Wangkuta Aulukestet – We the Caretakers

“Cat aulukekuvki, tamakut cat aulukciqaatgen.”

“If you take care of things, those things will take care of you.”

Those words were said by my grandfather, or at least something close to them. He spoke almost no English, other than a few words and understood enough to watch Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. His tongue spoke a coastal dialect of Central Yup’ik, and chose not to enroll in school, something he later regretted. His reasoning was that he saw that things were changing, but he was too late to take care of himself to change along with it.

At the time, I was too young and innocent to carry the weight of such words. All I wanted to do was to play Super Mario 64, rather than watch Mr. Roger’s. My grandmother always wisely insisted patience on my part while her husband finished his beloved show before I started playing.

Even before I was born, my grandfather lived in the greatest time of change in our area. The Yupiit went from semi-nomadic people that lived in seasonal camps, to the boarding school era and permanent homes, to the modern day of television and instant news. These changes occurred in less than a human lifetime, a blink of an eye even in anthropological terms. The biggest of these was hidden by the onslaught of Western pedagogy in the schools and Western hegemonies in the church and everywhere else. The greatest change was that off loss.

The seeds of this loss were planted  centuries ago by the human need to explore. The byproduct of the “Age of Exploration” was the decimation of indigenous populations who, for the most part, did not reside in Europe and Asia. The atrocities committed by these “explorers” is too long to be gathered and too gory to be described in words. The institution of decimation was thus created and cared for by those who exploited, and that same institution ensured those who benefitted, continued to benefit.

When the explorers met the Yupiit, they found a hardy people living off what they saw as a land of few resources. The rarity of prestigious fur bearing animals, fine lumber, and whales led them to other areas. They did not move on quietly, although. Numerous epidemics scoured through the land from the lack of immunity to Western pathogens. Missionaries who had recently arrived saw this as an opportunity to convert traumatized survivors. Many claimed that if those infected believed in their version of God, they would have been spared. Orphans were common, and fatalistic behaviors were the new norm. Knowledge was lost as those who died had no opportunity to pass it on.

My grandfather was born not long after this time, in the 1920s. The Great Depression came and went, not affecting an economy where money does not exist. He was a part of the Alaska Territorial Guard during World War II, and watched humans land on the moon. The JFK assassination, Cold War, Alaska becoming a state, invention of the internet and color television all happened in his lifetime. He also saw our relationship with the world through our culture be turned upside down.

In the fifty years following the Second World War up until the new millennium, alcoholism became a serious issue, with deaths related to alcohol followed soon after. Language and dance became taboo. Parents feared to speak their heritage language to their children for fear of it holding them back in school. These problems were only exacerbated by the inter-generational trauma that still remains to this day. Skin kayaks turned into wooden boats, which transformed  into aluminum. Bows became rifles. The techniques for making both have been more or less forgotten, with the exception of a few individuals. Myths and legends were forgotten.

Despite all of the loss, the culture survived by adapting, as the people who constitute it have adapted to the unforgiving Arctic.

My grandfather was a carrier and a passenger of the Yup’ik culture. A complex machine that has been built and maintained by those who lived through thousands of years of arctic storms and miles of tundra. It shaped him as much as he helped shape the next two generations. He kept to the customs of hunting and gathering, and taught his children to do the same. He spoke at the school to teach children about the ocean currents and valleys around the island. He wanted the culture that had given him so much to be able to keep on giving.

He passed away going to a dance festival after the turn of the millennium.

My grandfather taught my mother, and, in turn, my mother taught me. Of course, my grandfather’s parents taught him, and their parents taught them, and so on, through an unbroken lineage of life stretching billions of years in the past. What does that lineage have to say?

If you take care of things, those same things will take care of you.

Clean your guns and fishing gear, otherwise you will not be able to feed yourself. Change the oil to your car, otherwise it could malfunction, and you’ll have no car to go to your job and lose income. Communicate with your husband or wife, or else the relationship will degrade, and the happiness will disappear. Eat good food, and you’ll feel more content. Vote, so your voice can be heard.

Those things that you take care of, from your subsistence equipment, to everyday machinery, to the relationship you have with others, to yourself, and to the world around you, they also return the favor. Far too often, we see things as one sided when they are under our care. We take for granted the gifts return.

We also often forget that the society that we live in needs care. The journey from the traditional heritage culture to now has not been easy. Many people still live without clean running water, a “basic necessity” from a Western standard. More importantly, indigenous populations are overrepresented in prison and undervoiced in government affairs. Sexual assault and suicide rates are higher than the national average.

How do we fix this complex machine called society so that it is more inclusive? We take care of it.

But how? These are not easy questions. Some view that it needs to be razed and rebuilt. Others think it should be retooled. Neither is wrong, but neither is quite right either. It exists in a moral limbo, and that will likely always be the case. But progress can be made. We take care of the relationships we have. After all, society is a conglomerate of relationships. Respect, patience, and honesty. None of those are easy, especially when many stand on different ideological countries.

We are still learning how to take care of ourselves and the world around us. It has started to give back to us. Alaska Federation of Natives, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and this very blog are examples of it. We still have a long way to go, but we will still be stewards of things, and those things will steward us.

Categories: Lifestyle, Traditional Practices

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