Hunkering down

~

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

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

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.