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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Lessons....Part 2

We had a day of lessons.

It started with me finally sitting down to work on the caribou leg skins for Ben's wedding boots. His beautiful mother passed away years ago, and one of the things that was put in storage was a pile of her carefully dried caribou leg skins. I thought it would be fitting to have something of her at our wedding, so I will be attempting to make a set of fancy calf length caribou skin boots. But first they have to be scraped and softened to a cloth-like consistency.

Another beautiful person came over and helped me work on them. She brought her mothers set so that we could see the pattern and compare the pieces that were used. The best skins are gathered in the fall harvest, because the skin is thick and less likely to tear. The front legs are cut on the front and split to the hoof, the back legs are split on the back. Four legs are needed for each boot. I will be adding a band of dark wolverine to the top of the boot, then another band of complicated dark and light pieces of calf skin sewn together to make a pattern (that you can see on the right bottom of the photo) which gives a hint to whose family he comes from and the region he comes from. The bottom in this case will be made in the Nunamiut way, using thick winter caribou skin.

But first the hard work of preparing the skins. We scrape them using a semi-sharp blade with a wooden handle. It has to be done carefully so that the skin does not tear, and care is taken to moisten and stretch the skins to make them wider.

Rarely did we chat about what were doing. Instead we passed the finished boot between us, taking care to examine shape, hair direction and flexibility. Inupiaqs like to know what the goal is. We did talk about the caribou a bit, told stories about other caribou skin clothing and stories about caribou habits and tools and places with caribou. I learned a lot in the Inupiaq way, by watching and making mistakes.

Some things I learned:
1. Oddly enough your non-dominant hand goes sore and weak first.
2. You can always patch up the rips later, there is never any permanent mistakes.
3. You can make dried skin stretch in any direction with enough patience and the right amount of moisture.
4. My dog will eat the scrapings of caribou skin.
5. Scraping skin must have been a daily routine back in the day.
6. Funny stories make good trade for info and also make the time go faster.
7. A pair of boots can take years to make, from the harvesting of the animal to the finished product, but the boots can last for generations and teach generations for decades after long as you replace the bottoms once in a while.
8. There are always going to be new stitches you can learn.

Ben caught another wolf earlier that day. A big black male trotting close to town. We had seen this male before. He was the one that sat across the road and stared at my female dog while she was in heat. He was also the one spotted running around the outskirts of the village. He was left alone for the most part as most will not kill a wolf till their hide is usable.

Ben left on a ride to test a part on his snow machine, and just like any Inupiaq he strapped his rifle across his chest...."just in case." He carried the carcass home across his lap as he did not think he would need a sled for a test drive. I heard the snow machine pull up to our house, and then when he didn't come in I went outside to see five or size people admiring his catch.

It is a very wonderful gift from the universe, to be given an opportunity to bring home something useful and valued and loved. To have your bullet strike true. To have been there at the right time, in the right place. To have the right tool with you. To have thought to drive up on a rise to check the surrounding landscape for animals. To have it be the right time of year when the fur is thick and strong. To know the behavior of the animal enough to know what direction it would go and what it was doing. To have your snow machine be in good shape to catch up with the animal in the distance, and to have enough money to afford the gas. To be healthy enough to handle the ride and then healthy enough to run the last of the distance. To be trained enough to be able to hold still enough to shoot while your heart is beating out of your chest and your breathing is labored. Sometimes people do not understand why we shout in joy when we are blessed with a gift of a life taken cleanly. How much work and money and training and knowledge and luck goes into it. It is the ultimate sign of respect to the animal to acknowledge how much work went into capturing it, that it was not easy. And our type of luck includes knowing that the animals can deny us of their favor at any moment, and that ultimately they are in control of their gifts. And that also the universe can deny us of one tiny favor/piece so that we are denied a good outcome.

So many lessons to be learned.....

Two young boys stopped by to admire the catch, and to drop off a gift to the woman helping me. The stared with wide eyes at the wolf, as they had never seen one up close before. They asked if they could help Ben. He smiled and passed out the rubber gloves, and then more lessons came. The boys pulled and stretched the wolf and watched as Ben made the cuts, oohing and ahhing the whole time. Once in a while one would yell an observation! so excited that they saw something or learned something new. Ben rarely said much, instead he showed them what he knew, with gestures and demonstrations. I sat and scraped skins and giggled at the comments the boys were making, because they were amazed at everything. Ben would make comment about the wolf, his habits, why he was built the way he was built, and what was the same and different about us and the wolf.

Learning can happen in an instant....and yes you can actually enjoy it and the process....

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shame is a learned attribute....

When I moved to Northern California for college I brought no mementoes of my culture. No pictures, no handmade clothing, I took care to avoid mentioning where I was from. When people assumed I was Asian I was happy to let them think it, because Asians were smart and clean. My dorm room was bare of my cultural past, the village was scrubbed from my skin. For months I got away with it.

Eventually I did have a lichen flavored epiphany, and through a different kind of birth I emerged to love 90% of my being. There were a lot of tears and a lot of pain and for a while I was ashamed not of my heritage but of my denial of my heritage. I will live the rest of my life in finding the fragile forgiveness of my ancestors.

But after a while I began examining where this burning self hate came from. I looked into my past and the influences that made me who I was. I looked at each and every thought and prayer and hope I held next to my heart. The examination took years.

Be careful of the ears that hear your judgements. Be careful that your words or actions do not plant poison in younger minds.

I grew up hearing from people that I spent the most time with everyday tell me that my beloved home and my brown skin were less. That the things I could not change about myself were things to be ashamed of. I don't think they did it on purpose. I instead think they thought thy were imparting us with great guidance and wisdom, hoping that these revelations would dispel laziness and uncaring. A twisted motivator.

I write this not to be vindictive, but I do write to make someone, at least one person I hope, aware. I am angry about my experiences, but that anger is surrounded by tears and pain. I still work to untangle the tangled unmapped threads.

And yes I am talking about teachers. The teachers that work in the villages. I do want to point out that not all teachers are bad or are doing badly. But there were a few in my life that did damage to me and others. They wove cruel words into our daily diet. With statements like "if you do well in this class you can get a good grade, go to college and get out of this place." Or comments about animal smells, dirty environments, or how they REALLY can't wait to leave this dreadful/lonely/isolated/cold/desolate place and go to a REAL place with theaters and bowling alleys and things to do. I grew up hearing these offhand comments. I grew up watching teachers snort at and judge kids that had bad attendance, even though everyone else knew it was because the kid was hunting/camping/fishing/being Inupiaq. They deemed them "behind" and "slow", and so we learned early that being Inupiaq meant that the smartest people in the world thought you were dumb, and they would separate you from the rest of the kids and spend more time with you and speak slowly like you lost some brain cells. Of course we all thought these teachers all knew. And we learned that Most teaches did not enjoy your home. That they thought it was dirty or boring and they all left when they could, running from the village like it was on fire.

It was like someone walked into your house, a house your family has owned for generations, with a degree in Awesome Homes Authority and a clipboard full of official papers. And then they proceeded to write everything they thought was wrong with your house. Not just the broken things or the missing things but the fact they hated your choice in furniture and the curtains were not the right color, and there were not enough rooms or things that they deemed necessary for you to be happy. They wrote it all down, and even thought you did not see the could still hear them and see them.....

I think the easiest way to ear the respect of a village as an out of town teacher is to stay a little bit for the summer, or the winter Christmas celebrations, voluntarily. Though we can't always hope that everyone will absolutely adore our culture and villages, we can at least hope that they don't openly hate them. I still think that they need to offer a "inupiaq Manners" course for new teachers, as with any cultural interactions there are differences in mannerisms and nuances that cause many a issue.

The tragic part is that people think that all of these issues only existed in the past, that no teachers are guilty of any of these things anymore. But it would surprise most to find that it still exists rampantly. There are organizations and people working hard to incorporate and raise Inupiaq knowledge and attributes to the same heights as Western knowledge but it will be a long term battle. As a teacher I was once asked by another teacher how I " can pretend to be so Inupiaq with my education and fit in with them after work."

.....and how many of your children remark that they find the village boring and Native and lame and that they can't wait till they get out of there?.....

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Facebook fan page

I now have a fan page where I will keeping updated with all my 2d and 3d artwork.


Just search for Alaskan Native Artist - NasuÄĦraq Rainey Higbee

Saturday, March 6, 2010


My culture is not a fruit. You cannot preserve it.

Preservation is a word to use when you want to separate something from human contamination. Because you touch, it will die or deteriorate. Culture is only alive when it is rolling in human contamination. In fact you can say that Culture is the beauty and art of human contamination.

My Culture is not a national forrest. You cannot separate it from us and hope it stays alive.

I don't want my culture to be a hallway of objects and handwritten notes encased in glass and monitored temperature and humidity. I don't want my culture to be drawers of unknown and badly documented tapes and videos. I don't want my culture to be faded pictures hastily scanned and stored in huge museum databases. That stuff is for cultures and people have that died a long time ago, all that is left of them is myths and stories and campfire tears.

We have to move away from using words and ideas like "preserving" a culture. Because it implies that it is already dead and gone. That it is no longer viable or useful or needed. That all that is left is the trash and forgotten pieces. By using those type of words we are taking a scalpel and slowly identifying and removing those vitals organs that make a culture survive and live.

By using those words and taking those actions we are denying our culture to those who have inherited it. We are denying them the praise and recognition for their hard work in actually living the culture. Breathing the culture. Rejoicing in it's beauty. We tell them that they could never be a real Inupiaq. A real and breathing Inupiaq. Because the real Inupiaqs are dying off and must be preserved. And once they are gone our culture will not exist. At least that is what we tell our hardworking young people.

Millions of dollars have been spent on "preserving" my culture. On recordings, on photos, on videos people have been scrambling to capture as much as possible. But they spend very little money on actually keeping the culture alive. They spend hours talking with and recording elders, instead of helping young people connect with these same elders and ask questions of these same elders.

In a way we have created the generation gap. The miscommunication. The mistrust. The hesitation. We placed an elder in one room and a young person in another and made it only possible to interact through technology. Through dvd's. Through cd's. We have denied children the experience of learning from the elders as human beings instead of demi-gods. Of learning what respect means. Of learning the why of the knowledge, instead of just the how.

We have forgotten how to teach our young ones how to learn and love and have self esteem. We forgot to teach them that they are important too. That they are the only ones that can breathe Life into the old dusty museum pieces.....