Jul 21, 2009
My family is spending the summer in Ugashik fishing. I was given a glimpse into the future – an eye opening experience that made me stop and think: “I hope my people, the Yup’iks, do not end up like this!”
Since I have been in the Bristol Bay region I have had the opportunity to attend a couple of Tribal meetings. My thoughts going into these varies from excitement at seeing another community’s culture and traditions, to wondering how local politics operate here compared to Nunam Iqua on the Lower Yukon River delta.
Unfortunately, my excitement about the prospect of learning about the culture and traditions of another village was immediately let down. I walked into an annual meeting expecting to see celebrations of Native culture, pride in being Native and efforts to keep their Native ways, language, and culture alive in this ever westernized world we now live in.
I donned my traditional kuspaq thinking that since this was their annual meeting, everyone would be celebrating their heritage and culture. I was so wrong with that train of thought! There was nothing that I saw which even hinted that this was a Tribal meeting. There appeared to be no Native aspect involved at all. Not once did I hear a single Native word uttered. Not once did I see any tradition that I could remotely relate to keeping their culture intact. The only thing I observed was a whole lot of squabbling and discussions of money. Money here, money there, money, money (or lack there of) everywhere!
In all of the money discussion I expected to hear about spending money on programs to help protect and sustain or even recapture their Native culture, traditions, or language. Nothing! My heart began to ache for these people.
This is just the meeting portion, surely at the potluck dinner there will be more culture evident… They set up the buffet of BBQ and potluck dishes and I am happily surprised to see two things happen. First they did offer Grace, and second they honored the elders by allowing them to serve themselves first. I stood there and anxiously waited to see what types of Native foods will be offered and wondering what new dishes I will be introduced to. What Native foods do they enjoy here compared to the dishes on the Yukon? Certainly there will be fry bread? I have never been to a Native gathering that didn’t include fry bread!
I looked down the table at the offerings. I took a plate and I am handed a hamburger bun. So here is the fare: chicken casserole with broccoli, shredded BBQ beef and pork, shredded carrot raisin salad, potato salad, fruit salad, green salad, snack mix, corn, green beans, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Mt. Dew and Coke, juice, and coffee. For dessert there was pumpkin pie, pineapple upside down cake, ice cream and Otter pops.
Where’s the fish? Where’s the fry bread? Where’s the akutaq? Even Rollie was surprised that there were no corn fritters which he fondly remembers from his childhood growing up here. I would expect this type of buffet in any south, Midwest or western town gathering. Everything tasted delicious, but I was sorely disappointed that I didn’t get to try any new Native foods…sigh.
I noticed something else, looking around at everyone there…why isn’t anyone dressed in any Native clothing? I am the only one…the solitary person who has donned any type of traditional clothing. Everyone else is in jeans or sweats and t-shirts, and a few with dressy shirts. Surely some of the women must have beadwork on? A pair of beaded earrings or a beaded hair pin…nope. Just me.
I began to think to myself: “Is this what will happen to my people 100 years from now? Will we have completely given up our cultural customs and become westernized by only fishing to make money? Will we have lost all semblance of our heritage? Will our children and our children’s children never know their native language, traditions, culture? Will my people only squabble about money and give up the fight for these Native ways?”
I have now come to treasure every detail of my life back home in Nunam Iqua. We are definitely PROUD of our NATIVE heritage and culture! If you were to come to Nunam Iqua when we have our annual meeting, which we call a Potlatch, there would be absolutely no doubt in your mind that we are Native and darn proud of it, too!
Not only will I ensure that my children and god-willing my grand children will know where they came from but also they will learn their language, culture and traditions! And I will also, do everything in my power to ensure that my nieces, nephews, cousins and others know these as well!
How did this happen? Where did their culture and traditions go? How can you claim to be a Tribe and not have any traditional practices other than fishing? Where’s your language? Why doesn’t anyone dance? Or sing? What caused this total loss of their Native heritage? It’s not like there are big cities out here, this is very rural Alaska. Don’t you have to keep your culture and traditions alive to survive? How do we keep it from happening to my Yup’ik culture?
Although I mourn for these people and what they have lost not knowing or sharing their culture, traditions and language – I am grateful that I have been given this glimpse of what the future could hold for other Native villages across Alaska if we don’t take the time to fight for the old ways. It was like stepping into the future and receiving a warning…