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Puzzled Inupiaq

Story shared by Denali Whiting

The Qargizine, Fall 2016 #5

To describe the land is to describe myself. What makes a landscape sacred? It is the very essence that allows my spirit to be sacred. The history of my ancestors and the story of our future is written in code throughout our ecosystem. This complex network composes my physical self, and is the binding factor to my wellbeing as an Inupiaq – as a person of this earth.

In many instances I have found myself trying to explain and understand the entirety of what my culture means especially when people ask about subsistence, regalia, values, or language. You cannot explain one aspect fully without mentioning the others, the small pieces that contribute to the large. Our culture is like a puzzle, as cliché as that sounds. In viewing one piece alone you are disregarding the whole picture. And the glue that binds this puzzle together is our land.

I have trained my mind to view things as holistically as possible because of this. It is almost insulting to single one aspect out. Not all of our “pieces” have to be shared with everyone else, but we need to understand that in showing how these pieces fit, we will better protect our land, which will protect our spirit.

When some people think of “Eskimos,” they often picture what they have seen on TV. Where would you go to learn about “Eskimos” if you knew nothing about us? A museum, probably. Which museums might have the most thorough information? I don’t know about you, but I’d guess a museum in Alaska. Recently, I took a trip to the museum curious about what I would find. I walked over to the Northern section and stopped at a display case showing a pair of maklaks, which were labeled “Boots.” The rest of the placard described, “Reindeer, seal skin, leather, felt. Inupiat, Nome area. Ca. 1925, Seppala Collection.” This is what someone unfamiliar with our culture would see in an effort to learn about who we are. Although technically the information was correct, there was so much more that I wanted to know and that could be said about this single pair of boots.

To describe these maklaks is to describe myself. Which puzzle pieces interlock? Let’s see.

The maklaks had a “hard bottom” made of sealskin. To make these, you have to have a successful hunt. After separating the meat and blubber from the hide and set aside to be prepared in various ways for food, you work on the skin to tan it. Once it is tanned, it is crimped and shaped, and then you can sew the reindeer to it to create the leggings. The string was made of sinew. I imagined a beautiful Inupiaq woman carefully stitching the materials together with patience and purpose. I thought about the family structure at the time these were made. Was it her husband who harvested these pieces? Was the meat being frozen, stored, or maybe dried into paniqtak to be taken out as a snack for the hunters on their next harvest. I wondered if maybe her daughter or niece might have helped with the sewing. Likely someone was with the seamstress during this time, observing every stitch and motion in detail during the process, engraining these steps in her mind. I thought of my own grandmother, Dora Wilson, making maklaks each year so that her whole family could stay warm. I wanted to share my thoughts with those coming to the museum to learn about our history. To learn about these boots. To see the whole picture.

In order for our culture to survive, we need to have a healthy environment. The seals that we depend on for food and use for sewing have to be healthy. In order for the seals to be healthy, they need a healthy environment, the right temperatures, low disturbances in the ocean from outside sources, and lots of food for them to eat. The same is true for caribou. They need lots of food and access to this food. They need a healthy migration pattern with limited outside disturbances. If our environment is unhealthy, our resources become stressed and unhealthy. If our resources are unhealthy, we are unhealthy. Physically, mentally, spiritually. It is the foundation behind the phrase “living a subsistence lifestyle.” This is what I mean when I say “to describe the land is to describe myself.” As for the pieces of the puzzle, I hope they stay vibrant and we don’t lose any under the couch.

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