INTERVIEW WITH BERTHA JENNINGS: "Listen to My Heartbeat"; By reaffirming traditional values, Alaska's native people are educatin
INTERVIEW WITH BERTHA JENNINGS: "Listen to My Heartbeat"; By reaffirming. traditional values, Alaska's native people are educating a generation of stronger children.
Bertha Jennings coordinates the Inupiat Ilitiquisiat Program in Kotzebue, Alaska, an effort to connect elders and youth. Stephenie Hollyman, a New York-based photographer, interviewed Jennings.
We learn from our parents, and we learn in school. Being the eldest in a family of 10, my parents said, "You've got to go to school." My grandmother would be on one side of me and my mother on the other side, and they'd see me off to school in the fall. I wouldn't see them until the spring, when I'd be home for two and a half months.
I asked my grandmother, "Why is it you want me to leave? These other girls my age are staying home. They don't have to go." She answered, "You are going to be the eyes and ears and mouth for the generation of Eskimo you live with." Being the granddaughter of the last traditional chief of Point Hope, she knew the importance of learning from her and my parents about living off the land and about the migrant subsistence traditional culture that is Inupiat. She also knew that the skills I would get through education could help the Eskimo escape from the tyranny of "What do we eat for breakfast."
I think the Inupiat were forced to begin to change their lifestyle about 1898, 1897. Schools were federally operated, and they said we had to stay in one place for at least the duration of the nine-month school year. The federal government said to us, "You can't be running all over the country with your family, hunting or fishing." We had no choice, no choice at all. It was dictated by an alien culture at all. It was dictated by an alien culture that had no idea that our food and what was put on the table was from the land.
I think that was the cause of the epidemic that is linked to the Iditarod dog race. Diphtheria spread region-wide; everywhere there was famine. You can't just abandon your fishing and expect food on your table and the family to stay healthy. So they were transporting medication to fight diphtheria vaccine by dog team. It was taken by relay until it got to Nome, and that's part of the trail from Anchorage to Nome they use for the Iditarod.
At about the same time, we had an influx of whalers coming in. They were not disciplined people. They were not Christian people. They were colonialists who thought we were here for them to use, to abuse, to degrade and mutilate our resources. Our culture, our language, was in shambles. Some part of our country use the term "genocide." We've not gotten to using harsh words, but that's what it was, an assault by a government, an assault by non-Inupiat, an assault by people who were looking at our gold and furs.
In today's world, they're still taking our resources, and we're not getting compensated for it. The oil fields are our homeland. They don't see using some of that money to take care of our homeland, to ensure that our children know about these lands from which they extracted oil.
Alyeska [Pipeline Service Co.] has no sense of working with the Eskimo at all, but at least they're a little more polished than the first contact we made with outsiders. Those first were like pirates, the misfits, the scum that came up here. They had no values. No way would they recognize the Eskimo, no way would they recognize hunting and traditional ways.
Gradually changes infiltrated through the very roots of our being, and it's taken a long time to convince the Eskimo that it's very important for us to remember who we are and where we came from. The assault made on us was so severe and in such large doses by such a large population. But we figured out a way to survive. I work my husband doesn't. He gets the wood to heat my home. He brings in the fish and the meat. He still hunts. He's inheriting the history of my forefathers because they hunted the same way. It hasn't changed, whether it's on the coast or inland. That's information we'll pass on to our children.
I think that's why my grandmother was saying when I was young: "We want to arm you with a defense. You'll be our eyes and ears and mouth." I think she meant that I would record what others were saying and try to make sense of policies. But sometimes it doesn't work out that way because it's a very complex world we bring our children in to.
Here's an example. At the local radio station, the program director puts more emphasis on the countdown of 50 American country songs than he would on our 50 American Eskimo music singers. It's one-sided. I don't think he knows 50 Eskimo, let alone 50 singers. But they expect us know the top hits, and they put them on every week non-stop.
You can't dissociate Eskimos from their spirituality, but the church plays mind games with us. We have the same kind of beliefs the Bible talks about, but we have a history that goes back 50,000 years through our oral history and oral literature. If you become a Christian, you forget about 48,000 years of your history. It creates choas.
How we learned the art of song and dance is the story of an eagle. This eagle flew down to a man who was beach combing, and the man agreed to follow the eagle to his home. He became an eagle-man and followed the eagle home, and they began gathering materials for a drum. After the drum was constructed the eagle said, "Listen to my heartbeat." The Eskimo man did, and he began strumming the drum to the heartbeat of the eagle. The eagle taught the eagle-man music and song with the drum as an instrument. Then the eagle said to the eagle-man, "That's our gift. Bring it home; introduce it to the people."
That story is important for the creativity and flow of our artists, who memorize songs. That way, you sing without song books. You don't see our culture based in print. It's all oral. It's all how you use y our mind, your memory, what you see and what you hear. What you say is important to our survival up here, for our spirit, for our mental health. It's just as important to know we created song and dance as a gift from the eagle as it is to memorize the presidents' names from Washington to today.
There should be a balance - that's what the elders are saying. In our scurry to get education, they're saying, "Let's not forget the art of storytelling, the art of oral history, the art of expression we have in our stories." See, that's the part they put in a little box and buried when they came up here to get us Christianized and Americanized.
We've created three generations of people who can't live off the land, who don't identify themselves as whalers, who don't identify themselves as experts in our history, in our geography, in our values or our lifestyle. We're in a split world. It's easy to denounce what the elders are trying to pass on to us because they were trained to think in a different frame of mind. If we don't buy stove-oil at Noatak and there's nobody to get wood, how are you going to heat your home? Traditionally we used wood, but there are kids at Noatak now who don't know anything about heating homes, let alone cooking or getting food or getting the clothing. That's what the elders are teaching us to do.
Our elders' disgust: in our hunger to become Americanized, to become acculturated, we forget our own music, our own creativity, our own sense of who we are. When we were nomadic, we were more creative with our language and song, with our history and our sense of law. We had a better sense of discipline on the local level than we do now, with all of America thinking they're in charge of us.
We feel this assault on our very being, because they keep coming up with all kinds of requirements. I'm from the village of Noatak. The traditional village council is the only government it has. It doesn't have a city council. It's not incorporated. We run it. But they say we have to adhere to all sorts of things before they recognize our rights. We have a lawsuit from the village of Noatak that says we are a recognized tribe, and we have a right to make our decisions about fish and game and the use of land. It's in our hands.
LISTENING TO THE ELDERS
My great uncle was like a traveling salesman, bartering and trading, but he was also a newsman because he went from one village to an other, traveling by dog sled or foot or kayak, however he could go from one place to an other. it is through him and the last traditional chief of Point Hope that my family inherited lots of stories, lots of oral history, ways of connecting to the past. And that's what we want our children to learn through Inupiat Ilitiquisiat and traditional values. How did our families work together and how did they identify themselves as an extended family?
Institutionalizing the Inupiat Ilitiquisiat is revolutionary because when you work at the Inupiat elder level it deviates quite a way from the historical approach Americans have taken in dealing with the Eskimo. We are part of a bigger picture of a people that will become empowered.
Inupiat Ilitiquisiat started because the elders were ignored for 60 years, and local planning was always done at the expense of the local people. It really started to come into focus 11 years ago, although we've had the program for 50,000 years. There are 17 values. There's humor, humility, there's respect for others, respect for elders, respect for nature, love for children.
We talk about knowledge of family tree because people are more mobile now. We have people in Barrow, Nome, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, everywhere. When my parents were growing up, they all lived in villages. Now it's easy to work at Prudhoe Bay or Red Dog and live in Anchorage. The elders felt if we knew our family and who we are, we would be healthier. The elders unanimously decided that there would be an Inupiat Ilitiquisiat program. They felt the best way to make Eskimo philosophy come alive and rejuvenate the education of the Eskimo was by incorporating Inupiat Ilitiquisiat traditional values.
Since then, we have become more comfortable with who we are. We have realigned our values. Kotzebue used to be filled with bars and liquor stores. it was crazy. We started by voting Kotezebue damp, taking out the liquor stores and the bars. Suddenly it became sane. People could start hunting and fishing and relating to one another. Then the villages in the region got dry. We said we're no longer a part of the statistics about what they call the alcoholic or the lost Eskimo.
We began to work with the elders in the classroom, work with them in our community, in the churches, and in other institutions. We began to say, "Let's listen to the elders first and then make our decisions." Our children are now being brought up in a whole different philosophy than when I was growing up.
We try to document family trees. When we apply it with our children, they take pride in their Eskimo name, who their parents and their grandparents are. On Inupiat Day in February, I was in a fourth-grade class where they can go back five generations in their family. They are studying who their relatives are, what their names are, who they inherited as their forefathers, and all the things they did.
For example, everybody should understand and take part in the Messenger Feast, which we introduced through the Inupiat. The Messenger Feast comes from when each nomadic tribe had its own area that we recognized as its hunting ground. Kotzebue had its own hunting ground; so did Kivalina, Buckland, Noorvik. If you were here, you wintered between here and Noatak. Your boundary was known, and you didn't dare go outside your boundary. The Messenger Feast was a time to invite a village from outside your boundary, and they would come and there'd be storytelling. They had incredible talent in song and dance and rituals of giving thanks.
Look how much stronger we would have been over the years if we had incorporated Inupiat Ilitiquisiat at the very beginning, when the preachers and teachers came up here in the schools and churches. We never would have had this dilemma in our transition. It would have been taken care of by our values because they're so broad and flexible. But the transition drove us crazy because we're not of European descent or British descent. We're Inupiat and that makes a difference. How we think and how we live here in Arctic pertains to us for our survival. It has nothing at all to do with the British Isles, nothing to do with Washington, D.C., or New York. It has to do with who we are here and how we live. I think that's the big message the Eskimo elders gave us in incorporating Inupiat Ilitiquisiat.
We recognize our own strengths. Every village is an extended family. They all work together. You can no longer devalue our education as Eskimo. We incorporate that along with whatever we are doing in the community, in the region. I think we are stronger for it. It will create a generation of stronger children.
Projects for the Future
Country: United States
Organization: Native American
Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative
Representative of seven tribes met in 1991 to discuss the possibility of inter-tribal cooperation for returning buffalo to Indian lands. Some tribes wished to expand existing herds to the limit of economic viability, some wanted buffalo in limited numbers for the cultural and subsistence use of tribal members, others had no buffalo but wished to start herds. The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society has been asked to coordinate the effort, and the number of interested tribes has risen to 19.
Each tribe has developed its own proposal, and several more are under preparation. Some common needs have emerged to suggest a general plan of action for the cooperative: * Education and Training: Developing high-school to college-level packages to train range managers, technicians who will work directly with animals, and other tribal personnel for the projects. * Management Assistance: Developing a flexible bison-management model that can accommodate cultural, subsistence, or commercial uses and be tailored to the goals of member tribes. * Management Assistance: Developing a flexible bison-management strategy and plan to provide outlets for buffalo products, including handicrafts. * Technical Services: Providing expertise to tribes and facilitating relations between the cooperative and outside agencies, including negotiations with the U.S. government for transferring bison from federal facilities.
The Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative has developed separately from the Bison Commons, a non-Indian proposal to reintroduce buffalo on a much wider scale.
Address: Bison Coop Project, NAFWS, 750 Burbank St., Broomfield, CO 80020
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.