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cultural heritage

photo credit: Mario Gallucci

I recently applied for a fellowship opportunity that has me reflecting on my experience and my identity as an artist heavily influenced by my Yup'ik family and heritage. I was raised with Yup’ik Eskimo and working-class white 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 in that move. As a young woman in the village, Granny was a fluent Yup’ik speaker in spite of boarding school punishment. As children, my cousins and I knew about the abuse, forced assimilation, and shame that Granny and the Aunties experienced in boarding schools. We knew from whispered conversations between the grown ups about the racism, shame, and the cultural disconnect that Granny, my mom, and her sisters experienced in rural Oregon. But we did not understand how that suffering would shape our experiences of our own Yup'ik Eskimo culture, of our identities as Yup'ik people.

I yearned for connection to our cultural heritage from the time I was very young. My questions about Alaska and story requests were sometimes answered directly by Granny by sharing small books about village life mailed to her by relatives. More often she answered unasked questions 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. My 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 and to laugh lots. 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 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 me, in quiet tones like Granny’s, and 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. I'm still learning how to answer that, I'm still learning what that means to me.

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