Contemplating Alaska Day

18 10 2011

Today is Alaska Day, and, I have to admit, I have mixed feelings.

On October 18, 1867, Russia formally transferred control of the Territory of Alaska to the U.S. Commemorated as a  statewide holiday, Alaska Day is a really big deal in Sitka, where the actual transfer took place.  Festivities begin in early October, all building up to this day. Schools close. People get gussied up. The Lutheran Church hosts a pie sale like you wouldn’t believe. And a giant parade rolls through downtown, kicked off when the Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopters buzz Lincoln Street. Sitkans love an excuse for a parade.

Immediately following the parade, folks climb the stone steps up Castle Hill for a re-enactment of the transfer.  People in period costumes lower the Russian flag and raise the Stars & Stripes. The 9th Army Band provides accompanying music. It’s all very ceremonial.

Re-enactments of all kinds make me uneasy. I wonder about the groups not represented, the stories that aren’t included in the re-telling.  Those silences echo through this ceremony. Originally known as Noow Tlein, the land honored for its transition from Russian ownership to American is the same ground where, after the Battle of 1804, Tlingit people ceded their home.

(This summer, I asked a Tlingit elder about this. “Alaska Day must not be much of a celebration for you.”

“No,” she replied flatly. “But I’d rather be American than Russian.”)

I don’t have answers for these conflicted feelings, and I’m not in Sitka to experience Alaska Day first-hand this year.  Instead, I’m watching the Bellingham sun slowly creep up outside my writing window, Stellar’s Jays and squirrels rushing up to say good morning and ask where the peanuts are today.

Without any helicopter escorts or brass bands, I’ll mark Alaska Day in my own quieter way, recalling one of the last sunrises of our fishing season – a sunrise so spectacular that Bear the Boat Cat had to be on wheel watch, while Cap’n J and I were both fixated on capturing the moment. (No obscenity-laced whale interaction here, friends – this one’s safe for all viewers.)

There have been times when we’ve chosen to simply enjoy something beautiful, pausing to be present with ourselves and our surroundings, rather than distancing ourselves with the flurry of documentation. Probably not as many of those times as would be good for us.  But I’m glad this one made it onto film, so you can enjoy it, too.  Whatever stories you carry, may your Alaska Day include moments of beauty.





“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.]





The View From Sitka: Totem Raising, Part 2

13 04 2011

On October 14, 2006, the stars lined up just right (in the alignment of bad ocean conditions) that we were tied to the dock on the day of a totem raising. The newspaper explained this “Wellbriety” totem pole, going up at the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium’s Mt. Edgecumbe campus, was honoring a process to heal the total person – physical, mental, spiritual and emotional well-being.

Just one year removed from tending to Seattle’s homeless youth, I was still seeing “my kids” nightly in my dreams. The concept of Wellbriety deeply resonated. Before I could over-think it, I’d hopped off the boat and started the 3 mile walk from the harbor to the clinic. Anxious excitement curled in my belly, I was almost running by the end.

More than 300 people had turned out for the event. A steady drizzle of Sitka sunshine fell on children, elders, families. We stood in respectful quiet – not silence, not with all those kids running around – as the ceremony began. Tlingit elders from the Raven and Eagle clans named the pole: Yei eek kwa neix. You are going to get well.

Thick rope guidelines stretched out from the 4000-pound pole. When we took our places, it was clear that the left guideline had many young men, while the one on the right largely consisted of women. An older woman in front of me called, “Can we get some more guys over here?”

I heard a little girl’s voice pipe up from somewhere unseen: “Girls can be strong, too!”  Someone’s raising that kid right, I thought.

Our hands clenched, as if braced for a tug-of-war. But totem poles are stories and stories must be handled with reverence, not the teeth-gritted strain of competition.  In unison, under master carver Wayne Price’s instruction, we began a slow march back.

Master carver Wayne Price. Photo Courtesy of SEARHC

Watching intently, an eagle perched on a nearby telephone pole, and a raven on the clinic roof.  As the pole ascended, the outstretched wings of Raven, carved at the top, caught air for their first time. The eagle began keening, welcoming Raven to the sky.

Seeing Yei eek kwa neix in its entirety, I saw all of my kids’ struggles and my hopes for them. A medicine woman stood at the base, a basket of healing herbs in her hands. Above, a shaman and wolf spirit helper prepared to plunge into the darkness, retrieving those lost in addiction, torment and grief. Then, in a sprawling run free of design, the freedom to reflect and heal in the journey from darkness to light. And there at the top hovered Raven, a gleaming brass disc of the sun held in his beak, guiding us to another way.

You are going to get well.

With the pole solidly in place, people broke apart into celebratory groups. I began a slow walk back to the harbor, footsteps heavy with reflection. I thought about the gratitude and honor I felt to participate in a cultural legacy not my own, the pride of sharing a community where Native culture is not held hostage in a museum, a dusty-shelved shrine to the past, but is a living, breathing, singing, dancing present and future.

I’ve sometimes felt that “Southeastern Alaskan” is its own cultural identity. An evolution of shared connectivity that crosses racial and ethnic lines, forges bonds built of skunk cabbage springs and crowded cruise ship summers, autumns where seasonal folk sweep out as winter winds whoosh in.  And I’ve second-guessed that presumption, scoffing that it’s all too easy for someone of dominant culture to imagine connection when we don’t carry the ancestral scars.

A new friend has gently corrected me. “Your culture includes the Tlingit because you are a Southeastern Alaskan. It includes living among an indigenous peoples, interacting every day. There is value in that.”

I think now about the grace in her statement, and recall the initial explanation of the pole. Roberta Kitka, Chairwoman of the sponsoring Kooteeyaa Project, said, “Wellbriety Kooteeyaa means healing, hope, unity and forgiveness for Tlingit people and anyone who is working on the healing of mind, body and spirit.”

We are going to get well.

Does this ring true for you, sweet reader? Are there places in your life where you’ve questioned your role, wondered if your presence was beneficial or baggage? What does wellness mean for you in your own life, and how do you create it?

Me, I think I’ll keep asking questions, and look to ravens for guidance.

Photo by Joel Brady-Power

[As with all totems, the Wellbriety pole is far more complex than a blog post could ever do justice to, particularly when written by someone engaged in such a brief sliver of the journey. A detailed description of the project, pole, and carver is here. You can also read a powerful essay about this day in Heather Lende’s book, “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: Family, Friendships and Faith in Small-Town Alaska.”  My gratitude to Michael Jenkins of SEARHC for granting permission for photo usage.]








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