That time I seen a part of myself in a book when I was young...
Quite a bit of my portfolio is filled with little drawings and graphics I have done for our school district here in northern Alaska. I was lucky enough to work with Jana Harcharek who ran the Inupiaq department for the NSBSD till this last year. I guess watching the program crumble into dust has got me thinking about how important it is that we inject as much Inupiaq media into our schools as possible. And I guess the easiest way to talk about it for me, is to tell you about what my experience was growing up in this school district in the 80's to mid 90's. And to talk about my journey a little.
I graduated high school in 1995. My middle school and high school years are a vague blur to me. I read a lot of books and got teased none stop for being the girl who liked dragons, had unruly hair and read books. The only Inupiaq we experience in the school setting was brief and sporadic, and because of that I have very vivid images of it in my head. Inupiaq class consisted of learning how to count in Inupiaq, learning colors, sewing mittens, and copying words off the board onto paper. I always felt the frustration of the teachers in that class, like they were trying their best, but they felt..inadequate...or embarrassed about some aspect of that model, or atmosphere. We never took inupiaq class very seriously and as I got older we spent more and more time just goofing off and waiting till the bell rang. I remember a brief time when I was in elementary school we had an Elder teach us Inupiaq dancing and Inupiaq games and songs. But it seems like a dream in my memories, filled with singing words I didn't understand echoing in the big ochre colored gym. Other than a few posters on the walls that no one talked about there wasn't a whole lot of my culture in the schools. Once in a while we would get a new teacher that would try their best to inject as much as they could into the curriculum, but with little to no resources available it was a crap shoot. I have a memory of one teacher reading from a book of Inupiaq 'stories', her face going absolute crimson and voice quieting as she read about a boy digging in the snow for a woman's poop to use to blackmail her into dating him. I guess it pays to read your material ahead before you read it in front of a bunch of pre-teens.
So the school became this place that was almost sterile of my culture. Actually it would have been more comfortable if it was sterile. The kind of half-assed way it was presented sent an even more dire message to my growing brain. It made me ashamed. In a world, like a school, where all the best things were new and shiny and well thought out and comfortable and routine and 'normal'... when my culture did appear it was...less. Less colorful. Less shiny. Haphazardly thrown together last minute. Graphics done by one of the teachers. No brown faces. Stories photocopied from a book made for adults. Children can see the difference in how something is presented. We can see the quality and the care and and thought and the importance of a subject. The normality of it.
When I left to college I was ashamed of my culture, though at the time I didn't see it that way. I didn't take anything with me that would remind me of my culture. No atigi's, no ivory jewelry, no pictures of cultural things, even when I drew things it was never whales or seals or sunshine ruffs, it was dragons and colorful butterflies and lions. My sketchbooks and journals from that time were clean of my culture. Because in my little baby mind I thought...I don't want to look or feel poor...or backwards...or behind.
Of course it didn't last that long thank goodness. It started with an intro to Anthropology course, taught by a woman with a heavy Australian accent. Every week we talked about several cultures from all over the word and from different time periods. And one day, of course one of the days I didn't actually read the homework I was supposed to ahead of time, she turned to a page in the book and for 15 minutes she talked about... the Inuit. Also known as Inupiaq in northern Alaska. It was only 2 pages in this massive expensive book, but even to this day it's hard to explain the feeling that I felt, seeing my culture presented as a normal thing, with glossy pages and beautiful graphics and photos. A few pages that didn't talk about us like we were 'historical', a few pages that talked about us like we belonged in this modern world. I didn't really hear the rest of that lecture, I just read those two pages over and over and over.
After class I made my way to the library and looked up any and all books that mentioned our culture. After a few hours I ended up with about 4 or 5 books, with only one book that the Inupiaq were mentioned for more than a paragraph or a few pages. I took the book to my dorm room and paged through it. It was a recounting of some random explorer and his encounter with us 'savages.' I ignore most of that and focused on anything that mentioned things that my people were quoted saying or doing. There was even a photo of a Inupiaq woman and her husband, dressed in caribou skin finery, sunshine ruff, her chin was tattooed with three barely visible lines against her dark skin. She held her head high, her chin high, her husband smiling beside her. And in that dorm room 18 year old me sat hunched over that photo and cried. She was the most beautiful person I have ever met. I think that moment is when I knew I was going to tattoo my chin.
It amazing how profound an effect it had on me to see myself in a book. What gates are opened because of that simple simple thing.
After the next Anthropology class I approached the teacher after class and mustering all of my bravery I told her where I came from and that I was Inupiaq. I was fully expecting boredom and disinterest, but her face lit up and she became excited and she told me that if I presented at the next class for the whole hour then she would give me a A for the semester. Bless that teacher for what she gave me that day. I agreed. Most of the other students were in fact bored, but a few were as interested as a kid could be. I even met someone that turned out to be one of my closest friends.
And then I became kind of annoying, as I worked through my cultural identity of course. Being in 19- early 20's is a horrible rough phase anyways, and I really appreciate my college friends putting up with me and being such tolerant souls. After all, I had no idea how to be a modern Inupiaq, and what that meant, and I didn't even have the words to describe that process at the time. But what if our children didn't have to go through that phase of shame? What if for a moment we imagine that seeing our cultural selves in historical, modern and future context was the norm of growing up? Imagine a school and a community in which Inupiaq content was normal? What if we had books for all age levels, tv shows, music videos, games, art of every type etc? My dream vision of the future is not that we are celebrating the existence of a 'insert Native Media'...but that we are discussing in depth which is our favorite of the hundreds of Inuit 'insert Native Media'. So if you are out there...making brilliant beautiful things born from our culture....keep on keeping on you brilliant souls.