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Friday, January 15, 2010

Another unspoken phenomenon.....

I left the village for 7 years. 6 six to get 1 1/2 degrees in California. 1 year to get half of a Masters degree. And then I returned.

I was afraid. I know I had changed. My worldview had become both complex and very simple at the same time. I knew how to grow tulips and what fork you used for salad at fancy restaurants. My body had grown soft and contained a massive amount of preservatives. I returned with more respect and more love for my family and culture than most people would imagine. But it came at a price.

Our culture revolves around the ties that bind. Around growing up with familiar faces, knowing every single aspect of your history (even though you wished they didn't), knowing how you would react, knowing what to expect from you. The first thing people ask you is "who is your family?" because it will tell them something of your background. These ties are celebrated, they even have their own Inupiaq words to explain them, like "atiq" which means "namesake" in English but does not translate the close relationship that implies. In the lower 48 I found out that they pimp something other than ties and binds. They revel in the Individual. In the separateness and distance between each person. That's not to say that there are people who are not close to others, but I remember finding it odd that some of my friends would go years if not decades with no contact with siblings or family. Their history ended with their parents. It was very different. And that smell clung to my clothes....

And then I returned....

For one thing people looked at me differently. They were wary. My family and friends that I grew up with and loved looked at me as if I was a two headed sloth, and none of them knew what a sloth was. Some turned and rolled their eyes. Some ignored me completely, their backs turned in rejection. Most took some time to get to know me again. They sat and marveled at how much coffee I drank. Afraid of this grown woman that came back, but willing to take the chance that there was something of the little Point Hope girl left inside of me.

For another thing I think people have this misplaced conception that now that I am educated then I "must" think villagers and village life is abhorrent and disgusting. That I have returned to make them feel bad about themselves, about their world, MY world, about the clothes they wear or the words they use. That any sane educated person would look upon the Native Life in disdain. What interesting things we learn from interesting places.....

They could never be more wrong. I try my hardest to recapture the time in my childhood. To run around covered in mud and catch lemmings. To try and recapture the feeling of belonging that was destroyed by the education system..... Sometimes they see it.....

But sometimes I am met with acid laced words. Words meant to belittle. Or looks casted with disgust. I learned when I came back to be quiet and keep to myself a little more to avoid making others shown their disdain. Which of course made it worse, because I looked like I was avoiding them. And a snowball erupted and grew.

It makes me sigh now. Sigh because I had such good relationships with some people before I left and now all that will exist from them is good memories. That girl who left for college from the village no longer exists. And I work to build new relationships. A stranger meets another stranger. They talk about their ties.

It's a funny world. A ironic twisted world. In which you are raised with people asking you to leave and become educated. That it's sorely needed. That it is the only way your culture will survive. Yet they fail to tell you the price you will pay. And no one asks you if you are willing to pay it. It comes as no surprise that most people who leave the village and get and education successfully .....never return.

But I have returned. To many villages. And when I get the chance to.... I still chase lemmings.


  1. This is such an important discussion and everyone should be talking about it -- thank you for starting it off.

    As an educator of native Alaskan students in rural Alaska, the rhetoric we hear from the district, the state, the nation -- constantly -- is that we have to get the students performing at a better academic level, we have to push them, twist them, turn ourselves inside out in order to get them to pass their tests, we have to endure constant slings and arrows to our professional pride as all these institutions insinuate that we are not working hard enough or good enough to change these students' minds enough to get them to where THEY want them to be.

    Where THEY want them to be is a certain number on a paper. Where THEY want them to be is on the college-track. Where THEY want them to be is in a position to increase another number on a paper -- the amount of taxes they pay through their eventual employment.

    THEY don't ever stop to think of the context that surround all these numbers on paper. THEY don't stop to think what it actually MEANS for a student to go to college. THEY need to read your post.

    Most of the teachers in rural Alaska are not native, not from rural Alaska, and not from Alaska at all. Most of them subscribe to a lower-48 paradigm of education, in which putting a student on an academic track pointed towards college is the greatest service you can give him or her. By the time they figure out that the context of the student's life and the goals of the student's academic career do not and should not mesh with their paradigm, they are usually on a plane the day after school gets out.

    Although I consistently call for the education that we deliver to change to meet the students' authentic needs, my voice is drowned out by edicts that we must test them more, test them differently, test them until the numbers on the papers change. Our school is considered, "in crisis" because of the test scores, and we have special task force meetings and school improvement plans because of these test scores. I never get a response when I ask why we aren't considered "in crisis" because we have had over 15 student/recent graduate suicides in the past 20 years in a village of 1000 people. I believe THAT should be the rallying point, that we design our curriculum and school structure and improvement plans and whatever around KEEPING OUR STUDENTS ALIVE.

  2. Sorry, couldn't fit it all in one comment, so, continued:

    Because after 13 years of the structure and pushing and prodding of academic schooling, students are dumped out into the world and expected to just figure it out. How can they, after every decision has either been made for them or molded by our intensive school system? Whether they go to college as our system intends for them to do, or they choose to stay home and keep bonds of family strong, our system abandons them. While they are in school, we never take the time to explain to them the price of the different roads -- go to college, leave your support system behind, face the dangers and temptations of urban life alone, and have a difficult time assimilating when you return, or stay home hoping to attain one of the few jobs in the village and risk depression and hopelessness when that job, and possibly other hopes you have for your life don't really work out. We need to design our curriculum and system of education around THIS quandry --how to support and teach students how to navigate THESE waters, instead of preparing them for an unrealistic vision of the future and then just dumping them when they are on the brink of figuring out that it's a lot more complicated than we've explained to them.

    I hope this doesn't sound like I'm anti-college -- I'm not at all. We need more students from our villages to go to college and come back to help lead, help create change, to be sober, solid role models for everyone. But I do think that there is just as much worth if a student were to decide to train in the "college" of the tundra after high school -- maybe work enough to pay the phone bill and buy supplies, but mostly live from subsistence, and we never acknowledge that or praise that option while a student is in school.

    I know that communities have a lot of work to do as well, but I can't speak for them or try to change them. I can only work on the education system -- but there is a LOT to do.

    Thanks for listening and sorry to take up so much of your comment space -- maybe we should move this discussion to the "I Am Eskimo" discussion board on facebook.

    I would like to ask you, in the most genuine way possible, to please continue to write and try to get published -- you have a wonderful perspective, an eloquent style, and you aren't afraid to gently tackle these sensitive topics that MUST be discussed if any progress is going to be made towards healing.

  3. As a certified teacher from the village....I would have to say that the system will never change. It is too much controlled by the white shirts and starched collars in D.C. They don't relly care what goes on in a tiny village in Northern ALaska. Tough thing to come to. It's one of the reasons I quit teaching....they wanted me to BE Inupiaq....but never ACT Inupiaq.

    I think the only real way to control our lives is control our education. To separate ourselves from federal chains and federal expectations. It has been done in other countries with immense success. I can already see the seeds beginning to grow.....

    Thank you for commenting! :)

  4. I really do enjoy reading you blog. I am outsider and I am looking outside into a point of view that I am lucky to have the opportunity to even read.

    I tell people sometimes that I am was "born a foreigner" I never felt welcome among my own family, I was just a stranger. I have really nothing else to stay but I will continue reading your blog.

    Thank you

  5. storys right on about whats going on in Alaska, get an education and you prolly never will return. I have not returned because of lack of work.

  6. I know exactly what you mean I grew up in Barrow and left when I was 18 or 19 and lived in the east coast for 3 years. We tried to move back, but it was different... I had an eastern accent and was used to dressing professionally... i had 1 or 2 pair of jeans... one family memeber told me I am too sophisticated...i didn't become offended i knew i was living two lifes city and village life...We only lasted a year and I relocated to Anchorage been here since. I did try again last year and only lasted 6 months... Like you my views changed and knew what is like to live outside village ties. thanks for sharing

  7. You are so honest and correct. Your college education was for you at the direction of others. You are now looked at differently. Military service also gives this type of stigma. Coming back you have structure and discipline. It's not always greeted with open arms. But holding tight to your principles and acting selfless and honorable in the effort to assist those around you is a pure act that no one can speak of negatively. Keep on following your heart and encourage those who see the benefits of your direction to succeed in everything they try. Know that you are an inspiration, and make peace with those who don't understand it.

  8. Your struggle is so central to my life even though it's not my struggle. I teach at Western Oregon University, teaching future teachers how to use computers. But that's not the point. I have been advisor to international students who come primarily from China and Saudi Arabia. They typically like America and want to stay with the new freedoms and conveniences but don't want to give up their culture and background. They are foreigners here and there both.

    I also consider myself an Alaskan although I was born of German heritage in North Dakota and now live in Oregon because I lived 25 years in Alaska where we raised our children. I love our Arctic Museum at WOU and cherish the artifacts from Anaktuvuk Pass, and the stories of Ralph Weeks who routinely lived there in the 70's.

    I have recently read WIllie Hensley's book "Fifty miles from Tomorrow" and found myself in the book. I'm Willie's age and was there when he fought his battles. Several professors studied the book this fall and I was surprised at the misconceptions. I encourage you to play in the mud, listen to your community and use your wisdom to blend the two cultures.

    I want you to know that there are people who try to understand your position and at least sympathize if we can't truly empathize.

  9. Continue to grow and prosper with what you know. It's a big, wide , world out there and the more we know about it, the better we'll all get along. Ignorance continues to divide and separate us. Add tools to your tool bag and you'll survive in whatever situation arises!

  10. Great to read your experiences and the commentaries.I was born in Europe and came to Alaska lived in towns and the bush all over . I'm no teacher, I'm just me, female, curious, with a great love for the ground on which I stand. When I came back in my family first time back they asked me in the stores where do you come from, and I had picked up customs from here ,Alaska, and they were shocked. Only when they came to visit me they told me"It's impossible to understand your life when you have not seen it yourself. I agreed."you have no fencess around your place?, No I like the moose to come by why would I put a fence around me. I truly spend a long time realizing I was not anymore where I came from and I was not accepted where I was. I live now 50 yrs in Alaska and still have an accent. People don't realize that when you shift between languages you don't hear your own sounds anylonger. Since the world gets more and more global we will have to learn to live that, wherever we are, from whatever point in the world. What I liked very much was that in the Aleutian chain they have ,I would call it Summer School and Alutiiq people teach children their rich culture , way of life and how to survive on your own. I think it;s a succesfull program not only the Native children go, lots of others in the school system take part in it and love it.I lived also in Greenland , there all the children speak Inupiat, the teachers have to take classes to at least understand it. Street names, tax-papers, news broadcast on the radio are in Inupiat and then later there comes a smaller version in Danish.I agree whole heartedly with you that the system of education has to change, maybe more in the sense of Montesori or Charter schools were you can create the program after your circumstances and have as aim to help the students to be 'whole' allround people not only walking memory banks were most of it does not fit in their environment. More value based, your peoples values, the real ones who have helped your ancestors, your parents and role models to survive so long, and that gives the students the chance to stand with one leg in their history and the other in the world as is. All immigrants have felt what you have felt and a new sort of people came about, each with their back ground values and their American values. I don't call it Federal values, I do call it American,not in the sense of the USA but in the sense of the continent,there is a difference. I select Anonymous because I don't know how to get it posted otherwise. maybe one day we will meet I have always had an atraction to Anaktuvik when I look at the map and see the village or town? I think WOW they make it there. Keep going the world is what each one of us makes it. You would be surprised what kids pick up unconsiously Courage and hang in there.

  11. Great blog. This post resonates with me too, the homesickness, the return, the feeling out of place...

    As far as the western education/subsistence education stuff goes, is an awesome resource and some of the school districts on the YK delta have amazing programs, especially Cevaq and its traditional school. I'm sure you're already connected, but some of your readers might not be, and it's a good starting point.

  12. I understand where you are coming from...

    I graduated in 1999 in a rural village along the highway system in Alaska. Within months of graduating I left for Oregon to go to college.
    The first summer I returned from college and went back to spend time with my family in the village. It so happened when I returned the whitefish were running. I quickly cleaned up my grandma's smoke house, found a fish knive (not an ulu), and got to work.

    I still think this action helped my village understand what I wanted; I wanted to be educated to help my people, but not forget who I was and where I came from.

    The very next day (after I filled the smoke house with about 50 whitefish), an elder can to me; she sought me out. She had a lot to tell me and I listened.

    She said that I was the first person she ever met that left for college and came back within a year to participate in the fish run. She encouraged me to continue my education and to come back whenever I could, so I would not forget where I came from and to keep my ties with the village. When she was done talking with me she gave me a gift; a brand new fish knive! She told me to use it ever time I came home to the village. Perhaps she knew that in time if I wasn't careful I would be seen as an outsider.

    I graduated from UAF in 2007; I was working for my Tribe within months of graduating. My first 6 months on the job was kinda rough; I had to remind people through my actions that I was making a committment to my village, to my people, to my culture.

    Now two years later.....

    People know what I am about, what I can achieve. Most people are encouraging; they want me to be the example that young people can leave and come back to the village.

    Of course, there will always be a few people that are negative. But remember that negative people are in every community, village, and city; and don't take some of that negativity personally. I learned that it doesn't matter who you are; those negative people will always have something to say.

    To those that are leaving to further their education and plan on returning....

    My advice (from my experience) is to not only remember where you come from and your relations (also your non-relations), but MAKE a committment to your village through your actions. Your actions will let people know you really want to help, to make a difference....

  13. i got teary when i read this... this is a similar experience, even if you grew up native in the city. thanks for sharing.

  14. You hit it right on the head. I went and got educated. The village life tells you to comply with the folkways and mores of the village, but the western educational system tells you to be assertive. This here was what I did not attend too. When I asserted myself on an issue when I came back into the village, It was met with disdain and all the other things that followed. I probably could have rode out the disdain and weathered the storm, but I did not want it affecting my wife so we left my hometown for good. The hometown that I longed to return too, the hometown of my dreams, where I wanted to set up camp forever and raise my children. Alas! I had to learn a new system, new family, new folkways and mores, when I come back to visit they always ask "what are here for?" thank you for stating the issue, there are so many of us out there.

  15. I guess one of the questions is this: Should it be another burden for those getting the education? Why is there no support or plan of support or awareness or ritual for welcoming back those that sacrifice for the village? It's too much of a hit or miss, no wants to deal with it. Because not only do you have to become educated.....but you have to become a politician. Or something like a politician, when those that stay in the village will have to do less. And be less.

    It's an extra burden.

  16. So what is the answer? The system that keeps the village alive is ours there are no jobs for the 5-10 who graduate from high school every year. The ones who stay do not become the future of the village; the ones who leave don't come back; or return, but are always suspect. There are no welcoming arms for them, but always suspicion; as if they are suspect because they learned a way to leave and didn't.
    Are we better off educating the kids to leave the village or to stay?

    What should we tell(educate)the children? They are learning a global society, what with the internet/cell phones/technology. How do they fit in with traditions/family/future?

  17. I remember Anuktuvuk Pass..."the place where know" Many have heard about the Garden of Eden, unfortunately few know it’s where we currently stand in any wilderness setting. That’s just me talking. I can't help but think of Star Wars when I read many of the previous comments. The path to the dark side is filled with hate, deception, and greed, the path to the good side however is always there too. Too much movie watching done have I. I have seen the pendulum swing to both ends with regards to how people change, where some students have gone on and have assimilated (I also like Star Trek) to modern norms of work and beliefs. Professional Natives they call themselves, they even have their own society and social groups. Seems some of the Native corporations are a portal for creating or simply creating an environment for those to persist. I don’t blame them, I simply recognition that role. I agree whole heartily that there needs to be an acceptance to youth who need/want to go to school after high school. The challenge is who should/could be those to do the accepting? I too have not seen many of my relatives since I started a career. I’ve had to move numerous times, many times to places where travel has not always been easy to get back to family. I too love to create though, my use of Caribou antlers, or bones have sustained my world of thought within my mind. I love to hunt and fish, and then give it away (save half of the back strap! Yummy). Many of the local community elders can no longer make the arduous trips to the field to hunt or fish. I think they miss that and miss being able to tell their grandchildren or in many cases great great grandchildren of their experiences and skills and to pass those along. What is the answer? I don’t know, but I do know that as long as I draw breath I will continue to help any elder (for me anyone who is older than I) with real food (moose, sheep, tutu, fish and wild game) and take any of their children with me to the field (you’ve probably guessed by now I have no children). I may not know all the traditions, but I do know how to catch game well, it’s about the only thing I consider myself to be a professional of. My vow is to also be there when they call, or even go there even when they don’t call (the western idea of calling ahead to ask permission to come over has always seemed odd to me, when I was a kid we just hopped in the car and went over to which ever aunt or uncles house to just visit). I should stop here and say, I hope you keep to it, meaning living life like you want to, your education does make you who you are, your actions at home (where ever that is), really is a testament to what your soul is. All the very best in your years ahead.
    Sincerely GH from Tazlina