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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Labrador Tea.....

One of my projects this winter will be compiling and organizing information and photos for a 'Anaktuvuk guide to plants' thing I am putting together, which is going to take me years and years but you have to start some where right?  I do it only for my own sanity!  I thought it would be neat to post some info and a couple photos of various plants I am learning about.  This is not going to be gospel people, I am not a scientist or expert on herbal anything and I m not diagnosing a darn thing. Insert your expected disclaimer here.

This post is about Labrador tea, (in Inupiaq it is called tilaaqiaq) one of the most used herbs in the arctic.  My 'arctic tea' journey started with this plant and it is one of my all time favorite plants. Inupiat have used it to treat everything from colds to to lethargy to wounds.  It has a pleasant spicy taste and gives you a bit of a pick me up similar to a caffeine high.   We use it almost everyday in the winter, to fight off colds and warm chilled toes and fingers. It can be picked all year long and I have heard and read of great debate on when the best times to pick it might be, from when it's brown to during flowering to after flowering.  I do know that the flowers contain the highest concentration of ledol, the stimulating substance found in the plant, which is also poisonous in high doses.  Ledol can cause horrible things to happen to you, but from what I can tell all of the information is gathered from cows overgrazing on huge patches of the stuff.  So don't graze on it people!  and don't boil in a covered pot for more than 10 minutes.    Use only a pinch or two per cup, it blends well with modern teas.  It's one of the hardest herbs to pick simply because you cannot just reach down and pull it out, as you tend to take the whole root system and the dirt it was attached to.  I have started to carry a small pair of scissors with me just to clip the tips of Labrador tea plants.  I gather it when they are not in bloom, as I like to let the plants have the opportunity to procreate.  You can also dig through the snow and find the leaves for emergency rations.  Be careful as the more poisonous plant called bog rosemary resembles this herb.  Bog rosemary will not have the intense scent and the underside of the rosemary leaves are smooth and not fuzzy.  I have noticed that the ptarmigan here will eat labrador tea and old berries while they wait for the willow to sprout their tasty buds.  And this gives the ptarmigan a very yummy herby taste, much preferred over the overdose of willow taste they gain in the spring.  It makes an amazing herbal satchet and will release it's scent for a long period of time.  European people used Labrador tea to brew an herbal beer called Gruit.   Northern lore says that it was an herb used to rid an area from ghosts, just twist a stalk of it in the room, and then remove it from the area.  The same procedure was used it a house where a child was sick.

To me this herbs is the herald of the growing season, as the metallic snow smell is replaced by it's heady scent.  It is the temptress of bees and softens every tundra corner with its velvet like covering.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Winter....oh you vain woman you!

She is staring at me from a distance.  The mountains have changed their parkas to what looks like a powdered sugar coating.  The air is sharp and metallic.  The fish have moved on.  The dogs are almost visibly producing a thick undercoat.  Any exposed water gets a thin coat of ice over night.  And we have begun our winter preparations.

This will be a hard winter for us.  The caribou did not migrate South anywhere near here, so meat is going to be an issue, and we are disappointed that we will have to buy almost half our meat this winter in plastic pre frozen blocks of ground beef and chicken breasts.  Luckily my husband did get a little bit of sheep meat and a cousin got a moose, so we will at least have some non-fat laden-high in hormones - and whatever chemicals they vaccinated cows and chickens with - meat.  The fish also were not cooperating with us this year and since I had surgery I could not go ice fishing in the early spring.  Our freezers are the emptiest they have ever been and it feels like we are ...Inupiaq lean.....not really poor....but close.  We have traded berries for seal oil and meat, and a few huge chunks of whale meat, which will pad our larders well.

Luckily my brother has moved to the nearest city and will be shipping us veggies and fruits and whatnot through the winter, which will at least provide a variety of goodies.

But I am finding more time indoors, to do things that were abandoned in the late winter.  I can blog again,  bead again, write again, philosophize again, and work on skins as I repair our cold weather gear.  But first we work to  prepare for winter.  Today we will make sure there is nothing in the yard that is important and that will get buried in the snow, and we will also dig out the stuff for winter and trapping and order straw for the dogs, and a million other tiny thins that will need to be done before we succumb to Winter.

I also decided to experiment with the blog....and add some video.

They won't be much more than tiny (and probably way too artistic)  peeks into my random life but it looks like it will be fun!

Lingonberry Mustard.  More info CLICK HERE

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


There is a little known and very little discussed phenomenon that occurs on the North Slope.  And I'm sure that it occurs in every other native territory in Alaska, wether it be Athabascan or Yupik or Tsimshian.  Some people just label it as politics, owning it up to 'normal' infighting.  Outsiders see it and are confused and become wary.  Children absorb the conflict like the sponges they are and reflect it back onto their world.  Parents unwittingly reinforce it, and village political figures fight for hours nit-picking over it's bones like angry ravens.  I've been in meetings where whole hours were spent elaborating on this bottomless pit...and I wonder why it has become so .....normal.....and why no one moves to eliminate this social roadblock....

I guess it started when the villages arose and the Inupiaq adapted once again to the changing times.  They became Villagers and hung up their dusty nomadic gear to be able to offer more to their children and grandchildren.  It took bravery and faith and ultimate understanding and sacrifice to grow roots and to change their way of life forever.  With the raising of the modern Native Village they closed a chapter of life and opened up a new chapter.... entitled 'Square buildings and schools and the Post office.'  These villages became a base to fight from and for, a platform to launch the Shield that would protect our way of life and lands.

But some where along the way the Inupiaq mind was twisted.  A small but far reaching hand.  Through the trials of history the native identity was questioned and condemned, numbers fell from disease and chemicals.  The Inupiaq Mind struggled to stay afloat in the sea of the lost and forgotten.  And a small spark of hope emerged, and the people began to find Pride and safety in themselves once again.

But somewhere along the way this Pride become not something to find comfort in, to hang onto to fill the emptiness in the soul, it grew edges and a killing point and became a weapon. A small weapon to hurt others and to feed with anger and ignorance.

I remember reading transcripts from long lost elders, even some that were my family, my ila, and the one aspect I remember reading a lot of was their travels.  They would move from place to place, be adopted by a family, learn amazing and new things, build relationships and bonds, and travel again to other different Inupiaq lands.  They never spoke of how one place was less than or more than another.  Instead they spoke of what things were seen there, what things they did there, and about the uniqueness about that place.   Though they talked about where they grew up and where their travels began, they saw themselves first and foremost as ....Inupiaq.

I haven't done as much traveling as my ancestors have, but I was lucky enough to have lived and explored three Inupiaq villages.  And I can tell you how amazing each one is, how each one has expanded my Inupiaq World veiw, how each one has fed my Inupiaq soul, and how each one contained something impossibly amazing and unique.  And I wish everyday that all Inupiat could see what each village could offer.

Some people look to my village jumping and learning as betrayal of each of those villages.  But I always tell them 'I'm old school Inupiaq' and I smile and nod a bit.  Because it seems that our amazing new generation has forgotten our nomadic roots.  They have forgotten that the villages were loaned to us by the US government.  They have forgotten the joy of exploration and learning new things from different people.

And it makes me incredibly sad to see how people fight about how no respect is shown to the differences of the villages.  The tiny differences.  They fight over them like that is all they are in this world.  Differences.  And they become blind to the thread of Sameness, even though it's stronger and older ,it's never as flashy and sexy as Differences.  It's almost like they are only proud of how separate they are from everyone else, that the separateness is the only identity they have.  And this is not a good place to live, a lonely and scary place to live.

When I was teaching both children and adults I saw this sharpened weapon being used to hurt each other.   Children teased and bullied and threw rocks at kids who might have one parent from another village.  They came up with horrible nicknames for each other, became angry at other villages for their differences.  Some people would label it as 'kids being kids', but it was obvious that it was kids borrowing this weapon from their adults.  Adults should never arm heir children with such weapons in my opinion.

My adult students, who would normally be from several villages, would speak of their home with faces twisted with defensive pride and in the same breath condemn other village for their differences.  In most cases they were blinded to what each could offer and benefit.  And so in the end they rejected learning, they rejected even the possibility of learning.

As my life has progressed my attitude and opinions have changed dramatically on this topic, and it has only recently came to a few questions.  

What will we gain from worshipping our differences as a weapon?  When did Pride include hate and anger and pain?  Did we learn that, or did we create that?  And why do we accept this behavior as normal?

I type this knowing that even now some people will only actually see some of my words, and not all of them, that they will only know how to wield the weapon and not to remember our incredible roots go father than the villages.  Across continents even.  Across imaginary made up borders.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The language.....

Saving the language....

When I hear that term I always picture our language as a small frightened puppy floating on a piece of battered wood slowly drifting away on a vast ocean, and we only have one rope and are desperately trying to hook that board! Yes I know I have the greatest imagination ever, but besides that.....I always wonder why they refer to it as 'saving' the language. Maybe it refers to how digital our language has become, how it has found a home on huge hard drives, the modern version of a museum.

One of the problems I see is that everyone has vastly different views on exactly what they are saving. Some see it as a preservation of just the words themselves. Lists of letters and descriptions and definitions. They move to create a living dictionary out of us, praising recitation and memorization. Brown skin robots trained to make more of themselves.

Or maybe they are of the group that insists that it is spoken correctly and traditionally. They pound and glare our pronunciation into perfection (for that region and family), making us recite the sentence over and over and over until it loses actual meaning and just becomes a spot of shame on our shameful lives, because we will never live the life or understand fully our great grandfathers and mothers.

What boggles me is that no one has ever sat down to prioritize what was the most important aspect of our language. And yes there are aspects of language. Should we focus on saving words that will never be used again? Should we focus on teaching what I call 'classroom' language, full of memorizing and reciting? Should we focus on social language first? Should we try and erase or use Inupiat Slang? Or should we focus on language structure first? What path should we take?

Like the Old time Inupiat I am from three different villages here on the Slope. Like my great grandfather and my great grandmother I was lucky enough to be adopted into several villages, lucky enough to learn different Inupiat things from different types of Inupiat three different dialects. And what I found was that the absolute best teachers of the language were the very sneaky ones. And when I say the 'best' I mean it in that instead of teaching me a word or a phrase or the structure of that word and phrase, they instead completely and utterly change my world view of that particular action or object. They made it so that when I look at that object or when I think of that action....I only think of it in the Inupiaq language. And they usually did it without me even knowing about it. Without fanfare or preparation or buildup. Without stress or testing or frowning correction. It feels as if they were learning with me, experiencing the newness with me, laughing at the mistakes with me. When they don't know a word, they drag me along to find out what that word is. And not once do I feel like I was wrong or that I was learning.

I am very proud of myself for learning the little I am learning. When I use the word or phrase correct, the Speakers around me never stare or guffaw or pat me on the back loudly or pin a prize onto my chest. They instead listen to the sentence I was actually saying, and the fact that I said it or part of it in Inupiaq they accept as normal. And I feel like it's normal. A normal and permanent part of what makes me

But how do you bottle that and sell it?

In truth no matter what we do our language will 'survive'. It is forever digitally crystallized. Safe from ever being really and actually lost. But so is Latin.

One day I will dream in the Inupiaq language. I will write poetry with brilliant twists of phrase in Inupiaq. One day I will be teaching the little words I know to a child that is struggling with their own Identity, and I really hope I remember how painful it could be, and how amazing it is to become a Keeper-of-Small-and-Fantastic-Inupiaq-Things.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


For those of you looking for a way to help out the community of the North Slope and it's wonderful residents:

They are fairly new but they are very much needed and appreciated. We hope to apply for equipment to take kids out with the elders like they did in the old days. And we are hoping for equipment to take kids fishing in the summer and spring camping with the elders.

There is so much hope placed at this place!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Good person....

What makes a 'Good' person 'Good'?

How can you tell they are good? What do they do to earn that title? How WELL do you have to know them?

This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. It's a question that has been hovering over my head like a flaky butterfly hovers over a virgin flower.

Some things everyone can agree are characteristics of a good person. Some things are obvious symbols of bad people. Like physically hurting another person, abusive drug use, robbery.....basically anything that are standard human no-no's. But what characteristics are culturally defined? What actions conflict and are permanent residents of the gray area?

I remember a conversation with a friend that was having problems with a native worker. This man would, in what seemed a random pattern, leave his job for days and sometimes weeks at a time. It was frustrating for his supervisor as the job was a job that had an end and a beginning and a goal. And the delays were not really planned for. I ask what the worker was doing and was told it was 'hunting.' I have heard this comment time and time again, but what came next startled me. This person added another comment offhandedly ...'a Good person would work this job to put food on the table for their kids.' Of course I said...'They are putting food on the table for their kids.' We blinked at each other for a bit. And like any other awkward moment requires, we moved on to the next topic of conversation.

When I was a student teacher one of my instructors pulled me aside for another awkward conversation. Like any other college student I never really paid much attention to how I was dressed. Or wether my hair was perfectly coifed. I never wore makeup or made sure my socks matched. I showered everyday, brushed my teeth (the worst teacher is the one with bad breath), and combed my hair and pulled it back out of my face. All of my clothes were clean if a bit worn out, but I was living on a credit card/loan budget and never gave it much thought. Her face was flushed a delicate pink so I knew this conversation was uncomfortable for her. I schooled my face into a mask that said 'I promise I won't hurt you if you insult me, I am your friend.' She cleared her throat and in a very straight forward and friendly manner told me to buy more 'teacher oriented' clothing. She described it as clothing that would inspire 'trust.' And that would tell everyone that I am an authoritative figure. After the weird moment I decided to make a joke to defuse the tension and said something about not ever having to worry about clothing when I started teaching in the villages. I smiled a big smile and she stared at me with something akin to terror. She replied, 'when you are teaching in the village it will be even more important to dress well and to present yourself apart. How else will they know you are a teacher and someone they have to listen to?" I thought about the women in my life that were authoritative figures. The elder that taught us dancing and stories...She wore a worn out oil stained jacket with hair that looked like an electrified lint ball. One of my 'Aunts' that taught me how to cook any meal that was palatable, her hair was always neat but she wore t-shirts and jeans just like me. I answered her seriously in a tiny voice, 'Because everyone knows me.' We blinked at each other and at the vibrating gulf between our two cultures.

There are many many more anecdotes that illustrate the cultural differences between how one judges a good person, a trustworthy person, a dependable person, a responsible person. I think that the biggest difference, and this is just my opinion, is mainly in how we interact with each other in a society.

In the 'Lower 48' I was both appalled and amazed by how separate everyone was from each other. No need to be nice and decent, there is a good chance you won't see that person again for the rest of your life. Being patient with each other seemed to be a matter of choice. Power of the individual was worshipped, encouraged. Celebrity came with gobs of money. A successful person was judged on how much stuff and paper certificates was amassed. A Good Trustable person could be, in most cases, immediately identified by the clothes they wore, their hair and the shoes they wore. You could walk past a homeless elder on the street and sneer at her, even say mean words, and no one would judge you a bad person because in most cases they would never know. It is easy to do such things in a world filled with thousands...millions....of strangers.

In the village you know everyone, and everyone knows you. You know their secrets and their deeds of kindness. You know wether they are kind to the elder that needed help walking on slippery ice. You know every mean word that they ever said. You know the bad as well as the good. You always act as politely as you can, because you know you will have to deal with this person for the rest of your life, wether you like them or not. You know, after years of interaction and observing a persons actions wether they are good or not, wether you can trust them for certain things, wether or not this person speaks with authority and knowledge. We see each other as permanent beings in our life, and the job and the money and the physical objects as fleeting insubstantial things. A very different view. A different set of scales.

This difference causes much strife and heartache in our changing world. It makes the father hunting caribou in the fall doubt wether he is a good person, it makes the supervisor wonder why he is having trouble getting through to his worker, it makes the teacher wonder wether or not her authority lies only in the costume she wears, it created frustration in the simplest of jobs and friction in relationships. These are things never talked about because each side assumes that what they see as normal and acceptable symbols of the world...everyone knows about them......

So how do you judge a good person? How well do you need to actually know them? And how do you use the answers to those questions to benefit?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

On The Ice....

The first time I saw this film it left me with a very complex feeling. I was fascinated. I was excited. I felt a tad of trepidation. It left me a bit uncomfortable in that way that sriracha hot sauce will if you add too much. But it left me wanting to see more of it's kind. It also left me a bit sad because there is a huge risk that it will only a tiny spark in a mass of gray...without becoming a burning torch like it needs to be. And I think that is what makes or breaks a film. When I think back to it I don't necessarily remember details...but I remember the emotions it stirred in me. Beautiful emotions....

I really hope everyone gets to view this film! A wonderful span of time mastered by a Inupiaq Native filmmaker.

They are currently are looking for donations and/or pre-purchases.....

More info: ON THE ICE