• Alex King
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology

Biography

I grew up in western Washington State and became interested in the lives of indigenous people of Puget Sound at an early age. A Rotary Exchange year in Bogotá, Colombia initiated me into the wonders and joys of anthropology before I knew what that was. I discovered the discipline in college and found it the perfect way to combine my interests in languages & linguistics, politics, and world cultures. After college I spent a couple of years (1991-93) living and teaching ESL in eastern Berlin. That introduced me to the post-socialist conundrum. Curiosity about post-socialism combined with my previous interest in the indigenous North Pacific Rim sent me to Kamchatka, Russia. 

I have been travelling to Kamchatka since 1995. I am pictured above with some of my best friends and most important research collaborators. Valentina Dedyk (standing in white scarf) and I began a huge project documenting the Koryak language in 2013 that is still ongoing. 

In 2000 I started my first job as assistant professor at CSU Chico. 2001-02 I was a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle an der Saale. At Max Planck I was part of the Siberian Studies Group. I taught anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland from 2003-2015. 

Education

B.A. 1991, Reed College 

M.A. 1996, University of Virginia

Ph.D. 2000, University of Virginia

 

Research

 

My future research plans have three strands united by a common focus on language and communication among Koryak people: 1) ritual performance and animistic cosmology through communicative practices relating people to other-than-human beings; 2) practices and politics of language revival; 3) oral narratives and practices of storytelling. This last strand includes documenting the language and grammatical description. In my analysis of wax cylinder recordings of Koryak stories made in 1901, I found that proper ethnopoetics analysis of oral narratives requires a thorough knowledge of the grammatical structures of Koryak as well as understanding the cultural context of narrative metaphors. Thus, I am finally acting upon a long-held interest in verbal morphology, theories of person hierarchy and marking, switch reference, ergativity and other linguistic topics.

1) While Stalinism was effective at destroying a lot of knowledge connected to shamanism, Koryaks today are still proudly “pagan” (their term), and many communities conduct annual hunting thanksgiving rituals or cremate the deceased “in the old way.” I am interested in understanding the continuing power and relevance of these practices for contemporary people, especially in terms of the communicative aspects of commensality and conversation among humans, animals, ancestors, and spirits. Much of this communication is non-linguistic and thus cannot be captured with the recording of texts. I have already gathered substantial material on Koryak funerals and an important hunting rituals.

2) Koryak is an endangered language and there are various programs to teach it to children, mostly focused on schools. Language shift and revival is one of the most salient issues confronting indigenous peoples everywhere. The causes of language shift are undoubtedly connected to the socio-political subordination of speakers of endangered languages, but the details are complex and still poorly understood. This is also an area where I may be of some help to the local community, and I have been actively documenting the last generation of fully fluent speakers of Koryak with my long-time friend and collaborator Valentina Dedyk since 2012. This work also contributes to local efforts at revitalizing spoken Koryak.

3) My third research strand, on oral narratives, includes the ethnographic and political aspects of the first two research strands. I was struck by the political power of taking Koryak stories seriously and representing them as poetry organized as lines and verses. In terms of theoretical problems, I seek to combine the superficially antagonistic approaches to oral narratives by Tedlock and Hymes. A key goal is a book of Koryak narratives ethnopoetically transcribed and translated into both Russian and English. Such a book is the kind of work my friends there want me to pursue.

 

Teaching

ANT100 - Introduction to Social Anthropology

ANT269 - Circumpolar Peoples

ANT270 - North Pacific Peoples

ANT264 - Language in Society & Culture

ANT374-  Endangered Languages