Fisherman, Community Participant; Someone in Between

24 04 2012

Cap’n J and I have been back in Sitka for a month now, blissing out on the pre-tourist calm. This is something I love about being up here early. Seasonal workers (yeah, like us) and visitors are a mere trickle in spring, rather than the flood of summer. Like bears snuffling their way out of hibernation, locals blink happily at the lengthening days, joking easily, relieved to have slipped through winter’s clammy fingers.

Sitkans know how to stay busy. Community events celebrate all manner of talent, and we’ve kept a full calendar since our return. The Sitka Film Society brought Salaam Dunk to town, a great film about an Iraqi girls’ basketball team. Performer Gene Tagaban shared a powerful evening of stories, music and dance. There was the Monthly Grind – a community-wide variety show that runs October-April – and an evening of live storytelling at the Larkspur Café.

All these things, and we even managed to go fishing. The Nerka spent 10 days away from the dock, as we tried our hand at winter king trolling. April’s ocean conditions are notoriously fickle; only weeks earlier, a friend awoke to his deck piled with snow, an icy skin on the water. Braced for the worst, we got the fantasy instead, re-entering our work life with flat calm water, gorgeous sunrises, and the occasional king salmon. Not even Bear could complain, sprawled on her bunk in a sunbeam. (Though she did get seasick when we first left the dock. Nothing like a glassy-eyed, mouth-foaming cat to make you feel like a terrible parent.)

Bear's kind of fishin': flat seas and sunny.

We’d have happily continued dragging our hooks around, but by the middle of this month, it was time to scrub the Nerka clean and switch gears. We’re jumping ship to longline on a friend’s boat, hoping to head out this week. Slowly progressing towards being ready, we spent much of Sunday loading halibut gear aboard. (The boat sat noticeably lower in the water, her nose sniffing the sky, after we were done.)

We’re here to make a living, I know, but I’m also hungry to make a life in Sitka. Every day, yet another flyer is tacked to the Backdoor Café’s bulletin board, promoting yet another tempting event. This week is no exception.

Monday was World Book Night, and Sitka’s unique method of spreading literary love earned a national shout-out in USA Today.

Isabella Brady will be honored on Tuesday evening, first with Alaska Native Sisterhood services (5 pm, ANB Hall), followed by cultural services that will continue late into the night (7 pm, Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi).

Wednesday marks a different honoring, as Sitka’s Fish to Schools program is recognized as Alaska’s 2011-2012 Best Farm to Schools Program. Only on its second year, Fish to Schools connects local schools with local seafood. If you’re in Sitka, dinner is a not-to-be-missed meal by Ludvig’s Colette Nelson. Otherwise, you can still support Fish to Schools here.

On Thursday, community organizer Lakota Harden will lead a workshop, “Allies for Youth,” training adults to ally with youth for social change and developing leaders for the next generation. (9 am-noon; RSVP with Brian Sparks, 907.747.3370.) This one’s dear to my heart: my non-fishing path was as a social worker with Seattle’s homeless youth. While I can’t give up this life at sea, I miss social justice work, cultural conversations, the energy and resilience of young people.

But as I heard so often as a teenager, “We are here to catch fish and make money,” and you can’t catch fish if your hooks aren’t in the water. Given a self-sustaining bank account and no anxious skippers, I’d gladly sign my time over to all of these events, and more – experience assures me that Thursday’s tempting event will be followed by something equally fascinating on Friday, then Saturday, and on and on. The thing about fishing for a living is that – eventually – you have to leave the dock.

All this makes me curious… Is our little island town of 9000 special (well, yes), or are other communities equally rich with goings-on? With Hooked’s friends spread across such diverse geography, I wonder what it’s like where you live. Do you feel very connected to your community events? Which ones? How do you hear about them?

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Remembering Isabella: 1924 – 2012

19 04 2012

Longtime Hooked friends may recognize Isabella Brady’s name from last summer’s story of a traditional foods dinner. Leaning on a walker, dishing slabs of moose alongside venison stew, the Alaska Native Sisterhood president commanded as much attention as the chewy texture of whale between my teeth.

I’d hesitated to post that story without Isabella’s blessing. Before we left town on a fishing trip, I printed a copy at the library and dropped it into the mail, feeling more vulnerable than I had in a long time.

When we returned to town a week later, a gravel-voiced message awaited me. Isabella told me to call her. Exasperated with my nervousness, Joel asked, “What’s the worst she can say?”

Um… Don’t write about her, don’t post her photo – oh, and my writing’s a terrible bunch of cultural exploitation?

When Isabella answered, I stumbled through my introduction. She interrupted me. “I thought your article was outstanding.” Anxiety gave way to embarrassment, as she shared overly generous praise. This single sentence would have been enough: “I was having a real bad day when I got it, and it made me feel real good.”

*****

Our interactions developed around a directive: “Come to my house and have something to eat with me.” More commandment than invitation. Isabella liked to talk, and I was an eager audience.

She instructed me in making clam chowder, while describing the sharp contrast between her Sitka childhood and the North Dakota Presbyterian college she attended on $100/month scholarship. “Bring me the flour tin and a fork. College was like being a celebrity. Home was like being in the Deep South, for all the prejudice against my skin, but at college, it made me special. Are those potatoes gonna boil over? Mostly my classmates were disappointed I wasn’t an Eskimo.”

A woman of ferocious faith, Isabella began every meal with a thorough blessing. On our third visit, she asked if I was affiliated with a church. My response didn’t please her.

When I brought salmon heads from our final trip last summer, she recalled her boat-building grandfather, Peter Simpson, and her own fishing childhood. “We had a scow, used to buy fish from other boats at Lazaria and Shelikof. We’d collect sea gull eggs at Sea Lion Rocks, had to time getting out of the boat with the waves. I hated it – I got so seasick. My brothers teased me, they told me to eat bacon.”

She asked if I knew how to work a video recorder, still wrapped in plastic. “My friend sent it; she said I should record my stories.” We talked about the challenge of telling your own story, for all of the places that it intersects with other people’s. She spoke of her reluctance to intrude on others’ privacy, then shrugged. “They’re mostly all dead now, anyway.”

*****

On Tuesday, my feet bounced lightly down Sitka’s main drag, my backpack laden with a Tupperware of marinated black cod tips. After the meals she’d shared with me, I felt shyly eager to bring Isabella a gift of food I’d harvested.

A few minutes away, I pulled out my phone to make sure it was a good time to visit. A male voice answered on the second ring. I didn’t think anything of it. Isabella’s home was a hive: a constant flow of children, grandchildren, friends buzzing in and out.

“Hi, is Isabella there?” I chirped.

“No… She’s not here right now.”

I glanced at the afternoon sunshine and thought of the black cod in my pack. “Well, will you be there for a minute? I’ve got some fish for her that I could drop off.”

“Who is this?” the man asked.

I hesitated. “Friend” assumed too much; “smitten admirer” would be more honest. “My name’s Tele… I visit with Isabella sometimes.”

His quiet words hit my ear like small pebbles dropped down a well, as he explained that Isabella had fallen the day before. “She was Medevaced to Anchorage… We don’t think she’s coming home.”

*****

I saw Isabella once this spring, shortly after we returned to Sitka. She told me to make us some pancakes, supervising every step from her seat at the kitchen table, murmuring along with the stereo. That saved a wretch like me. She said how blessed she was, reflecting on the love and generosity that people had shared during her winter hospitalizations. She said that she wasn’t afraid of death.

Penny piles lined her coffee table, copper flashes amidst the endless papers of a lifelong leader still organizing from her living room couch. When she grumbled about needing penny rolls, I volunteered to pick some up at the bank. They’re still in my backpack, a rubber-banded stack heavy with accusation. Why didn’t I take them straight to her, right after leaving the bank?

Isabella sent me out the door with a small jar of sourdough starter. She promised, “Once you make your pancakes from sourdough, you’ll wonder why you never did before.” It’s in the Nerka’s dorm-sized refrigerator now. I don’t know anything about keeping starter alive, but I’ll learn. It’s what remains.

*****

Some people seem too powerful to die. Whether by the confidence with which they move through the world, the magnitude of their service, or the depth of what they’ve survived, they seem invincible. As if they glow so bright that they’d scorch Death’s grasping hand. Maybe part of me imagined that would be true of Isabella. When I saw Raven Radio’s Wednesday headline – “Native leader, activist Isabella Brady dies at 88 – I didn’t want to believe.

As a non-Native, I’ll never know the strength, courage, and hope that she provided to so many. The community is reeling, grief shrouding the Brady family, the Kik.sadi clan, and Native people throughout the region. I’ll never know the taste of their loss. I was blessed to spend a mere speck of time in Isabella’s company, a few afternoons far more significant to me than they would have been to her. And though I fear some may hear this story as self-absorbed, my experience is the only authentic place I can speak from, the only language I have to honor Isabella’s tremendous legacy.

In several grace-filled sentences, Mike Schinke said what I’ve spent pages struggling to convey. I’m thankful for his permission to re-post them here.

“A prayer of solace for the Brady family. A prayer for the health of remaining elders. A prayer for the perpetuation of Tlingit language and culture.

Let Isabella Brady’s life be a testament that one person can make a difference in the world. May her accomplishments inspire many to also make the world a better place in their own ways. She will be missed by many and her absence will be felt far and wide for a long time.”

Amen. Rest in peace, Isabella. My deep sympathy to all who are mourning.





“Is There Whale in My Teeth?” Vegetarian on Cultural Vacation

5 09 2011

Year-round, Sitka’s bulletin boards are thick with flyers of talks, classes, performances. My Hokey-Pokey presence – one foot in the community, one foot out – has often meant that if it sounds like something I’d like to experience, it’ll happen while we’re out fishing. The timing of this sign was a welcome exception:

“Tomorrow night… We’ll actually be in town!”

Built in 1914, the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall is a green shingled hulk of a building. It squats on the creosote-coated shoulders of tired pilings, between street and shore, and hosts the farmer’s market, community meetings, fundraisers, and memorials. Locals refer to it with a gently slurred “Ayne bee,” letters exiting larynx with the soft spring of walking on muskeg.

I entered ANB with deja vu. A lifetime earlier, I ran a dinner program for homeless youth. Teen Feed was hosted by generous neighborhood churches, basements that followed exactly this layout: industrial kitchen, heavily-laden buffets with volunteer servers at the ready, carefully spaced folding tables for guests. But instead of asking us to sign in and check any weapons, the bird-like woman at the door opened her cash box.

“It’s $12 for the king salmon dinner. The gorging table is here, and the tasting table is over there.” Clearly stated and segregated for a reason: harvested under subsistence regulations, traditional foods are illegal to sell.

Carefully handwritten labels identified each dish and its harvester. Herring Eggs, Sitka Tribe. Seal Fat, Virginia Phillips. Gum Boots (Chitons), Isabella Brady. I exchanged a grin with the man next to me in line, fellow travelers sharing the wondrous displacement of stepping into another culture, without leaving Baranof Island.

Sea Asparagus with Seal Oil, Aguduk (Eskimo Ice Cream), & Cockles

At the gorging table, I did just that. Baked king salmon heads, halibut, purple potatoes, venison stew, moose sliced like roast beef, herring eggs on hemlock branches; I said yes, please to everything.

From the gorging table.

A friend raised an eyebrow. “You’re really goin’ for it, huh?”

I’d crewed for him years earlier. With a freezer full of venison and elk, his wife struggled to accommodate their vegetarian deckhand. His unasked question echoed between us: You wouldn’t eat the meat I provided, but you’ll eat this?

A fish-slaying vegetarian… I became this oxymoron 7 years ago while crewing for my brother, when we didn’t take any red meat aboard. A day on Mom’s farm, forever after known as the Great Turkey Massacre of ’06, took poultry off my plate. Seafood stayed. If I could embrace the responsibility of taking a creature from its living self to my table, I reasoned, then I could eat it. I don’t enjoy killing fish, but with 24 seasons of blood behind me, I can do it quickly, with gratitude.

Our table was quiet, usually boisterous friends shy with the unfamiliar setting and food. The other woman, a farmer turned first-time deckhand, shared my enthusiasm. We waded through heaping plates, reflecting on our own harvesting experiences of berry picking and mushroom hunting in the Pacific Northwest, and evaluating each bite.

“Ooh – that was a really tart berry!”

“I liked the seal; it was like liver, but milder.”

Eulachon, Tlingit Delight, Cockles, Chiton, & yes, Muktuk (Whale Meat)

Then the morsel of truth: I studied the cube of whale meat and questioned my double standard. Why didn’t I feel conflicted over consuming a creature I hold such reverence for? Knowing that my white self will never be part of an indigenous whale or seal hunt, why did this feel okay? More than okay – why did it seem a privileged opportunity, an invitation to participate in something sacred?

Contemplating Muktuk

Questions that aren’t easily answered. So I popped that glistening morsel into my mouth, a perfect division of white and dark, and chewed. And chewed. The fatty white – blubber – surrendered, while the ridged black skin resisted each bite. Focused on the unyielding texture, I couldn’t articulate the taste. My language – spoken language, ancestral language – doesn’t include those words.

Community matriarch and Alaska Native Sisterhood president Isabella Brady called for attention. Steadied by a walker, her small frame was incongruous to the powerful energy she radiated.

“Let’s have a little prayer.” Head bowed, her voice was firm. “Heavenly Father, thank you for this fellowship, as we share traditional Native foods and regular foods. Thank you for this great country and this life we live.”

Next she gestured to a smiling woman seated nearby, balloons streaming from the arms of her wheelchair. “It’s Evelyn’s birthday today, so let’s all sing Happy Birthday to her.”  The packed hall gave an enthusiastic rendition, with applause breaking out after the final “to yoouuuu!”  But Isabella raised her hands to silence us. Softer, with fewer voices to carry the song, another melody rose to the rafters. The Tlingit tones shivered across my spine.

Approaching to give thanks, I interrupted Isabella mid-birthday cake bite. She was tolerant of my questions, explaining that the dinner was a fundraiser for Celebration 2012, ANB’s 100 year anniversary. The civil rights organization was founded by Peter Simpson, a Canadian-born Tsimshian man.

“Do you know who that is?” She peered at me sharply, and gave a curt nod at my shaking head. “He was my grandfather.” She gestured at the photos on the walls, framed black-and-white portraits of elders whose grandchildren were now wizened and wise.

I thought again of Teen Feed, recalling quiet kids who found excuses to loiter after dinner, craving a moment of undiluted attention. Belly full, spirit hungry. Distracted by their louder, more overtly-demanding peers, too often I swept them into the night with preoccupied goodbyes. Be well, sweeties.

And now, lingering at the borderland of the gorging table, I was that quiet kid. I wanted to sit at Isabella’s feet and listen – to her translation of devil’s club and skunk cabbage rustling in the Tongass, of salmonberries swelling in the spring and pink salmon spawning in the fall, of rainfall’s many songs and raven’s waterfall laughter. To anything she’d share.

Alaska Native Sisterhood President, Activist, & Fry Bread Magician Isabella Brady

But presidents are people in demand. She was surrounded by a crowd of friends, while I was an outsider in every way. Cap’n J and I slipped out the door, sharing a final piece of fry bread slathered with spruce tip jelly as we reflected on the evening.

Joel had struggled with his decision not to try the muktuk. “I thought about it. But it didn’t sound like something I’d like, and in the end, I just didn’t want to eat whale.”  How individual our hearts’ voices are, I thought. The unapologetic carnivore shunned the meat of a being he feels connected to, while the peskatarian who apologizes to the fish she kills chowed on down.

I grinned for his inspection. “Do I have whale meat caught in my teeth?”

“Uh… Actually, you do.”

My tongue toyed with the single fiber of black skin wedged against an upper incisor. I felt otherworldly. A little high. Was it the richness of the food, the radical onset of so much protein? This 33-year old digestive system reeling from so many never-before-encountered substances?

Probably all of the above. But I’d rather interpret that out-of-body sensation as the physical embodiment of belief. Faith that we become, on some small level, that which we consume.

[Want  to contribute to Celebration 2012? Tax deductible donations, made out to ANS Camp 4, can be sent to Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp #4, 235 Katlian Street, Sitka, AK 99835.]








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