I was raised in a family community with my aunts, cousins, sibling, and parents in Rainier, Oregon with Yup’ik Eskimo values and ways of knowing. When I left home after high school, I began feeling my difference from the mainstream dominant culture around me--I didn’t have connections with other Native people outside my family.
My Great Grandma Helen born in was Bethel, Alaska. Granny Clara and the Great Aunties, my culture-bearers, were raised up-river on the Kuskokwim in the village of McGrath. They were taken from their families as young children and sent to boarding schools near the Yukon River for re-education and forced assimilation into settler society and dominant western culture. They were punished for singing their songs, dancing their stories, and speaking their language. The physical and emotional trauma they experienced at boarding school and the colonizing forces of missionaries and settlers rent from them many of their traditional ways of life and their cultural and spiritual practices. Yet Granny Clara retained fluency in Yup’ik language until she left Alaska for Oregon as a young woman with her German husband and my mother, her first born child. I discovered this long after Granny passed. I learned only one Yup’ik word from her as a child, a curse word i heard her whisper on just a handful of angry and painful occasions, the word for white man. Granny and the Great Aunties brought with them to the lower 48 shame and internalized racism. I knew we were Eskimo and gathered from the Alaska Native story books Granny shared that we were Yup’ik, but as a family we did not discuss the source of our values nor the cultural context for our family norms and organization. I have scrabbled all my life to gather together the scattered pieces of my ancestral heritage.
I experienced Eskimo dancing for the first time in a field in rural Oregon with my Granny, Aunties, Mom, and cousin. We’d been invited by an acquaintance from the Northwest Inupiaq Dancers to attend their gathering. The drums, songs, and dances lit a circle in the grass around our gathering. They cleared a path to my heart’s home! We danced the closing song with the group--it was my first time dancing, and my thousandth time, I knew it by heart and found myself dancing with my eyes lowered and my vision soaring. I left the gathering inspired to dance and compelled to create. For years my hands had been itching to make and they saw a path in the traditional carved wood masks worn by the dancers that day in the field. I joined the dance group after that, found my way to other Alaska Native friends in the Portland and Seattle areas, and soon sculpted my first mask from clay. It was a self-portrait mask, white-faced and wrinkle-eyed, its berry-stained mouth grinning wide. The transformation masks that followed were born of Yup’ik and other Eskimo stories. They express my understanding of the personhood and interrelationship of all human and non-human beings. "Walrus Dance Transformation", my first bronze sculpture, was inspired by the powerful masked Walrus Dance I saw performed that day in rural Oregon.
I’ve found that like dancing and drumming, telling stories through sculpture comes naturally to me, outside my intellect, from the experiences of my ancestors before me. Art-making is healing medicine, transforming some of the suffering and confusion of displacement and loss into connection and opportunity. I sculpt from my blood and my dreams and the stories shared by Granny Clara through her small Alaska Native story books. My art is a path through which we are connecting and building community with other Alaska Natives in Oregon and Washington. Community and cultural reclamation through art, drumming, and dance are concentric circles of hope we are bending around our family, present, past, and future.