Blink

Goosevia Daily Prompt: Blink

I was sitting with my mother this past summer during an early evening in June.  My husband was discussing some of the finer points of the agenda for the 75-year Commemoration of the bombing of Dutch Harbor and the evacuation of the Unangan people.  Events were to include a memorial ceremony, historical presentations, personal stories, many luncheons and dinners, and flyovers by historical aircraft.  The commemoration of a little-recognized part of history is significant and educational not only for those connected to World War II in the Aleutians, but for a much broader international public.  My mother, who was 87 1/2 in June, had been 12 years old when the events of WWII enveloped the islands that she called home and changed her life forever.

On the morning of June 3, 1942 and continuing June 4, Japanese planes rained bombs on her home town of Unalaska and the Navy and Army infrastructure that had been constructed for the protection of Alaska and the lower 48 states.  Within a month, her family was split apart as older siblings joined the military or, in the case of her two older sisters who had married servicemen, were evacuated to their husbands’ families in the lower 48.  She, three of her siblings and her mother were forcibly evacuated to an abandoned fish cannery in Southeast Alaska.  Her father, not being native, was not allowed to accompany them.  They were not allowed to return to their home until late in 1945.  Although the war ended, and things were supposed to return to normal, nothing was ever normal again.  Families were smaller, having suffered the loss of 10 percent of their population in the detention camp.  Economies were changed as industries that had been in place prior to the war had disappeared.  Many Unangan homes had been ransacked by the military personnel and were unfit for habitation.  The trust that they had in their government was badly damaged.  My mother’s family was never, ever all together again after July of 1942.

So, a 75th year commemoration was a pretty important event in the life of my mother.  It would mark a time when she knew that it most likely would be the last time she would see any of her friends who might come back for the commemoration.  Only a handful of original evacuees remain living in Unalaska, so she was looking forward to seeing her now distant friends.

As she sat in the living room of the home in which she grew up, a drone of engines, starting out faintly, grew louder and louder, soon passing directly over the house.  She turned toward us and in a surprised voice said, “The Japanese.”  In the blink of an eye, with the sound of the plane engines, she was transported back to what was, most certainly, a hellish part of her life.

 

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Diversity

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In looking at this picture, you might not even think that there is much diversity in this group.  They are all wearing beyond comfortable jeans and footwear.  They are sporting the same t-shirt with various pullovers for comfort.  They are sporting sunglasses and hats for shade…except for the kids who haven’t learned the virtues of protecting skin and eyes yet.  They have all come together to support a common cause and to play a common game.  (Well, common game in an uncommon location;  tundra golf…not for the faint of heart.)  You wouldn’t think that so many different cultures could be represented in such a small group, but without going into their personal backgrounds, I will just tell you that they represent everything.

On this day of reflection I like to think that America was brilliant at being a model for diversity and inclusiveness.  How that changed mimics the changes we see on a local level.  Learning about different cultures, with the result of respecting them, opens the door for open minds. Take a lesson from indigenous cultures who for millennia were inclusive of all people no matter their beliefs, skin tone, or gender identification and/or definition.  Although I now believe that our ability to pass on values of diversity acceptance has become more difficult, I still believe that our ability to truly appreciate and celebrate diverse cultures stems from the generosity of those who choose to share their values and their dreams with the group as a whole.

Carve

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAvia 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.

The Meaning of Family.

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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.

Happy International Women’s Day – Celebrate your feminine

Basketwoman by Unangan artist Gert Svarny
Basketwoman by Unangan artist Gert Svarny


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.

Hunkering down

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When you live in Alaska there are just certain things that you expect.  You expect the long days of summer when the sun barely sets before coming above the horizon again.  You expect to spend a majority of your time hunting and gathering from May through October.  You don’t know when, but you expect that first dusting of snow on the mountains, more commonly known as termination dust.  And you expect it to be cold.  In the Aleutians, we also expect wind.

February was called Qisagunax^ by the indigenous people of the Aleutians prior to 1834.  This means famine.  February was the month when you were gaining about 4 minutes of daylight per day.  It was the month when you had already braved the storms of November, December, and January.  It was the month when you were coming to the end of some of your subsistence foods.  So food was scarce.  The communities were hungry.  It was a time when you needed to get out there and find something to eat again.

It is amazing that February is also the month during our long winters that can have some of the most beautiful weather.  Perhaps my ancestors knew this about February, so they were not particularly careful about their food stocks.  They did like to party and were generous to a fault.  Perhaps they knew they could count on the most gorgeous, brilliant sunny days in February, when the tide was out really low.  And the winds abated.  They could get out in their iqyan and fish, or hunt for that stray sea mammal.  Or access the tidepools for delicacies like sea urchins, mussels, clams, octopus, limpets, chitons, and seaweed.  Then they would hunker down when those north winds picked up again, coating everything in ice from the sea spray.

On days like these ones, I like to pull a fish out of the freezer and enjoy the fruits of our labors from the summer months.  I like to be warm and toasty in my little home, not caring what is going on outside my doors.  Like the windows, everything has a hazy, muted feeling of being cut off from the world.  Especially if the wind is blowing and your ability to hear anything besides the wind is gone.  Yes….just hunkering down and enjoying my solitude.