photo credit: Mario Gallucci
I recently applied for a fellowship opportunity that has me reflecting on my experience as a Native artist. I was raised with Yup’ik values and culture in rural Oregon and have lived in Portland for more than 30 years, far removed geographically from Yupiit people outside of family. My granny and aunties, my culture bearers, moved from Alaska to the Pacific Northwest when my mom was little. My family suffered a loss of cultural connection and language. As a young woman in the village, Granny was a fluent Yup’ik speaker in spite of boarding school punishment. I suffer with relatives here and back in Alaska from inter-generational trauma and identity confusion, the legacy of my immediate culture-bearers’ abuse in Alaska boarding schools, forced sterilization, racist attacks, rape, forced into traveling display, imposed colonial culture in the villages, and other abuses. I wrestle with the shame and cultural disconnect that Granny, my mom, and my aunts experienced in rural Oregon.
As a child and young person, I yearned for connection to our cultural heritage. My questions and story requests were rarely answered directly by Granny. She sometimes answered by sharing small books about village life mailed to her by relatives of relatives. More often she answered my unasked questions only, with hushed stories that hinted at what she lost or was taken from her and her sisters at boarding school or while working at road houses in Alaska. Her sister, my Auntie Emma, who settled from Alaska on Discovery Bay in Washington State, is quick still to share stories of Alaska, mostly of fun and hard work, and sometimes of discrimination and exploitation. And Auntie Ruthie, so full of grit, grace, heartache, and glamour, left Alaska too and stayed for decades in an SRO near downtown Portland. Her offerings to my constant pleadings for some words about “home” usually landed on stories of force, terror, and tragedy. These culture bearers also shared with me the way to show love and respect to elders and to children. They taught me to be careful with all living things and that all things are living. They helped me believe in mystery. They taught me the absolute imperative of sharing and the joy received in giving gifts. I learned from them how to be a neighbor and to live in community. I learned how to love broadly. I know, because of the ways they walked on the earth that things can be sacred and mundane at the same time. They were my examples of how to be a sister and a good family member. I tried for years to piece together an understanding of myself through the lived experiences and the cultural offerings of my elders. I still try.
Art-making has been helpful in clearing the path from Oregon to my culture. Working and shaping clay, I bring to matter old stories and old truths from my blood and from the books shared with me by Granny. Working and shaping clay, I embody new stories and new understandings of what it means to be far from my ancestral home and people, to be a person of mixed ancestry and still, to be Yup’ik. I have also found healing, meaning, and hope through my active participation in the Alaska Native community and with the broader Native community here in Portland. Through a near decade of artistic practice, and through my relationships with other Natives and Native artists, I have found a few answers to my questions about identity, about what it means to experience white privilege and be Native, about holding and living Native values in dominant culture, about being in community with other Natives as a white-skinned Yup'ik, about internal and external arguments over blood quantum and race, and significantly, about making and proclaiming my art as a Native person.
I'm learning that Yup’ik culture persists in hushed tones, like Granny’s, wherever my sculptures find themselves at home. It persists in me--alive and whole, if not yet fully realized. It persists in my family here in the Pacific Northwest, and in Alaska. I endeavor to live in a way that answers well our little ones when they ask what it means that we are Yup'ik.