975. And the entry contained only two photographs: the first of a sod house built in the 1950s, the second a bunch of garbage dumpsters. By the time I reached the Notable white guy, I had stopped paying attention.
The Wikipedia experience made me feel vaguely dumber than I had when I arrived, but that’s the internet1. I clicked away, got back to real research (talking to people, reading books) and I soon forgot the whole thing until my partner brought it up while I sat in the school lobby.
Suddenly I wondered who made the entry. Why had they done it? What were they hoping to achieve?
That day I asked all through the school and found exactly no one who’d had anything to do with creating the Wikipedia page. Most teachers and students—possibly all of them—had never read it. So here was another question: if someone creates a Wikipedia entry that makes your hometown look a little like a dump, should you care? And does it somehow become your responsibility to correct the record?
The abstractly beautiful idea behind Wikipedia is that we all make it, together. Its entries are user-generated and edited. Anyone can start an entry on almost any topic. Anyone can add to it, edit it, or file reports when a claim is disputed or when something presented as fact is not actually true. There are few rules, little oversight.
Of course you probably already know some of this. Which means you are probably also suspicious of Wikipedia exactly because it is so free. The platform gambles on its users’ goodwill and honorable intent. Often this trust works, sometimes it doesn’t.
It would have required very little effort to find other photographs, to locate other facts.
But the AKP entry represents another territory of the knowledge-sharing universe. It lives on what you might describe as Wikipedia’s outer rim, where nothing much is happening, and no one is paying much attention. In this case the problem is not that AKP’s entry is full of errors. It’s that it’s racist.
How is it racist? Think context and storytelling.
When you enter “Anaktuvuk Pass” into Google, the third result returned is from Wikipedia. Its placement, so high in the results, naturally means that a lot2 of people will read it. When they do, they will be told that in a town founded, governed, and overwhelmingly inhabited by Alaska Natives—people who only 60 or 70 years ago were surviving as big game hunters—the only Notable Person is a white man who 1.) nobody knows and 2.) does not live there.
Add to this the questionable photographic selection, the reference to substandard housing, even the mean temperature, and you have the makings of a certain kind of story. It’s not good, or complete, but it’s also not blatantly false. And this means it dovetails with a certain set of American templates—a set of cliches and stereotypes that’ve been fixed in many of our minds. You could call this particular example “poor Native village,” and find it reproduced in countless places.
This Wikipedia entry represents a subtler form of racism. I didn’t register it during my first read, partly because I was already steeped in other, better sources. But I also skipped right over it because I am white and did not “see” the whiteness in the way the information was presented. To me it merely looked lazy, like a shitty book report.
But this is how epistemological racism works. It masquerades as the simple and often boring outlay of information, when really it’s a process of selective omission and suppression. Working for National Geographic—and especially reading through its archives—I have encountered this often. Wikipedia even has an entry discussing the problem within its own universe.
In the case of the AKP entry, it would have required very little effort to find other photographs, to add other facts. To identify even one indigenous person for the Notable People list.
Why didn’t the entry’s creator take the time?
These may seem like small oversights. And in AKP itself, no one is worrying much about them.
Earlier this week I was asked to speak to a group of 7th and 8th graders at the Nunamiut School. By that point in my visit the kids knew me, and they’d already heard me speak about my job and why I was visiting. I had to come up with a fresh subject, so I chose Wikipedia.
At first, none of the kids were very interested in what the entry said about their town. But when I told them about the photographs on the page—the sod house and the dumpsters—they perked up.
Wikipedia is, of course, very much not their problem.
I asked them to imagine an 8th grader in New York City writing a report on AKP. This student would find her way almost immediately to the Wikipedia entry. After reading it, what would she think?
“That we’re poor!” one student shouted.
“That we live in the dirt,” said another.
I asked, “Do you care what other people think?”
The room shrugged.
Wikipedia is, of course, very much not their problem. But one interesting consequence of the knowledge economy, or the information age, of even the Anthropocene, is that we are confronted by new pressures and responsibilities and pseudo-responsibilities at a rate far faster than ever before. So while the kids didn’t create the entry, will it become theirs to tend?
Eventually I asked the class what they would add if—being teens—they could muster the energy to actually edit the page. Answers rolled in from all corners: an entry on hunting, one on traditional dancing and feasting, even a section on high school sports.
Then I asked them to think of Notable People. Within moments they’d come up with five, all locals. Two of them were hunters. One was the tribal president. Another was the mayor. And the last was a shaman who’d been dead for more than 30 years.
Every teen in the room knew his name.3
“A lot” is relative. Not many outsiders know AKP exists, so the pages is probably lightly trafficked.