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Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Just finished the boots that my husband to be will be wearing at the wedding.

Not bad for my first pair! Thought I would share the finished product.

They are made from caribou leg skins, black and white calf skin, red deer leather, and native tanned moose hide.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


I do not exist.

Well kind of.

To be exact, my "job" does not exist in my culture. What is my job? Why I am an artist of course. I take the "leftovers" of the animals we harvest and eat and make them into pretty things. I draw and paint and create. Things. Things to hang on your wall, things to wear on your wrist, things to give to other people so that they can appreciate handmade beauty. What I make are considered to be luxury items. Items not needed for survival (I can however debate that point). They simply exist to create feeling and mental reactions.

And in my culture we have no artists. In fact there is no Inupiaq word to even describe someone like me. The closest word that exist translates as "someone who makes things."

I'm not saying we don't exist now and that handmade beauty never existed in my culture, but I am saying that the "position" of artist has never existed till now. And of course this creates some problems for me and others like me.

For one thing all of the decoration that existed in my culture existed for a reason. The intricate graphic trim on clothing told of where someone was from and how many people they supported. The labrets on a man's chin explained his social standing. The markings carved into arrows were owners markings. There are very few examples of purely decorative beauty in my culture. In fact the only real expression of an artistic soul was closely tied to the old religion, with shaman's masks and body adornments. With carvings of animals born to lure or control our food source. So when the missionaries came they tied all of these things to the old religion. And of course this meant that they were forbidden. They even banned dancing as they did not understand why it made us happy. There was a great and dark hollow in our timeline where we were nervous about displaying our Inupiaq roots in artistic expression, afraid that it would be tied to something dark and feared.

Even still I am nervous. I have many images that could be tied to shamanism in my gallery. And I have suffered many words of abuse because of them. I have felt the warmth on my face when an elder shames me for even thinking of these things. I even had someone ask me if all elders hate me because of my work. It's a weird world in which I have to explain what "art" is, that it is not worship of any deity, of any religion, or any anti-religion. I explain in quiet words that I just think it is beautiful, and that these things bring me pride in my culture and my heritage. Not all elders are unsure of me though. Some find some pride in my work, or they work to understand the meaning behind them. But still. But still sometimes I hesitate to put an image to paper.

Another thing I see happening is the tendency to label artists. We are a money wanting gang to be sure, I make a living making art but it takes a massive amount of work on my part. We are often labeled as "braggers" or "pushy." Promoting your wares is not a natural Inupiaq ability or characteristic. It does not come natural or feel natural. We are raised to be quiet and humble, so the act of openly promoting our work and openly "pimping" ourselves is sometimes not seen as a friendly act. For as many times I have been told that I am talented and that my artwork is loved, I am also put down for my actions or inactions to include others in my promotions.

Artwork to me is the expression of my soul. And I happen to have a soul that needs a lot of expressing. It took me years to be comfortable with showing people my drawings. Years to not flinch when someone called me an artist, because in my mind it was a foreign word, a foreign position that did not belong in my culture. Years to be okay with writing my thoughts and letting someone else read them. Years.

My one and only wish - and I type this in all seriousness - is that I will bring pride to our artwork and artists. That if a Inupiaq child wishes to become an artist they will be able to do so, and to make a living doing it. I have been working with other artists to create a non-profit organization that will bring a name to our "job". But it will take many years. Many more years.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


I don't know if I mentioned this....but I am getting married on June 1st.

This marriage thing is all new to us. Which I imagine is normal for at least most engaged couples. I found that not only is it new to us, but it also presents some odd dilemmas. Or choices. Or some other word that combines Odd/dilemma/choice.

The first issue was where. Where are we getting married? I am from Point Hope, a small coastal village and Ben is from here, Anaktuvuk Pass, the smaller village in the mountains. I remember hearing from elders that coastal and mountain people should never marry, as it creates too many problems. But I reassured them that no inter-clan wars would arise, that we had planes and the internet to keep our ties strong. We decided to have the wedding in Anaktuvuk Pass. Mainly because I love it here so much, the people and beauty of the place are both very large gifts to this world. What I found was that when I told this to my family they heard "I love it here so much, and it's better than home." Which of course began a very uncomfortable conversation about how it's not better than where I am from, but instead ...well... just different. I usually start the conversation by reminding them that Inupiat are nomadic. That somehow and somewhere along the way we forgot about that tiny tidbit of genetic coding. And we also forgot that we are all Inupiaq, regardless of what village we are from. It seems that some western territorial mindset has taken root in our hearts, and bad feelings and competition was born between the different villages.

We choose to just ignore this odd facet of modern Inupiat life when planning our wedding. It's all good when you are proud of your heritage, but I think it's bad if you take that pride and use it to feel above or be better than others; Pride is not a weapon or whip. Humility is one of our cultures most debatable, and worthwhile, characteristics as it has changed and morphed, and in most cases is hard to find evidence of. But we try.

So once that was settled we then decided to have the wedding outside of the church. Or as I put it, "In God's bigger church." We always imagined our wedding being outside in the tundra. Just two Native people being bound in the place that we love and enjoy the most. Our life revolves around the tundra and it's inhabitants, so we felt that this made sense. Of course this brought about even more uncomfortable questions about why we were being "anti-Christian." Some people just laughed out right in our faces, finding it ridiculous that a good native person would be married outside of a church. I assured them that we would have our hand picked and loved Presbyterian priest there to ensure that we were right in God's eyes. (but I did not mention of course that I was raised Episcopalian as this would no doubt cause more arguments and mini-inner-wars.) I also found it interesting that when non-native people announced that their wedding was to be out of doors people oooed and ahhed and used words like "quaint" and "intimate", but when these same people hear that our wedding was outside they laughed or thought we were joking. It's an odd standard, and worth more than a paragraph in my blog I'm sure.

Once all of those little fires were extinguished, we started in on the little details. We decided to wear semi-traditional Inupiaq formal wear. Aka fancy atigi's (hooded tunics with decoration at cuffs, hem, and sleeve), caribou and wolf skin boots, and very little jewelry. I could not imagine myself wearing a bead and lace encrusted white gown. They never really seemed that beautiful to me, with their bulk and impossibly white facade. They seem so foreign and out of place when native women wear them. Also as a young girl when I thought of my wedding I never thought of the dress I was wearing, instead I used my imagination to dream up a man; he was always smiling and happy and tall. I guess this was mostly the way I was brought up, despite my father insisting I was going to be a nun. Our rings are hand crafted titanium bands. Cheap and durable. Which also brought about interesting comments from non-native friends. They found it odd that we did not hold a huge emotional attachment to our rings, we planned on cheap easily replaceable rings just in case we lost a few and had to buy some more. I always thought wedding bands weren't for the people married, but were instead for everyone else. A signal saying "taken, don't hit on me." And with the type of life we live we would be idiots to but expensive rings with diamonds and insurance plans. More than likely at least one set will be lost to the tundra.

At this moment I am working hard at trying to get our wedding attire sewn and finished, but I am also stressing on the gifts we will be getting for guests , special guests and Elders. Another odd thing about Inupiaq society is that when there is a special occasion the people celebrating it give gifts away. The gifts are meant for trade, if you receive it you must give something in return. In our case it would be that we ask for the Elders and guests to bless our marriage. To give us good juju. To say a prayer. To have hope for our future.

I'm also trying to mix Inupiaq lore with modern occasion. I found online a company that create tiny bird seed cakes in the shape of hearts. It is generally believed that songbirds bring with them good luck, and I hope to entice them to our wedding by giving away bird food to all of the guests. I'm also making packages of special gifts for Elders, which will be given out during the wedding which will include gifts that are very carefully picked out.

All in all there is not too much stress involved in the wedding, despite the decisions to be made. (of course I say this now, 50 days away from the wedding) I will make salmonberry cake, caribou soup, and sheep soup for the reception. Ben and his cousins will roast caribou ribs and fish over willow fires, and I have made sure guests will bring other food to share. It will be a time to visit and laugh and eat good food. I half jokingly refer to our wedding as "5 minute ceremony with 4 hours of eating afterwards." Very Inupiaq.

So if I dissapear for more than what seems normal I apologize! I am most likely swearing at needles and piles of fur, and wondering how I will house all of the guests!

Happy spring to you all.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

More Jobs.

More Jobs in the villages.

I begin this conversation hoping to stay a bit away from the political arenas....

I hear this a lot. Especially with Obama's decision concerning the Northern Seas. People want more jobs and they see the oil industry as a way to gain more job opportunities. They are willing to do anything for a job. A good paying stable job. Willing to risk natural resources, willing to risk the health of our greatest and healthiest food source. Some people are very verbal about how important these jobs are. Words filled with emotion spill from their mouths, in a weird mix of anger and helplessness. I can understand how hard it is to watch a loved one suffer because they have no job, watch their self esteem wither and then watch as job holding members of the family struggle to help them as much as possible. I know how many times a week someone calls to borrow money or gas or help. Jobs are important to this modern Inupiaq society, this is something that is accepted. But what does that mean?

I have a few thoughts though on this dilemma. And I have a feeling people are not seeing the issue at it's roots, and instead are concentrating on the very bright and fluffy plant above ground. Since it is very bright and fluffy.

First I wonder how many jobs did the oil industry already create on the North Slope? How many of our villagers benefit from their business? How many people young strong people hold permanent healthy happy jobs to support their families? Are these jobs in the villages? I do know a few people. Granted my sampling of the population is probably not the best sample, they are all around my age, with families. But I do know from talking with them that they are not happy. They leave the village and work for a few weeks, then come back to the village for a few weeks. They travel alot. They know everything about phone plans. They miss their youngest child's first steps. They look tired and haggard, and many find too much solace in drinking in the cities. It's not a life built for Inupiaq people, with Inupiaq souls. I know surprisingly few of these Inu-work-nomads. Less than I would think I would know if there were hundreds employed on the Oil Rez. And I am talking about the permanent jobs, with benefits and solid pay. The ones that last for infinite years and not short 2 month -2 years surveys or environmental studies. How many jobs at the Prudhoe Bay are held by North Slope residents permanently? How many of these jobs, if any, are actually in the villages themselves?

Second I wonder how many jobs in the villages are there? I always find it interesting that when people talk about needing jobs in the villages they seem to focus only on certain types of jobs. Such as physical labor intensive or temporary jobs. Why is it that as a people we automatically reduce our worth in the job market? Who decided to place a limit on what we are capable of? Why is it that we are blind to the jobs like teaching and management? Why can't we be the lawyer that comes to the village once a month and gets $24,000 for three days of paperwork? Or the vet tech? or the Computer guy? I always found it an odd and debilitating characteristic that Inupiaqs do not imagine themselves as being confident and capable and educated. I could imagine that if each village had two lawyers they would both be employed for the rest of their lives, and not only that but be a great asset to the community. And if you are in the field of accounting beware, you will be wooed and plied with massive amounts of money, especially if you live in a village.

Third I wonder what might be the real issue that is keeping villagers from getting jobs. I have a sneaking suspicion it has to do with education. With training. With qualifications. With thick white paper with golden seals stamped on them. And has nothing to do with the availability of the jobs.

I know you guys have heard me talk about education before, about how it's like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. But let's say that there are people in the villages that honestly want a job, and are willing to do pretty much anything to obtain it. Are willing to possibly risk their heritage for it. What is stopping them from picking a job in the village, that is not held by a villager already, and sacrificing two years time to gain that job?

I have a degree in Studio Art, a half degree in Marine Biology, and a half Masters in Education. I was not a perfect student. I found early on that my education would be based on enjoyability and availability, which oddly enough included a massive amount of courses in tai chi and philosophy, and I got kicked out of college after my first year for bad attendance and thus failing grades. My record is peppered with F's and D's. In the Lower 48 I'm not very valuable as a future employee. I could probably get my old job at a vet hospital cleaning out dog poo if I really needed it. But here in rural Alaska on the North Slope I am GOLD.

Why? Because .....eventually....I did finish college and got a degree. I got my act together and got my GPA up. I worked my butt off and found ways to be good at stuff. College is very good for a few things: it teaches you about self motivation and commitment to a task for a set period of time, It fills your head with basic knowledge and skills like computer skills/english/math/ and making strangers understand your ideas just by you talking, it teaches you how to be self reliant if need be with research skills and confidence. I can't remember half ...or even a quarter...of what I learned in college, but I do contain pathways and basics. And this is what people see and hear when I tell them I have a degree. I have been offered as many jobs in as many villages as you can imagine, everything from political seats to secretaries, to managers, to grant organizers. Many of those jobs I do not have ANY experience in, but they know that because I hold a degree I would at least know where to start, that the process of education has wrought in me the western abilities needed to deal with the western tasks.

Add to this issue the heartbreaking numbers of village kids graduating from high school on the North Slope, something like 50% a year, and the numbers of people capable of qualifying for jobs is cut even further. Pushing them further and further away from future employment. How many jobs do you know do not require a high school degree at the very least?

So if people are willing to risk so much for jobs, why aren't they willing to take a few years to get a degree and secure a good stable job? What is really going on? And what has been sacrificed in this dilemma, and what WILL be sacrificed in the future?

I do commend the efforts of a few organizations and individuals that are valiantly trying to battle this dark and mostly invisible beast. But they do so with very little financial support and they also fight daily for every single step they take in the right direction. And most times they do not have the support of the People. But in their eyes I see hope. Hope fueled by a pride in their heritage and belief in the abilities of our People. Which I think in the end, is what is missing in the development plans of the 23 oil companies sitting on the North Slope. They do not see an Inupiaq child and plan on how they will keep him employed and happy and healthy for 50 years.