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.

Words

Charles Henry Hope writes to his daughter in 1940.

Charles Henry Hope writes to his daughter in 1940.

Words can be the most powerful tool that we have at our disposal.  We saw this with great clarity during the last election cycle.  With our instantaneously connected social networks, we saw words used as both a way to lift up our spirits, hopes, and dreams, and in the next instant, as a pointed jousting lance, with the purpose of neatly disposing of an opponent.  I must admit, I’ve done both; but the feeling of content lasts much longer when I’ve used my words in a positive way.

My 83 year old mother recently brought over a copy of a letter that her father had written to one of her older sisters who was away at boarding school.  These words from 73 years ago were precious to my mother, so much so that she sent a copy to each of her four daughters.  She loved the way that her father captured the essence of each of his children in a few succinct words or phrases. It brought back memories of things she had forgotten, or things that were skirting on the edges of her mind; the precious memories of a time before her life was indelibly changed by a forced evacuation during WWII.  But those are words for another story.

I am in awe of my two daughters who have taken their words into song.  They can turn a phrase that will make you think deeply, or in another direction that will absolutely YANK at your heartstrings.  Their words will make you nod in agreement, or sigh with the feelings of love you didn’t know you were harboring.  Alena (Syverson) once wrote a song about the Bosnian conflict called Beautiful Blind Followers.  It was the song that Laresa (Syverson) later sang, noting that it was the song that sparked her interest to write her own songs.  Beautiful blind followers with crowded thoughts and frightened minds – took their chances on twisted lives; wasted their time.  Occupied dead souls keep their silence of thousands, of millions disappearing into the void…

I love that you can put down words, let them sit awhile, and think of better ways of putting them together to better convey what you are thinking or feeling.  My esteemed friend Jerah Chadwick is a wonderful poet, who after living in the Aleutians for 26 years, was well known for the way he integrated local culture and environment into his writing.  In After the Aleut, Jerah turns a phrase that comes back to me time and time again.  Say a woman once stepped from volcano steam, or a man from the sea, desiring to live among us.  I appreciate his ability to take pieces of oral storytelling and integrate those pieces into a contemporary conglomeration of great depth and feeling that speaks to me in ways that it doesn’t speak to other readers.  A true gift.

Words, so personal but so public.  Words, that for good or bad, shape lives.  As I get older I find that I choose my words much more carefully than I used to do.  But once I have chosen those words, I use them with abandon – without fear of outside opinions.  I find as I get older that I prefer listening to words that have been chosen well; those that can bring harmony to conflict.  Those words that give purpose to a life well lived.  Much like when Laresa sings in Light – as the years go rolling by we’ll stand beside this rising tide, we’ll plant our seeds so they won’t die and sail into the afterlife. Where maybe things won’t seem so bad, we won’t regret the lives we’ve had, and maybe that’s where I’ll see you the way I’ve always wanted to.

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.

10,000+ Years of Adaptation and Compromise

Contemporary Unangax Dancer

Contemporary Unangax dancer

A post by a fellow blogger gave me pause to think deeply recently.  My thoughts were too full and lengthy to be deemed a simple comment, so I decided a brief post was in order.  Pete has a WordPress site called Pete’s Alaska.   Here is a link to the blog that gave me thought.   http://kl1hbalaska.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/what-is-truth/.   I want to assure you that this is not an argumentative response, just some thoughts that could possibly explain how and why I look at the contemporary world from my old world eyes.  I just thought it was fair to give Pete credit for making me think.

When Pete starts out by writing about listening to a radio talk show and wondering, along with the radio participants, just where each participant was getting his/her information, I can really nod my head in agreement.  I recently said something to the effect of  “Ethics in journalism. Is there such a thing anymore? I get a feeling that reporters and journalists have developed a journalistic style of unsubstantiated opinion. And that bugs me.”  In this world of social media, fast breaking news, and our inability to wait for the facts, I truly believe you have got to have a whole lot of common sense to wade through all the crap that is thrown out there to be able to find the truth in each situation.  That’s when having a great background in ethics and values becomes extremely advantageous and you thank your lucky stars for having parents who were full of common sense.

In looking for the truth, Pete is concerned about how youngsters will sift through all of the untruths that people perceive are in textbooks.  Well, we’ve all had to contend with printed sources that call into question whether or not they are presenting the real facts.  We were all  taught that Columbus ‘discovered’ America and was a wonderful father figure in American history.  Come to find out that many other people were here before Columbus, including, and not limited to, indigenous tribes and Vikings.  We also have learned that Columbus was a wretch of a human being, seizing land, enslaving man, and selling females.  But we all came out of it okay, and I can imagine that our children and our children’s children will blunder through as well.

I once met a man who came to the Aleutians to meet the people who had suffered a severing of their human rights during World War II by the United States government.  His name was Dean Kohlhoff, Professor of History at Valparaiso University.  Having gone through the entire educational offerings of the United States school system, he was shocked to learn about the evacuation of the Unangan people from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands during WWII.  As a professor of history, he knew the story needed to be added to history books.  He documented the tragic story by utilizing all of the governmental paperwork so that it was a true rendition of the story, and being a true rendition of actual history, could be placed in history books.  The book, entitled When the Wind was a River – The Aleut Evacuation in World War II, is a wonderful piece of documentation, but I am not sure how many history books it has changed.  I guess we are at the mercy of designers and publishers and just need to have a philosophy of lifelong learning so that we are always on the lookout for fresh information.

Pete goes on to write about finding the truth, and how sifting through facts has led him to believe that the finding of truth is all a matter of what and who you put your trust in.  He tells us that the ultimate truth about our country is found in the Constitution of the United States.  And the ultimate truth about religion is found in the bible.  And all you need to do is read them to answer your questions.  Which all would be well and good for all of those questions about country if this was still 1787 and nothing had changed.  If the right to bear arms still meant what it meant in 1791, I don’t think we would be having quite the contentious discussions about gun control that are happening all around the country.  I think that as well as reading the bible, we should all remember that this is a book that was written, much like our history books are written, where someone had the power of choosing what would be inside those covers.  I think what we need to remember when we read the bible is that this country was built with an idea that there should be freedom of religion…religion, not Methodist religion, or Catholic religion, or Orthodox religion, or Muslim religion.  Just religion.  Or no religion, if that is your freedom.  I think that along with our bibles, our guns, and our flags, we need to have a big dose of tolerance in our pocket full of tricks.

I have often been accused of having a Pollyanna sort of vision of the world.  This accusation may be true and I must say that it is truly an environmental issue.  It is a direct result of the environment I was raised in.  Not many history books will tell you this, but the Unangan people, or the indigenous Peoples of the Aleutian Islands, are the one race of people with a longer continuous existence as an identifiable people in one place than any other people in the world.  We didn’t get that distinction without a near genocide of the Unangan population during the Russian invasion.  We suffered mightily during the assimilation efforts during the Americanization of the Aleutians.  And we were brought to our knees during the inhuman forced evacuation of our lands during World War II.  We got the distinction because we chose to adapt instead of disappearing.  We chose to compromise instead of giving up and leaving.

If there is one thing of which I am certain, it is that nothing is set in stone.  Things were meant to change. People were meant to learn from their parents mistakes, from their parents actions, and from their own actions.   Documents were meant to be ammended and to grow, to be reinterpreted,  and to become more clear.  People were meant to learn tolerance, compassion,  and to be their brother’s keepers.  I think in this fast changing world that we live in, we all have to be willing to compromise.  We all need to be able to adapt to new ideas.  In this fast paced, global society, we all need to broaden our horizons and really begin to think globally.  And (this coming from a completely anomalous matriarchal society in Unalaska) maybe we need to focus our communities on health and peace.  And, after all, perhaps the Dalai Lama is correct when he says that the Western woman will save the world.

Wood

Birch

Birch

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.

Kristuusax^ Ag^akux^! Amchuux^txichin!

From the land of saints, the faithful Orthodox in Unalaska, Alaska wish you a Merry Christmas.  This evening was the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.  Tomorrow we begin our tradition of following the Star of the East.  For three nights we will visit parish homes and sing carols.  We call it starring as we carry a large, decorated star and the star spins as we sing.

Kristuusax^  Ag^akux^!  Amchuux^txichin!  Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Kristuusax^ Ag^akux^! Amchuux^txichin! Christ is born! Glorify Him!

The title of this post is in Unangam tunuu, or the Aleut language.  We also say the phrase  in Slavonic.  Khristos Razhdayetsya!! Slavite Yego! And in English.  Christ is born! Glorify Him!