Simply, water is life.
My mother and I have noticed that time seems to be whizzing by particularly fast this year. We are already into May. Mom informed us she is not fishing this summer. That is a daunting statement coming from her, as she had taught all of us that salmon is one of the most important components of our lives. Her reason? No time. She is in the final preparations for a show at the Anchorage Museum. When she announced that she would not be fishing, we were all a little stunned. Not that she actually “fishes” anymore, but she is still the catalyst that drives the process. She is an unrelenting stickler for perfection in her subsistence practices. From catch to filleted and prepped for final process is typically never more than 15 minutes or so, depending on the number of fish hitting the net. Usually we must twist her arm to let us do the filleting. She just loves the whole process. So, we shall all step up to the plate this year to see if we have learned well and have what it takes. I have the faith. It is unfortunate that one of the best fish cutters will be self-exiled for an intense language immersion opportunity this summer. This is an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up. Our language, Unangam Tunuu, has only fluent speakers who are over the age of 70. So, while we all have our own visions this spring and summer, we know in our heart of hearts that we will fill our freezers, our drying and smoking houses, and our salt buckets to the best of our abilities. Having had the best teacher in life, we will be successful.
My daddy loved kielbaska, sauerkraut, noodles, cabbage, and perogies, albeit the perogies definitely had a native flair to them. His love of nut rolls and pastries with poppyseeds had my mother making special loaves and twists for Christmas morning breakfast that her great grandchildren expect, still, to this day. My father was born in Chicago and did not know more than a few words of English when he went to school in first grade. How is that? He was raised in a Slovakian community in the Chicago area. He soon moved to a farm in Wisconsin and finished his formative years in a very rural, close knit Slovakian community. He received The Fraternal Herald until the day he passed away, and a small insurance policy was paid out to my mother from a Slovakian insurance company policy that his parents bought when my dad was small.
And, yet, his four daughters knew very little about his Slovakian heritage. He felt it was more important that we be raised in mom’s culture, Unangax, an indigenous group from the Aleutian Islands. Once a people numbering 20,000 prior to Russian contact, within 60 years of contact the population was a shocking 1,875. And besides, he fell in love with the islands.
As time began taking a visible toll on my dad, it became so important to make sure he was comfortable and happy; that he not worry about anything. That he know that he did not have to leave the home he loved. That we do everything we could to make this happen. One night, when I made haluska for dinner, my mother looked at me like – whaaat? Well, I said, this is a Slovakian dish and I thought dad would appreciate it. He did and it was delicious. It’s funny how as we see time slipping by, we bring out the things we think will bring memories and comfort.
via Daily Prompt: CarveCarve
Lined up around the edges of the studio, rough cut stone takes up the under spaces along the walls. Under the finishing desk, mounds of stone hunker down, seemingly forgotten. Under the ledge that acts as a shelf. Bone and wood haphazardly stacked on shelves along the wall. A moistened finger brings out the color of the stone… a piece of soapstone with the colors of jade. Back in the corner, a find of alabaster. I am always fascinated when she “sees” something in a clump of stone; amazed that she won’t pull a piece out until her vision is clear. How does her mind work to decide to make that first cut with the handsaw, taking off the stone she won’t use? Completely self-taught, she finds a balance, not only in literally making the stone stand on its own, but in the other materials that she brings to the carved stone, each piece a brilliant carving in its own right; each piece a part of herself, the story she is telling about her people, past and present, and the environment in which she thrives.
Unangan weaving has the reputation of being some of the finest weaving being done today; for millenia, for that matter. It can take a weaver many months to complete a project. It also has the reputation of being some of the most beautiful weaving, exacting in the details of process and design. So much goes into weaving each project that it should come as no surprise at how time consuming even the first steps can be.
If you have ever been to the Aleutians during the summer, one of the first comments you are likely to make will be something about the abundant, large grass growing on the beach shores and up into the meadowlands. You are looking at tix^lux^, or wild rye grass, or in the scientific lingo, Elymus mollis. It is this beautiful grass that played such a large part in the lives of the Unangax^.
Weaving used to be a very utilitarian aspect of Unangan life. Grasses were used to weave fish baskets, berry baskets, clam containers, floor mats, wall coverings, room dividers, mittens, socks, burial mats, capes….you name it and it was probably a woven product. The beauty of the fine weaving, though, was not recognized until the Unangax^ were invaded by Russian fur procurers and items began leaving the region, either as items taken forcibly, or, in later years, as items of trade.
I am lucky that my mother has passed on the art of gathering and curing grass for basket weaving. It is no longer a common occurrence. I miss seeing women returning from the hills carrying large bundles of grass over their shoulders. Those bundles were tossed and dampened and protected from sunlight for up to 2 months, depending on conditions. Then the grass was stripped down to the inner blades of grass; the ones that were at the center of the blade, thus protected from the salty elements. One large bundle is reduced to a bundle measuring, perhaps, an inch in diameter.
Just so you know, both my daughters have been on the August grass gathering forays.
I give no apologies for the span of time between my last post in August of 2013 and today. The time was dedicated to my parents, making myself available to help Mom with Dad’s increasing health needs in any way that I could and listening, listening to those wonderful, now silent stories that I have been hearing all my life, but still learning something new at each retelling. I am honored that I was here to help keep everything as normal as possible over the past two and one half years. In the last months of Dad’s time with us, I realized the importance of honoring someone’s wishes to be allowed to stay in the place that they loved. It is an awesome responsibility and one that I urge you all to contemplate when these circumstances cross your path. Don’t doubt your abilities. You will find that you have many more than you thought. And in the past year and three months since Dad passed away, I have been fortunate to live a stone’s throw away from Mom to help ease her into living on her own after 64 1/2 years of marriage. She is awesome.
My family ties got a little broader and tighter this past week. I got a chance to meet my mother’s sister’s son’s grandchildren. Our family has relatives far-flung all over these United States. It was not a conscious decision for my mother’s family to disperse in all directions from the Aleutian Islands. It was, instead, due to a forced evacuation of all Native peoples from the islands during World War II. My mother’s older sister Myrtle ended up being sent to her military husband’s family in the deep south. After the war, they eventually ended up settling in Nevada and raising 3 children. The kids had several chances to visit as they were growing up and these visits stuck like glue in the mind of the oldest son. He made several trips as an adult, once with one of his children. Several other times with his wife. The time before this trip, to spread some of his mother’s ashes in the family plot, to be reunited with her mother, father, and brothers and sisters who had preceded her in passing.
On one of these trips, he was in Unalaska during the time that our Traditional Knowledge summer camp was taking place. From that experience sprang the seeds of an idea to have his grandchildren experience their roots and learn about their indigenous culture.
Dennis and his two granddaughters arrived the day before camp began on a day with the fog hanging halfway down the mountains and after having spent two hours in Cold Bay, Alaska waiting for fuel. They were unfortunate to land in Cold Bay after 2 Japanese military planes had emptied the fuel trucks of all fuel. Two of his children were to arrive three days later. His daughter, the mother of the girls, and his son, both of whom had never been here before. They had the true Aleutian experience of flying to the point of being directly overhead, and turning around to return to Anchorage because they couldn’t find the airport in the fog. Well….not a true Aleutian experience because they actually made it onto a flight the next day and landed.
Oh the girls had an experience like no other. The fish – baked, smoked, made into lox. The octopus. The fish pie. The sea lion. Learning to weave. Making masks. Learning some Unangam tunuu, the Aleut language. Songs and dance. And the son and daughter? Hiking some of the trails made by their ancestors some 8,000 years before. Climbing above the clouds and watching the landscape and village magically appear as the clouds dissolved.
But the real magic was in the sharing of family and history. Seeing the bonds forged between a great, great aunt and great, great nieces; between great aunts and great niece and great nephew; between cousins and second cousins, and beyond. The magic of feeling a kinship with virtual strangers. The real magic was in the wistful expressions on the day of departure. The strange pulling at the heart strings that the islands give to people who come here with their hearts wide open. Yes. And the promise of returning again someday.