Wednesday, December 7, 2016

One Name - Two Stories / One Place - Two Names

One Name - Two Stories

I was welcomed into this world with the story of my birth and my naming. This act is performed in countries all over the world. We name what is born of us or before us. The naming of both people and places provides insight into the cultural and social values attributed by the naming parties to the named. 

My first and middle names are Susan Yvonne. I was given the name Susan because my paternal grandmother had planned on naming her daughter that, but her children were both boys. She asked my parents if they would name their second child Susan, if it was a girl. I was and I carry a name that was held onto for decades until it could finally be given.

My middle name, Yvonne, was given to me by my mother when she initially saw my newborn face. She had decided on another name, never told to me, but changed it to Yvonne as she said I looked like “a beatnik poet.” My mother was quite taken by the beatnik culture and wrapped the love of poetry around me as one wraps a newborn in a blanket.

Beatnik or Beat Girl

Ok...I believed the above about my middle name being chosen by my mother for 46 years and then someone declared it all untrue. I was telling the beatnik-naming story to a cousin at the annual Dyer family's fourth of July picnic when my father suddenly said to me, "All of what you just said is false. Your mother didn't give you your middle name. I did. I named you after the actress Yvonne DeCarlos. You know, the mother on that TV show called the Munsters. I picked that name because she was hot! That is all there is to it! No beatniks, just a hot actress."

Yvonne DeCarlos - Munster's Matriarch

I felt like my Dad had just casually changed not only how I was named, but my name itself - the meaning of it was so altered and after so many decades. I felt like part of my identity shifted. I liked my mother's story much more than my father's. I didn't want to be named after the Munsters' mom, nor someone that my father thought was "hot." I attempted to question his declaration. Was he instead referring to one of my two sisters and their middle name, not mine? His only answers was, "Goggle DeCarlos!"

How I gained my name was changed and the narrative written for it was erased and replaced; well, maybe. I might vote in favor of my mother's story as it is more mine now than hers or his. I want to be the beat girl I have always been!

One Place - Two Names

Here in Barrow, Alaska, where I currently live, the name of the city that I just typed has been removed and the original name has been reinstated. It is now Utqiagvik, which in Inupiaq refers to a place to gather wild roots. Barrow was the given English name.

All of the city's letterhead, as well as the school district's, is being reprinted. Building names, road signs and maps will be changed, too. The cultural / political / social history of Utqiagvik is on view for all of the world to witness as news stations around the globe report and comment on the story.

Why that change was advocated for is part of the reclamation movement of many of the Inupiaq people here and of other indigenous people across the globe. It is much more than “political correctness." It is taking ownership back over what was taken and occupied by others. Part of that reclamation is the removal of names given by outsiders and the hidden or obvious negative implications that were encoded into them.

Also, and of great significance, it recognizes the pre-colonized or, as local archeologists put it, pre-contact name of this place at the top of the world. The Alaska Dispatch News reported:

"'The authors [of the ordinance] also acknowledged that Inupiaq is the 'original, ancestral language of this area and our people' and that returning [the town name] to Utgiagvik would 'promote pride in identity' and would 'perpetuate healing and growth from the assimilation and oppression from the colonists.'''

The city's Mayor, Bob Harcharek, stated after the name change was approved by voters, "It reclaims our beautiful Inupiaq language."

I still call this place Barrow on occasion as I am getting use to pronouncing the other. What curves me towards Utqiagvik is hearing the elders speak it. I hear their voices wrap around the letters in the name and, with a quick snap of a sound, they say it and claim it. Too, there is always this flash of a smile when they do. It's their's again and they know it.

See the following link for more information regarding the city's name change and to hear the name Utqiagvik pronounced: Barrow, Alaska, Changes Its Name Back To Its Original 'Utqiagvik'

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Part 1: Eating, Naming and Becoming - Part 2: Canary of the Sea

Part 1: Eating, Naming and Becoming 

You learn much about eating when you live in very isolated or remote places in Alaska. Grocery store prices are triple what you would pay in the lower 48. Selections fluctuate depending on weather and access to cargo. I had my initial experiences with Alaska-bush-food-shopping in Metlakatla. During the winter months of 2016, their ferry was down due to needed repairs. Float planes were often grounded because of harsh winter winds. In January, I remember walking into the only grocery store on the island and seeing empty dairy cases, food shelves and produce aisles. I had stocked my pantry with spaghetti and sauce, peanut butter, tuna fish and canned soup just in case such a situation occurred, yet I still felt utterly unprepared. That is when I started truly thinking about how I was going to sustain the quality of life I wanted while residing and working in the Alaska bush.

While living in Met, I was fortunate enough to be friended by a local woman named Ann Clark. She introduced me to subsistence; living off the land. Together, we harvested abalone, seaweed, beach asparagus, thimbleberries and more. We brought back to her house what we had gathered and then she showed me, step by step, how to clean and cook it. Her abalone chowder made with coconut flour was the best I have ever had and I lived in Boston, a city famous for its chowder, for more than a decade.

 Ann's abalone chowder.

I learned from her not to depend on grocery store shelves as I couldn't rely on them. Too, the food I did find there was either older than the expiration date or more expensive than the gas to drive to the beach where a plentiful amount of food was waiting for me.

Part 2: Canary of the Sea

Sitting at my kitchen counter here in Barrow, I can see a dozen or more abalone shells, harvested from one of Ann and my outings, in a bowl above my refrigerator. They remind me of what Ann taught me and what the locals here have already begun to share. I wrote in an earlier post that I have now eaten boiled muktuk (whale (agvig) meat) called uunaalik in Inupiaq, pickled uunaalik and bearded seal. I didn't participate in harvesting those foods, instead they were shared with me at community dinners and events. Yesterday, while attending the first session of a science college course offered at the elementary school I work at, I added another name to that list - sisuag (Inupiaq) or beluga whale, the Canary of the Sea.

Excerpt from my diary:                                                                                
Dec 3, 2016

Breakfast - stir-fried beluga, called
sisuag in Inupiaq, and donuts.

Eating beluga or sisuag and donuts; this is truly a North Slope breakfast! The sisuag is dark brown - I have never seen it cooked before. This offering was stir-fried with onions. I asked the lecturing scientist who brought it what it tasted like and she said, "Steak; good steak." I haven't eaten red meat in decades, but I do remember what steak tastes like. I decided to try some and to cross over that threshold from a vegetarian who eats fish to...well, a meat eating woman. I told myself and the scientist that I can accept eating locally harvested meat, but that processed meat will remain off my diet. I don't want to eat old meat - the blunt truth! A co-worker leaned over and told me, as she poked a toothpick into to a piece of cooked sisuag, that she is from Point Lay where they eat it all the time. She says its the best food of all the local foods: fish, meat and birds. She tells me it will "heal you." She says her nephew had an ear infection and she put some sisuag oil behind his ear and it healed him. I took a toothpick and harpooned a piece of the meat that I had promised myself that I would never eat and started to chew. It was easy meat to eat. It wasn't chewy like muktuk or tough like dried, bearded seal. It reminded me of flank steak that I use to cook for my ex-husband. I confess - I reached for more.

Stir-fried beluga/sisuag.
Second diary excerpt:                                                                                                          
Eating that which I said would never go into my body due to its beauty and my thought that it had thoughts, but now it is done - beluga is within me; part of me.

The scientist just showed a photo of a polar bear feeding on a beluga whale it pulled from the ice and sea. I have become that; the hunter, yet also, the hunted. A polar bear would feed on my belly and bones, too. My step-father, Barney, who was born on the Seneca Indian Reservation in Upstate, New York said that when he was learning to fish his grandfather told him, "When you catch your first fish, eat its eyes. The fish eyes within you will help you see what the fish sees and show you where they run and spawn. That is where you should go and fish. Let the fish become you and you the fish."

So many thoughts running through my mind as I listen to all that the scientists are sharing while still thinking about choosing to eat the beluga or sisuag. They tell us that the beluga whale is also called the "Canary of the Sea," as it sings songs with a wide range of pitches. The poet and writer Charles Bukowski wrote the famous line, "there's a bluebird in my heart." There is a sea canary in mine and in my belly.

What I am trying to get at is that if we participate in eating as just an act of gaining nourishment, then we disconnect ourselves from the great truth that eating a creature merges them with us on both a cellular - proteins, iron, vitamins, etc, and (I believe) a spiritual level. Add to that that my co-worker said that beluga oil heals - it heals when you place it on skin and it seeps into the tissue clinical and lengthy for a diary entry...slow down. Beluga is slowly digesting within me and my body is absorbing its fats and proteins, all of its great gifts - my body, mind and spirit are grateful.

I am thinking now of a favorite book for children and all-aged readers. I am thinking of the book, "The Story of Jumping Mouse," a Native American legend retold and illustrated by John Steptoe.

The mouse in the story is on a brave journey to find and arrive at the "far-off land." Along the way he encounters various other animals. First he meets Magic Frog, who gives him the name, Jumping Mouse.

As Jumping Mouse continues on his journey, he encounters others who have lost some part of themselves; parts significant to their wellbeing and lifestyle.

He meets a bison blinded by poisoned water that he drank. Jumping Mouse names him, Eyes-of-a-Mouse. Suddenly, the bison's vision is restored and it is joyously grateful. However, Jumping Mouse can no longer see. Next, Jumping Mouse encounters a wolf who has lost his sense of smell. Jumping Mouse names him, Nose-of-a-Mouse. Immediately, the wolf starts to sniff and celebrates again smelling the scent of the pine trees. Jumping Mouse has lost his use of his nose. He can not see or smell, but he continues on his quest to find the "far-off land."

He wakes the next day and is saddened by all that he no longer has. He begins to cry.  He then hears the voice of Magic Frog, who was earlier in the book killed and eaten by a snake. The rest of this remarkable story follows below:

"Magic Frog, is that you?" Jumping Mouse asked, swallowing his tears.

"Yes," said Magic Frog. "Don't cry, Jumping Mouse. Your unselfish spirit has brought you great hardship, but it is that same spirit of hope and compassion that has brought you to the far-off land."

"You have nothing to fear, Jumping Mouse."

"Jump high, Jumping Mouse," commanded Magic Frog.

Jumping Mouse did as he was told and jumped as high as he could. Then he felt the air lifting him higher still into the sky. He stretched out his paws in the sun and felt strangely powerful. To his joy he began to see the wondrous beauty of the world above and below and to smell the scent of the earth and the sky and living things.

"Jumping Mouse," he heard Magic Frog call. "I give you a new name. You are now called Eagle,

and you will live in the far-off land forever."

Sisuag is now part of me. I honor that and am as thankful as the bison and the wolf were for their gifts, as well as the eagle for its. If I was given a new name by Magic Frog or Jumping Mouse, it might be Sakig-of-a-Sisuag, lower jaw of a beluga. The lower jaw is considered a significant part of the whale meat and is offered first to the captains and then the assisting crews in the hunt; perhaps it was offered to me. I do not know. I do know that thirty minutes after I ate the beluga meat, my jaw and teeth tingled. I remembered a tooth ache I had had a week or so ago. I thought of my co-worker telling me that the sisuag would "heal me." I was aware of this connection - between her words and what I was experiencing in my own lower jaw. That settles it and Magic Frog would agree. Sakig-of-a Sisuag is my answer.

We write stories about what we experience. Naming those experiences when it comes to eating creatures of the sky, the field and the waters honors the gifts that they give. Too, I will now always think of Jumping Mouse when I eat sisuag or beluga. This is the gift of good stories. They weave into our memories calling to us like Magic Frog to weeping Jumping Mouse. They remind us of where we came from, the experiences along the way and confirm our arrival.

Friday, December 2, 2016

My Dinner Plate Was and Is My Witness

I've traveled from the most Southern part of Alaska to the most Northern 
and my dinner plate was and is my witness.

Food has its own geographical origins. Some are hybrids of many cultures and others are unique to a place - or at least, how it is prepared before being served. I ate smoked and jarred salmon weekly, if not daily, when I lived and worked in Juneau, located in Southeast Alaska: salmon spread, salmon loaf, salmon with deviled eggs and the list goes on. My body was drenched in Omega 3s. My women friends posted on Facebook that they stripped and smoked; salmon humor only Alaskans would truly get. I ate salmon while the ravens danced and cawed hoping I would share. I often did.

Baked Salmon

Jarred salmon and smoked/kippered sockeye salmon

Last year, when I lived in Metlakatla, the most Southern part of Alaska, salmon remained a staple in my pantry and expanded to include salmon jerky and Hawaiian sticks. Met, as they call it, is where I first became a harvester; engaging in a subsistence lifestyle. I foraged for my food and the list of what I brought home from the field and the beach grew: fireweed, beach asparagus, devil's club, abalone, octopus, seaweed and more. 

May, 2016 - Negative tide - harvesting abalone - Metlakatla, Alaska.

Some of the abalone I harvested on an early Spring morning in 2016.
Most of the above was used to make abalone chowder. 
When I returned to Juneau, having spent a year teaching in Metlakatla, I harvested "popcorn" seaweed from the waters of Slocum Inlet, named after my great-great grandfather. I dried and then dehydrated the seaweed; sustaining my subsistence lifestyle. 

"Popcorn" seaweed from Slocum Inlet.

When I moved to Barrow (now renamed Utqiagvik) in August of 2016, I knew I would be living above the tree line and that my harvesting of plants would cease. Yet, I anticipated eating salmon. I had no thought otherwise. If you lived in Alaska, salmon was somewhere in your house, or so I thought. I was greatly surprised when I was told the waters were too cold and the journey too far for salmon to migrate to the top of the world. Instead, I was introduced to muktuk (whale) / uunaalik (boiled whale), bearded seal and walrus.

Excerpt from my diary dated August 2, 2016                                       Barrow, Alaska

Today, at the community pot luck, I ate a few small pieces of whale or muktuk sprinkled with salt. Parts of it were easy to chew and others were hard like rubber - too dense to chew into pieces - so I swallowed quickly. Twenty minutes or so later, I had this strong smell on my hands. Something had seeped into them like a stain - whale. I had never smelled that scent before, let alone on my body.  I will never forget it, ever. I heard this stated by an elder during our community pot luck, "The ocean is our garden."

The Inupiaq word for whale meat is muktuk. 
The above is boiled whale and is called uunaalik.

Excerpt from my diary dated August 10th, 2016                             Barrow, Alaska

When I first arrived in Barrow, I ate whale meat which was offered to me by tribal elders. Today, I ate three small pieces of bearded seal. My belly is struggling to understand and digest these new foods so loved by this community. The dried and jarred seal (kept in seal oil) is called "black candy" by locals. Children love it, as many adults do. For me, it was if a seal was swimming in my mouth. The taste was so strong and game-like. I reached for a cake nearby and swiped a narrow strip of frosting from its edge, quickly welcoming it into my anxiously awaiting mouth. 

My senses are laughing at the smells and taste brought into their memory tonight.  A vegetarian embracing subsistence living at the top of the world one bite at a time. 

Dried bearded seal in oil or uqsrug.
My now favorite subsistence food is pickled muktuk. It is pictured below; pickled with onions, banana peppers and cloves, among other spices. I don't get offered this often, as it is a favorite among many and mostly distributed among families. I am grateful when I find a piece or two on my plate. (In the photo below, there is a strip of smoked salmon on the plate - a gift from Southeast Alaska friends.)

Gone is the fireweed, beach asparagus, abalone and salmon. Gone are the thimble, salmon and blue berries. Here is the seal, walrus and whale. My plate is my culinary passport. Yet, the scent of whale and the taste of bearded seal testify, too, of my travels thus far. What's next? Maybe caribou or tuttu, as it is called here, or white fish caught in nets down the road. I will write of it all; of its taste and its smell. I will chart my travels around the rim of my plate navigating the palate of this far off place.

Locally made ulus, a traditional Inupiaq tool; an almost 
semi-circular, handcrafted knife used for cutting meat and fish.