Category Archives: Alaskan Natives

In Alaska: Cake Is King!

“In a modest boardinghouse on an Alaskan island just 30 miles across the sea from Russia, a handwritten order form hangs on the refrigerator. There are photos of cakes a few women in this village can make for you: rectangles of yellow cake and devil’s food enrobed in buttercream, with local nicknames piped out in pink. Happy Birthday Bop-Bop,one reads. Another, Happy Birthday Siti-Girl.” J. O’Malley, New York Times

“Eating in rural Alaska is all about managing the expense and scarcity of store-bought food while trying to take advantage of seasonally abundant wild foods. Cash economies are weak, utilities and fuel are expensive and many families live below the federal poverty line.

To offset the cost of living, Alaska Natives here rely on traditional practices of hunting, fishing and gathering… In a good year, they fill freezers with moose, berries, caribou, salmon or marine mammals, depending on where they live. In a bad year, they have to buy more from the store.

The offerings in village stores often resemble those in the mini-marts or bodegas of America’s urban food deserts at two and three times the price.

Cake mixes are the center of our little universe,said Ms. Erickson, who owns the only grocery store in Tanana. Credit-Ruth Fremson:The New York Times

Food journeys in via jet, small plane and barge. Milk and eggs spoil fast. Produce gets roughed up. Among the Hostess doughnuts, Spam and soda, cake mix is one of the few items on shelves everywhere that require actual cooking. As a result, tricking out mixes has become a cottage industry, and many villages have a  Cupcake lady with her signature twist.

Some bake as a hobby, while others do a brisk business selling cakes in places where getting to a bakery requires a plane ticket. In the far north, bakers make cake with fondant photo prints of Inupiat whaling crews and serve it with mikigaq, fermented whale meat. On the western coast, mixes may be prepared with sea gull eggs. In the interior, pineapple upside-down cake is eaten with a salad made of lard, sugar, berries and whitefish. Some recipes call for nothing but a mix and a bottle of Sprite.

In Unalakleet, 300 miles west of Tanana on Norton Sound, Donna Erickson  is a noted cake lady. Her most famous creation was born in a rush to get to a community potluck. She made a white cake and poured it into a sheet pan because she knew it would bake quickly.

Salmonberries

I mixed orange Jell-O with two cups of bright orange salmonberries. I poured it on top of that cake and I threw it in the fridge she said. People were just like, Wow, can you make that again for me?

Rural Alaska has some of the highest rates of accidental death and suicide in the country. When there is tragedy in Unalakleet, bakers bring cakes to the school multipurpose room and lay them on a big table with corresponding numbers. Popular flavors include salmonberry, tundra blueberry and low-bush cranberry.

Then the cake walk begins: People buy a ticket, then circle the table while music plays. When it stops, somebody draws a number out of an old coffee can. The person standing by the corresponding cake wins that one and the money goes toward healing someones family, Donna Erickson said.

It’s a festive environment even though it’s a sad time.

You should see the cakes; they are so beautiful. Village bakers are so brilliant.”

Category: Alaskan Natives

Is All Fur Bad?

“When PETA pops up, you know it’s that time of year, with temperatures dropping, gift guides proliferating and fur once again becoming a topic of debate, setting activists against enthusiasts, man against nature, indulgence against ethics. But as the holiday season begins, it may be worth pausing to consider another idea, courtesy of a designer who exists far outside mainstream fashion… to say that Peter Paul Kawagaelg Williams, the founder of Shaman Furs, is not a fashion person would be putting it mildly.”V. Friedman, The New York Times

Peter Paul Kawagaelg Williams, the founder of Shaman Furs, performs a smudging ceremony for his hunting rifle outside his home in Sitka, Alaska. Credit James Poulson for The New York Times.

Peter Paul Kawagaelg Williams, the founder of Shaman Furs, performs a smudging ceremony for his hunting rifle outside his home in Sitka, Alaska. Credit James Poulson for The New York Times.

“He is, rather, a somewhat scruffy 34-year-old Alaska Native with long hair and no formal design education who identifies as an environmental activist and member of the Yup’ik tribe, and who has made it his mission to reintroduce style to the allure of sea otter. Not to mention the idea of traditional subsistence hunting, and the value of knowing your clothes.

On the one hand, there is the popular (and justifiable) distaste for anything that involves the killing of cute, cuddly creatures. On the other is Mr. Williams’s homegrown but broadly resonant and deeply felt theory about ‘mis-consumption’ and the way we have become disconnected from what goes in our closets — and on our bodies.

PETA ad.

PETA ad.

‘We don’t want to think about the plants we are wearing when we wear cotton, and we don’t want to think about life and death,’ he said in phone interview from Alaska. He thinks it should be the opposite.

t-shirt-by-zazzle

t-shirt-by-zazzle

Mr. Williams comes to this belief as part of his birthright, and he expresses it in the form of a pencil skirt. He calls hand-sewing a “prayer” and says that for him, hunting equals environmentalism equals spirituality. For him, the universal language of fashion is the best vehicle for amplifying the heritage and legacy of his people while at the same time ensuring the future of those people — in part because his staple material is one of the most precious pelts no longer widely available.

mr-williams-salts-a-seal-skin-on-the-beach-near-his-home-credit-james-poulson-for-the-new-york-times

mr-williams-salts-a-seal-skin-on-the-beach-near-his-home-credit-james-poulson-for-the-new-york-times

Mr. Williams walks with a model wearing his pencil skirt made from sealskin.

Mr. Williams walks with a model wearing his pencil skirt made from sealskin.

Shaman Furs, a one-man operation run out of a 900-square-foot trailer that doubles as atelier and apartment, specializes in hats, vests, earrings and pencil skirts made from sea otter and sealskin, pelts that Mr. Williams harvests, designs and sews himself (the only part of the process he outsources is the tanning) in an elaborate combination of traditional ritual and modern basics.

earrings-from-shaman-furs

earrings-from-shaman-furs

It involves an aluminum skiff, “smudging” (ritualistically cleansing the body and spirit with Labrador tea smoke), a .223 Ruger bolt-action rifle, a skinning knife, thanking each animal for the gift of its life, and the rite of giving the otter or seal a last drink of water after its death. The ritual doesn’t obviate the visceral nature of the hunt, even for Mr. Williams, but that is part of the point.

mr-williamss-home-in-sitka-alaska-credit-james-poulson-for-the-new-york-times

mr-williamss-home-in-sitka-alaska-credit-james-poulson-for-the-new-york-times

It’s not that he expects to convince PETA. His clothes don’t make that kind of statement and probably couldn’t if they tried. He’s just trying to unpick assumptions, one stitch or pair of earmuffs at a time.”

“I want to maintain the individual relationship I have with the animals, and create an intimate experience for those wearing my work.” ~ Peter Paul Kawagaelg Williams~ Yup’ik tribe, Alaska

Category: Alaskan Natives

The Challenging Life of Inupiat Teens

Being a teenager is tough wherever you live; but as shown in a documentary by filmmaker Nick Brandestini, living as a Native teen in rural Alaska is very complicated. Children of the Arctic tells the story of four Inupiat teens growing up in the small community of Barrow, Alaska.” J. Asenap, ICTMN

An image from Children of the Arctic by Director Nick Brandestini (Photo Film Website)

An image from Children of the Arctic by Director Nick Brandestini (Photo Film Website)

 

Excerpt: Children of the Arctic…By Jason Asenap, ICTMN

“The teens highlighted in the film include Josiah and Flora, a young couple in love who are trying their best to adhere to a traditional lifestyle at home while pursuing an education outside of their Native community. There is also Maaya, who gives suicide prevention presentations but craves simple teen activities like eating fast food and going to malls, and has dreams of moving to Arizona.

Samuel, 14, is an avid hunter and has been since he shot his first caribou at the age of six. Website

Samuel, 14, is an avid hunter and has been since he shot his first caribou at the age of six. Website

Finally there is Ace Edwards, who is being groomed for a leadership role in the community but becomes overwhelmed by the plans his community has for him.

Ace, 17, is a charming young man with a plan and a faux-hawk. Elders see Ace as a future leader of the community. Photo website

Ace, 17, is a charming young man with a plan and a faux-hawk. Elders see Ace as a future leader of the community. Photo website

The film addresses the challenges young Indigenous youth face today, including the role youth play in the continuation of culture and some of the tough decisions youth have to make, such as moving away and getting an education or staying home and helping the family in whale harvesting. 

Flora, 18, is a driven young woman who cares deeply about the preservation of Iñupiat culture. Photo- website

While Ace clearly has frustrations and thirsts for more traditional knowledge, Josiah and Flora fear that when they go away to college, they will be missing out on many events in the community, and valuable time with their elders…The community is heavily Christian and the influence of Christianity creates tension between religion and traditional Inupiat culture, a common theme in many Native communities.

Inupiat Teens. Photo- film website

Inupiat Teens. Photo- film website

The Inupiat and surrounding communities are also scarred by suicide. Ace’s brother committed suicide, and Maaya tries to help her community heal through her presentations on suicide prevention.

Josiah, 18, is passionate about Native traditions and an enthusiastic member of an Eskimo dance group

Josiah, 18, is passionate about Native traditions and an enthusiastic member of an Eskimo dance group

The film also shows that the heart of the community is in the whale harvest. After the whale is hunted, traditional songs are played as the women butcher and meat is cooked.”

Hold on to what is good, Even if it’s a handful of earth.

Hold on to what you believe, Even if it’s a tree that stands by itself.

Hold on to what you must do, Even if it’s a long way from here.

Hold on to your life, Even if it’s easier to let go.

Hold on to my hand, Even if someday I’ll be gone away from you.

~Pueblo  Prayer~

Illustration for suicide prevention success story in NW Alaska

Category: Alaskan Natives

Native Survival Stories From Canada

“There’s this story I heard about two wolves: one angry and vengeful, the other joyful and peaceful. They are always at odds and fighting for control. These two wolves represent our inner struggle between good and bad choices. The story, from the Cherokee people, says that the one you feed is the one who wins.” R.Deerchild

Photo- Awakeningto the dance.

Photo- Awakeningto the dance.

Excerpt: … Telling stories of indigenous Canada, By R. Deerchild

A father uses the beauty of a drum song to battle his grief. Alo White is an elder from Naotkamegwanning First Nation in northwestern Ontario. He and his son, Nathan, would often record each other singing traditional songs while driving around town or out fishing. They shared a passion for keeping these songs and stories alive. But after a heart-shattering loss, Alo continued to sing and share songs on his path of grief and recovery.

Alo White. Photo- Indegenous waves

Alo White. Photo- Indegenous waves

A residential school survivor captures the demons of his past on paper. As a way to share and heal from the atrocities Augie Merasty experienced at residential school, he wrote The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir, the painful recounting of that story. His daughter, Arlene Merasty, talks about her father’s literary legacy. 

Book by Joseph Augie Merasty-

Book by Joseph Augie Merasty-

And a young Inuk fighter fights to make his dreams a reality. Collin Baikie is from Labrador. The mixed martial artist just became the first Inuk to win a professional fight.

Collin Baikie is the first Inuk to win a professional fight.

Collin Baikie is the first Inuk to win a professional fight.

 Jaqueline Anaquod has been raising awareness about missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. Her reason is chilling — she could have been another name added to that growing list.”

Photo- TML Weekly.

Photo- TML Weekly.

Category: Alaskan Natives