June 3, 1942 was the third event in the modern history of the Unangax of the Aleutian Islands that indelibly changed our pathway. The first, in 1741, was contact with the Russian fur procurers which resulted in a near genocide. The second, occurring in 1867, was the purchase of Alaska by the United States, known for years as a folly. This event that sold the indigenous peoples of Alaska and the land for $7.2 Million put the Unangax people into the assimilation machine that forced Natives to stop speaking their language, eating native foods, practicing native religions, and associating with other natives, and being forced into speaking only English. Only then could they be considered civilized. Only then could a native who came close to this interpretation of civilized life become an American citizen. The third event, the invasion of the Aleutian Islands by the Japanese Imperial Army, led to the forced evacuation of all of the Unangax from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands to abandoned mines and fish caneries in southeast Alaska, absolutely stripping them of their civil and personal liberties. Their return, in late 1945, over three years from departure, brought them back having lost 10 to 15 percent of their population to death and back to homes and churches that had been vandilized and/or burned by the military that was supposed to protect them.
So we honor our lost villages, our lost people, our disappearing language and culture as we also honor those who gave their lives and youth to our fog-enshrouded islands in the protection of the United States. We have mitigated our anger and dispair and have come, once again, to accept our past as a way of growing and becoming strong so that we can reclaim those parts of our culture that swim at the edge of the abyss. Our mantra is, and always will be, adaptation.
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.
If, by chance you ever visit Alaska in April, and you are in Anchorage, take the time to attend the statewide Native Youth Olympics competition. It will be a sporting event unlike any you have ever attended and one that you will never forget.
This is a sport that inspires an entire arena to quiet in hushed suspense and awe as they watch an athlete attempt what may seem to be an impossible task. Records are consistently broken by these super athletes who really do the impossible from hopping across a hardwood floor on their knuckles, and then back again, hanging by only their wrist from a pole suspended between two running stick holders, kicking a ball suspended at least eight feet in the air with one foot and then landing only on that same foot. These feats are only a few of the games that Alaska’s youth play that are based on games played for millennia by indigenous hunters and gatherers as a way to hone their hunting and survival skills and at the same time increasing their strength, endurance, agility, and most importantly, the cohesion of mind and body.
The camradery and sportsmanship are unlike anything you may have witnessed. The goal is for each athlete to best themselves, so rival athletes will cheer for their competitors and coaches will coach any and all athletes. These are games of friendship and growth. Make sure you see the phenomenon that is Alaska’s youth.