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.
In other parts of the U.S. and the world, emerging plants might be tulips or daffodils. It might be a favorite local wildflower. Whichever flower or shrub it might be, it is a announcement that spring has arrived. In the Aleutians, we expect spring near the end of May or even in the first weeks of June. I look for the emergence of medicinal plants that have become virtually nonexistent in my pharmacy. It seems that my favorite time of year has arrived a bit early. Well, except for fishing season, and berry picking season. There is hiking and camping, but there is nothing quite like the emergence season when everything is fresh and new. And loved.
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.
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.
Wood in the Aleutians has always been gathered off the beaches. Driftwood. It has drifted here from somewhere else; somewhere that has trees. Because we don’t have trees. And we really don’t miss them. They tend to block the view. They are slightly claustrophobic. They blow down in the wind. Considering the fact that we have no trees, wood held a prominent position in our traditional culture. The most mathematically engineered boat ever constructed was made out of found wood. Our iqyan (kayaks) are considered second to none. The bentwood hunting visor was made out of found wood. Masks for ceremony, dancing, and storytelling were made out of wood. Tool handles were made out of found wood. Bowls and utensils were made out of wood. If you wanted to waste a good, huge piece of found wood, you could have used it for building part of your semi-subterranean dwelling; otherwise you could use a whale rib.
We scour the beaches for cottonwood. It is the only wood my family supposedly uses for making smoked salmon. I say supposedly because my mother and I say to each other “Yes, that’s cottonwood. Well, I’m pretty sure that is cottonwood. Hmmm…maybe that is cottonwood.” Anyway the fish is good. As times change and our town becomes more populated, of course more people are going after the wood resource. It’s becoming harder and harder to find found wood. That is when having a husband who works for the airlines and having a sister who lives in Anchorage where they have trees comes in handy. We have had a couple of lovely shipments of cottonwood from Barbara. We, of course, share the smoked fish with her. Her latest shipment was a couple of chunks of birch. Considering that my husband, Caleb, bought my mom a new wood carving set for Christmas, and my mother and father bought Caleb a new wood carving set for Christmas, I think we will see some magnificent pieces coming to life from this newly found wood.
Ugigdada, or share, is a very important Unangan value. It relates to anything that can be shared, as opposed to just sharing a resource. Examples are work, joy, responsibility, happiness. Most importantly though, the Unangan shared the food that they acquired from hunting and gathering. It is still one of the first values that is taught to youngsters who are learning to provide for their families. You are responsible for providing for your family, but you are also responsible for ensuring that your community has enough. If someone cannot hunt due to illness, you share what you get with them. You are responsible for making sure that the Elders in your community have enough traditional food to keep them not only healthy, but happy. You can expect to be treated the same way under the same circumstances.
My husband Caleb and I fish. It started out that we would help mom and dad as they got older, but has evolved from the first moment. We fish, but we wouldn’t be fishing the front beach if our brother-in-law didn’t share his boat, engine, and net with us. We wouldn’t be very successful fisherman if we didn’t have the help from sons, nephews, grandsons, daughters, and friends who share their strength and time in helping us pull in the net. With all the new regulations in fishing, having to monitor the net makes it hard for us to take care of the fish immediately like we have been taught. So my mother shares not only her most excellent filleting abilities by being responsible for filleting the fish, but she also shares her knowledge by teaching all of us how to fillet. This comes in handy when we just tire her out and then we step in. My dad shares his knowledge in producing the final product whether it be dried fish, smoked fish, canned, or frozen. There is no one who knows more about the brine, the wood, and the timing.
Eating the foods that we grew up eating is so important to us. Not only are the foods healthy and good for us, but they provide a feeling of well being. Because of this, Mom and Dad make sure they send food to family who does not live here. But she also thinks of her “old pals”, so we have food going to the Pribilofs, Anchorage, Juneau, Seattle, and where ever someone may be spending time.