Two elders soaking the caribou beard for a dance fan.
The past week here in Napaskiak has been full of cultural events at the school. I was so excited to learn more about the traditional Yupik culture and even be able to participate in some activities. I was substituting, so my mornings consisted of classes with the students, and then the afternoon was dedicated to cultural activities. Some of the younger grades even had full day activities.
Elders and adults from around the village came into the school to share their knowledge, and in some cases their supplies or wisdom passed down to them from previous elders. Crafts included learning to crochet, bead, sew qaspeqs (native shirts that are similar to cotton hoodies pronounced like ‘guss-puk’) , leather yo-yos and shell bags, ice picks for fishing, slingshots, and carving various things from antler and ivory. There were also sessions that focused on dog sledding, Native Youth Olympics and traditional native cooking.
The husband wanted to have a qaspeq to wear this week, so naturally because I now have my sewing machine here, he asked if I could make one for him. I was able to borrow a pattern from a neighbor, and pulled one together using some fabric he had purchased in Bethel that weekend during the Cama-i dance festival.
It was fun to make, although difficult at a few points, and I don’t think it turned out too poorly. The hood is a mess, but as long as he kept it down, it wasn’t too noticeable. Some of the women at the school complimented him on it, and he was very proud to say his wife made it. Apparently it was impressive to the students that I made it in one night. I did have the advantage of the sewing machine to make things go fast.
The finished product!
The first day I didn’t do much other than supervise, and I was in awe of how good the high school kids were at some of the trades. One student was working with mammoth ivory and had fashioned a ring that was stunning. The husband was also working on a ring- his made out of antler, and attested to how difficult it was. In the end it took him a couple tries, but I think it turned out great, and I love wearing it!
The Husband slimmed the ring down a little bit after this to make it more comfortable. He carved it out of an antler. I have so much respect for the subsistence lifestyle that learns to use all parts of the animal.
The second day had elder talks, which I was very interested to attend. There is no strict age limit or guideline on what it means to be an elder, but it is usually agreed upon whether someone is or isn’t. The girls and the boys were split up for these talks, and I sat in with the girls. Lots of interesting pieces of history and cultural knowledge were passed down, but it felt like a good conversation with a grandparent. We laughed and learned in Yupik and English. One of the elders who only spoke Yupik was very insightful, and I was lucky to have another elder sitting next to me translating what she was saying.
Messages of love and respect seemed to dominate the talks as the most important cultural values they could hold onto, and I couldn’t agree more.
The third day, I was asked by an elder to jump in and make a dance fan. I couldn’t say no. It was a lot harder than it looked at first, but I struggled through, and she helped me fix all my mistakes!
The start of the dance fan.
The finished weaved part of the fan. I still need to finish sewing on the Caribou fur along the outside.
In traditional Yupik dance, the dancers hold the fans in each hand to accentuate the movement.
Most of the days ended at about 4pm, where we would gather in the gym to taste what they had been cooking in the kitchen. They made fry breads, moose soup, caribou soup, halibut chowder, and lots of akutaq (eskimo ice cream pronounces ‘a-goo-tuk’). It’s funny that I didn’t really care for akutaq before I got pregnant, but now that I am, I can’t get enough of it! Everyone makes theirs differently, and began swapping recipes at the table. I can’t wait to try more!
The week culminated in a gallery showing of all the students’ projects in the gym during their normal dance time. I was really impressed with their work, especially some of the younger kids!
All in all, I had a really great time this past week. Sometimes I really marvel at the opportunities that have been presented to me here, and all of the things I wouldn’t have learned if the Husband and I didn’t have the faith to take the plunge and move up here. I can’t wait to keep learning more and more!