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.
In the throes of summer, where temps range from the low 40’s to the mid 60’s, time flies by. It is a perfect time when the seas are just right, the clouds are high and scattered, the sun is shining, and the fish are running. The grass is lush and green and wildflowers are full of bumblebees. A spellbinding moment in time when the “other half” is patient and peaceful. These are the times that I think of how my friend Tiny remarks on Unalaska’s spectacular beauty and how he believes that heaven is a local call. He is so absolutely correct.
In 1910 an International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen. Clara Zetkin, leader of the Women’s Office for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, proposed that every year in each country there should be a celebration on the same day – a Women’s Day – to press for their demands. Thus International Women’s Day was born.
In my strong, matriarchal society of Unangan women in Unalaska, I have had many stellar examples upon which to base my life attitude. My mother, Gert Svarny, continues the values and ethics that her mother Alice Hope instilled in her. Even my younger sister and my own daughters have taught me a thing or two about strength and character. I am lucky to have a public reference about my grandmother to show my children and grandchildren how devoted she was to her community, by the love shown her at her death. In his book Moments Rightly Placed, author Ray Hudson writes: Then on the afternoon of December 4, 1966, Alice Hope died in Washington state. The next day a service for this deeply loved woman was held at Unalaska, and when her body arrived five days later, Anfesia (Shapsnikoff) assisted Father Ishmael Gromoff in yet another service. Anfesia stayed all night with her departed friend, in the company of the Hope children and grandchildren and friends, until the service at the church on December 11th. Anfesia noted in her diary, “had Liturgy with Mrs. Hope’s body; after funeral service walked her up all the way.” Carrying the coffin the length of the village from the church to the graveyard was an act of uncommon devotion.
Who is the woman, or women, in your life who have guided you on your path? Gentlemen…this is a question for you also.
I am in awe of myself. Not because of anything I am doing at the moment, but because of the amazing things I did in my twenties, thirties, and forties. When my oldest child was 4 1/2, I gave birth to my third child. It is true that once you have one child, adding to the mix is a piece of cake. But…I stayed home for 6 years, (which has its own unique problems for a woman) until number three was 2 years old. From that point on, I worked full-time, paying exorbitant amounts for daycare, and juggling our lives between traffic, school, homework, housework, and sanity.
Having experienced those now familiar institutions called separation and divorce, I did this juggling act pretty much on my own. When number 3 was 4 years old, I took a look at myself, and the life I was going to be able to provide for my children and beat feet back to my home town in the Aleutians so that the kids could be raised near my family. Wow! What a difference. No more daycare. No traffic. The kids walked to school. Extended family was there. The community was there. Of course I added things to the mix, so instead of just working and raising 3 children, I also was on numerous boards and was very involved in revitalizing culture. But I raised 3 kids who went to college, none of whom are in jail, and each is self-supporting. Wow.
So I am feeling a little bit embarrassed about the fact that I am rooting for this horrendous storm that we are in the midst of to continue….at least until late tomorrow. Why? Because my number 2 daughter was just out of town for a week, leaving me in charge of her one and only 11 year old. The plan was for her to come back on Friday, and then leave again on Monday for another week long business trip. Well, this being the Aleutians, her flight was cancelled on Friday. And on Saturday. Now, any normal person would have just hung it up and continued on their way to Portland. But this Aleutian woman that I raised finally made it home yesterday at about 2:40 in the afternoon. And is schedule to leave sometime today. I don’t know when. She flies so much, she never knows her flight numbers and packs the day of her flights. But after a week of being totally responsible for one child’s life, including feeding, homework, social activity, cleanliness, music lessons, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera….I really need a nap. And a lazy day. I want to throw in the towel.
I am really in awe of all those poor grandparents who have had to take on the role of parents in our society. I have never been more aware of nature’s limitations on energy and patience. The deja vu moments when you think, “Hey! I’ve already done this!” Yes, nature is right in making it more natural to have young when we are young. I can manage to be an excellent caretaker for a while, but, yeah…..I’m ready for simply being there after school for 2 hours until mom gets off work. That’s what I’m talking about.
Update: The weather cleared up. The planes flew. My whining did no good. But…I’m okay, lol, and SP is fine.