August 13, 2013

Siberian Yupik Historical Narrative and Inupiat Science Fiction

Brand new copy

Native Alaska possesses a wide arrangement of talented artists and writers, including carvers, poets, novelists, filmmakers, performance artists, painters, dancers, and musicians. The Indigenous people from throughout the state have formed a strong cultural archive of work from which at times I have drawn from in the production of my scholarship. This all started for me upon entering graduate school at the University of Oregon in 2003. Amid my first week at Oregon I met with an Alaska Native professor for coffee at a place on Patterson and 13th, across from the Green Duck. At that meeting she gave me a copy of Alaska Native Writers, Storytellers & Orators: The Expanded Edition (2001) edited by Ronald Spatz, Jeane Breing, Patricia H. Partnow(based on an original edition by Nora Marks and Richard Duenhauer, and Gary Holthaus). The collection presents Alaska Native oral histories, in print form, poetry, prose, and even art work. I have used it since that time as an invaluable resource. Over the years my copy has grown dog-eared, bent, as well as scribbled upon and underlined throughout it's over 370 pages. Fortunately at the 2013 inaugural Alaska Native Studies conference at University of Alaska, Anchorage, last spring, the conference organizers provided attendees with fresh copies!

It was great to see the book going into more hands because the collection introduced me to many exciting Alaska Native writers but in this post I want to funnel it down to the work of Susie Silook and Fred Bigjim. Susie Silook is a visual artist and writer whose incredible gifts of storytelling always seem to draw from Siberian Yupik heritage, modern histories of colonialism, and more than slightly touch on the realities of the present. Though she succeeds in telling stories through bone and ivory as a carver, the way her writing connects traditional culture with the contemporary Native experiences proves astounding to me. Three written works appear in Alaska Native Writers, Storytellers & Orators, the short story, "Anti Depression Ulimaaq," and the poems, "Uncle Good Intentions," and "Adventure in Chinatown 1958." Each fearlessly builds narratives that concern histories formed at trying times and these pieces include themes such as racism, family relationships, and the uncanny federal policies directed at Native people throughout the 20th century. One for example, involves the history of eugenic policies enacted by the United States upon the people of St. Lawrence Island. In 2001 she was involved in the group show "Ceremony of Healing: Expression Concerning Violence Against Alaska Native Women." Silook joined other Alaska Native lady artists like Diane Benson (also featured in the book), Helen McNeil, Susie Bevins, and Sonya Kelliher-Combs to confront the ongoing harm being done to Native women. Perhaps Susie Silook will allow me to interview her for the blog? You can read more about her and the "Ceremony of Healing" show at:

Fred Seagayuk Bigjim is an Inupiat writer included in the Alaska Native Writers, Storytellers & Orators collection I want to mention. The two pieces included in the collection are, "Ballet in Bethel," and "Gaslight." Yes, the "Gaslight" is a lonely poem concerning the old Anchorage bar on 4th avenue. "Ballet in Bethel" confronts the imposition of Western cultural art practices among Alaska Natives. Bigjim has published broadly across genres but right now I am reading a 1999 science fiction novel by him called Plants. 

 Signed copy! 

This book concerns a journalist investigating a downed satellite in South Dakota where upon he befriends American Indian medicine men and their "plants" that could disrupt the free flow of telecommunications.  Aliens, as the back cover details, also have "plants" on earth which monitor all developments. Without giving too much away, I would say that anyone who has read Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Marmon Silko, and remembers the Inupiat elder who can control radar systems through a television at a rest home, would very much enjoy this novel. Right now, I have an article submitted to American Indian Quarterly which reads the historical aspects of his work Letters to Howard: An Interpretation of the Alaska Native Land Claims. Anyone interested in Alaska Native history and literature would find his work an enthralling read.

August 1, 2013

The Russian River and Saint Peter the Aleut

Last weekend I was in Sonoma County, California conducting research for a book project. Driving along the Russian river to Fort Ross California State Park one is drawn to making comparisons of the area with Alaska. Two hundred years ago the Russian American Company operated a colony on the grounds of the coastal Kashaya village of Metini. Countless Native people from the Alaska region (and elsewhere) made their homes in the village. The journey to Fort Ross includes some time spent along side the Russian river.
Russian River, California
The Russian river in Sonoma always makes me think of the Russian river in Kodiak. If one cares to look, Alutiiq history is rich in California. In Petaluma, there was even a country-and-western-themed bar named "Kodiak Jack's," which closed July 2012.

Here is a photograph, from my personal collection, of some Alutiit out having a cold one near Kodiak's Russian river in the 1960s.

Fort Ross' reconstructed Russian national military architecture made of fine redwood proves beautiful. I greatly enjoyed walking the grounds as the morning fog lifted away. Whenever I am there I can't help but to examine the horizon out in the pacific and wonder what my ancestors thought when they were here 200 years ago. Also, Pushki (Heracleum maximum) grows in Sonoma. There was a festival at Fort Ross last weekend and outside the tiny remade Russian Orthodox chapel at the Fort a representative from a local parish stood next to a small table of icons. She spoke to visitors about the history of the faith in the region. Any parishioner of Russian Orthodoxy would be struck by the chapel's humble interior. 

The table was free of a St. Peter the Aleut icon. Peter was a Kodiak Islander who was murdered in the area two hundred years ago and canonized in the Russian Orthodox church by St. Herman back in the nineteenth century. With his veneration occurring around 1865 he was the  first Native American saint. As of 1980 he became the patron of San Francisco, strangely enough. In his History of California Hubert Howe Bancroft argues that St. Peter was more or less a myth. Other scholars such as Raymond A. Bucko have asserted that there is a case for believing St. Peter existed and the story of his death is quite plausible. A brief summary entails the Californios capturing a party of Alutiiq hunters. As a captive, Peter refused to renounce his faith in the church, a resistance for which he lost his life. An account written by Simeon Janovsky attests to Father Herman, upon hearing about the death, apparently "stood up before an Ikon reverently, made the sign of the Cross and pronounced, 'holy  newly-martyred Peter, pray for us!"