Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Lovely Visit, Part 3



In the Yupik Eskimo tradition, a potlatch is an informal way of distributing wealth among villages. The host village invites one or more nearby villages to come to visit, usually for two or three days. The visitors are fed well, they are given basketsful of gifts, and there is dancing and general celebration. Everyone loves a potlatch; there is high excitement for both givers and receivers.

While Susan and I were in Pilot Station there was a palpable buzz of anticipation about the potlatch in Marshall. Quite a few people I knew were planning to go. The Marshall health aide said that we could stay at the clinic, which is across the road from the school gym where festivities would be held; so when the charter flight had two seats for us, it seemed meant to be. And the perfect way to attend my first potlatch.

Marshall is only a few bends in the river upstream from Pilot Station. The snowmachine trail takes a more direct route, cutting through portages to straighten and shorten the trail. Most people say it takes about 90 minutes on a good snowmachine. The flight only takes 15 minutes, and at -20F, I was very glad not to be screaming along on a snowmachine at 50 MPH.

The village sits at the base of a bald mountain, which is often snow capped and highly visible from long distances. A measure of clear weather in Pilot Station is whether you can see Marshall Mountain from there. The trip over was a low-flying hop. The woman sitting behind Susan spied two moose browsing the willows at the edge of a pond and pointed them out to her; I was looking elsewhere and missed them. Drat!

The brother of the woman who had chartered the plane met us at the airstrip with a small pick-up truck, and once more we piled into the open back with our luggage and several other people. We discovered with teeth-chattering chagrin that Marshall’s airstrip is MUCH further from the village than Pilot’s airstrip. It was brutally cold for the ten minutes it took to drive to the village.

Marshall is a Yupik village of about the same size as Pilot Station. The two are strongly inter-related through marriage, due to their close proximity. Most people in either village have relatives in the other, and visiting back and forth is common. It seems odd that air service between the two villages is not convenient.

The village lies on the north bank of the Yukon River, oriented longways to maximize riverfront property. In the aerial photo, most of the village is seen at the lower left. Many of the homes are older, though in good repair, and there is much less fascination with brightly colored paint than in Pilot Station. But there were just as many yards with moose and caribou antlers scattered casually about or stacked on roofs, and Susan was lusting after horn at every turn. She loves to collect antler-shed in the spring in Montana, and came up with the hope of finding some caribou antler. She had to settle for photos this time.

Marshall’s clinic is still housed in an old building; a new clinic has been built, but they have not moved in yet. Josephine, the lead health aide, had waited for our arrival and showed us around the clinic before she left us with a key. She and her family were dancing that night, and she had many details to attend to before the festivities started.

The agenda, she explained, would start with a welcome and blessing by a male elder. Then the families who were presenting a young person for their First Dance would come forward. This is a big honor, and a rite of passage, for the young person, who is usually 10 to 13 years old. They are dressed in their finest fancy clothes and will have center stage when they dance. Before the dance, the family presents gifts to the people who have been most significant in the young person’s life. Several families, including Josephine’s, were presenting First Dancers at this potlatch.

Next would be the Give-away. The people of Marshall have been stockpiling goods for several weeks to distribute to their guests. A large pile of gifts honors the people giving and delights the people receiving. The rest of the evening would be dancing and drumming by Marshall’s dance group. Exhibition dances for the First Dancers would be held Saturday afternoon, though they would participate with the large group Friday evening. And Saturday night would have dance performances by the dance groups from the visiting villages.

Eskimo dancing is a group activity and originated as a form of prayer. It is all done above the knees. Dancers form a semi-circle in two rows, with men on their knees in front, and women standing behind them. There may or may not be a dance leader out in front for everyone to cue off of; and that leader may face the dancers like a conductor, or may face the audience as the dancers do.

Each dance tells a story, and all dancers make the same movements and gestures in unison. Each dancer holds a dance fan in each hand; it is considered akin to sacrilege to dance bare-handed. If one wishes to dance and has no fans, then putting on gloves will do.

Men’s fans are open circles with five feathers sticking out like fingers; men’s gestures with the fans tend to be somewhat sharp and jabbing. Women’s fans are solid circles of leather or woven grass with finger loops and with long, soft fur from the caribou’s chest attached. Women’s gestures with the fans are soft and flowing. Though the gestures themselves are the same, the effect is quite different. The dancer’s upper body may sway and bend like a willow in a windstorm, but the feet never move.

Behind the two rows of dancers sit the drummers. Traditionally, only men are drummers, though that is no long rigidly observed. One or more of the drummers also sing with the drums, a wordless aii-yii-yii kind of song that goes up and down the vocal scale. Many of the songs sound very much the same to me, and I marvel that the dancers know exactly which dance goes with which song.

The drums are large, thin, and high-voiced. They consist of a two- to three-foot diameter hoop attached to a holding stick and covered on one side with a thin skin—these days, synthetic material, though originally rawhide. The drum is played by snapping a thin, limber drumstick against the drumhead or the rim, to produce a sharp monotone voice.

The school gym is fairly small, so it was a good thing that Susan and I showed up early to get good seats. The bleachers were already half full. The energy level was on high spin, as everyone anticipated the fun to come. Our host villagers were decked out in their finest kuspuks and mukluks, complete with beaded jewelry and ceremonial fur headpieces. Children were running around everywhere, old friends were hugging and chatting, and a controlled level of chaos reigned. The gym floor at the edge of the stage area (defined by blue tarps hung from the basketball goals) was quickly filling up with box after box of goods for the Give-away.

It was such a ripe opportunity for photographing the beauty and joy in the Yupik Eskimo people and their culture. Fortunately, the Yupik enjoy having their pictures taken. Susan was hesitant to ask at first, having experienced other aboriginal cultures who are either frightened of, or offended by being photographed. I told her that that had not been my experience here, and encouraged her simply to ask them first. She did, and they invariably smiled willingly in response. As you can see here, she took some amazing photographs. I took a few shots as well, but was for the most part quite happy to let her do the shutter-work.

The bleachers were full when an elder stepped to the center of the stage and addressed the crowd in English. He welcomed the visitors from Pilot Station, St. Mary’s, and Russian Mission, and introduced the four families who were presenting First Dancers. That was the end of the English. Everything after that was in Yupik, and I had no idea what was being said.

Each family presenting a First Dancer took turns coming forward. First someone spread a blue tarp on the floor and then placed a tanned beaver hide on the tarp, fur side down. The First Dancer stood on the beaver hide holding both arms full of gifts, some in buckets with names on them. Each family laid down its own blue tarp and beaver hide. The family stood around the young person and many words were said. I thought they were praying, but the woman behind me said they were talking about the person for whom the First Dancer was named. The young person then distributed the gifts he or she was holding to specific people in the audience who had been influential in their lives. More hugging, even tears.

When the four families had each had their turns, the elder came forward again and asked the audience to move and re-seat themselves, with all visitors on the left and all Marshall residents on the right. Everyone except Susan and me seemed to know what that meant: time for the Give-away.

The audience re-sorted quickly to visitor and resident locations and I noticed for the first time that quite a few people had brought large plastic tubs with lids along with them. And then it began. Marshall residents started opening the boxes on the gym floor and handing or throwing goods to the audience. Socks, gloves, dishtowels, wash cloths, bars of soap, candles, bags of dried fish, cups of agutak (Eskimo ice cream), packages of batteries, handsful of hard candies and bubble gum, cans of pop, manaq’ing sticks (short poles used for ice fishing), long-handled dippers for the steam bath, refrigerator magnets, key rings with a tiny handmade fur mukluk or a ptarmigan (bird) foot, plastic combs, coat hangers, hot pads, small bottles of shampoo. It was truly amazing.

I soon understood the big plastic tubs, and to wish I had one. Our laps were overflowing with gifts quickly and we were handed more and more stuff. Finally someone gave us an empty plastic garbage bag to load our gifts into; we’d have never been able to carry it all otherwise.

It took nearly an hour to pass out all the gifts. The audience ooohed and aaaahed appropriately, but what was the most fun was watching how happy the act of giving made the givers. From small children to elders, the people of Marshall were beaming with joy as they gifted their friends and relatives from the three near-by villages.

Finally, all the boxes were empty, trash was cleared away, and the drummers and dancers took the stage. The main dance group from Marshall, perhaps a dozen dancers, all had matching kuspuks on. The dance leader was a young man in a white kuspuk who was in front, sometimes facing the dancers and sometimes facing the audience.

A word here on kuspuks: there is gender differentiation here too. Women’s kuspuks are made from patterned fabric, often with small flowers, and may be any color. They may be short, like an overshirt, or long, like a knee-length dress. They may have a gathered ruffle as the lower portion, or not. Men’s kuspuks are made of a solid color fabric, either blue, green, black, or occasionally, white. They are overshirt length, and no ruffles! Common to all kuspuks is that they are hooded and have a large front pocket like the one on a hooded sweatshirt. Also common to most kuspuks is rick-rack. Who knows how this western sewing accessory gained prominence in Yupik garment making, but it has. I have never seen a kuspuk that did not have rick-rack decorating the sleeves, the bottom hem, and the pocket.

The Marshall dancers performed several different dances, each one lasting for some time. A single Eskimo dance consists of the gestures that tell a brief story; the story may be repeated any number of times, and whether gone through two times or twelve, it is all one dance. By the third or fourth time through, it is fairly easy to see what constitutes the basic set of gestures for that dance. At that point, others who are not part of the dance group may feel moved to join in, and are welcome to do so. Eskimo dancing is an all-inclusive activity, even in a performance. If the spirit moves you, you are encouraged to dance.

The evening was winding down as Susan and I ducked out a side door with our bag of loot. My ears were ringing from the drums, and my posterior was decidedly numb from sitting on bleachers. Back at the clinic, we sorted through all the goodies and wondered how we’d get it back to Bethel. Fortunately we found a sturdy cardboard box in the storeroom that would hold it all. I planned to pass most of the gifts on to patients at the hospital when we returned.

The next morning, Susan made coffee while I talked with the air service about how we were getting back to Bethel. We had a charter reserved for Sunday morning, but that would be more than double the cost of taking the scheduled flight back on Saturday. And Susan’s flight back to Montana left at 3 pm Sunday; any weather delay in getting out of Marshall could risk missing her flight. My back was complaining bitterly about the prospect of another night on the cots in the clinic; and though I wanted to see more dancing, I felt Susan had had a very good introduction to it. We talked it over and decided to take the scheduled flight later that morning.

With a few phone calls I got everything arranged while Susan did a whirlwind job of packing up our stuff and making more coffee. The agent agreed to pick us up and drive us back to the airstrip. When he showed up an hour or so later, the village was still sleeping, and so we left without saying goodbye. I wrote Josephine a note and left it with the key, next to the computer.

The trip home was brief, as we had a good tailwind, and we were the only passengers. Walking into the terminal, Susan paid more attention to the mural on the wall; she had seen it on our way out, but it hadn’t meant much then. It is a painting of Eskimo dancers, done by one of my patients in Pilot Station who is a locally well-known artist, Pat Minock. I’ve always wondered why Pat portrayed the dancers not holding fans, but I’ve never thought of it when I had the opportunity to ask him.

Once home, we discussed whether to squeeze in one more dog mushing run, or one more snow machine ride, but in the end opted to stay inside where it was warm and toasty, and enjoy our last hours together talking. We had done lots of it over the week, with many late-night conversations that went on until 2 or 3 am. And yet there was always more to say.

I drove her to the airport the next day extremely glad that time and circumstance had brought us back together. We had a wonderful adventure together, and I am so thankful that she is back in my life. She is a forever kind of friend.
Photos by Susan Rangitsch and The Tundra PA

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4 Comments:

Blogger Maggie said...

Thank you for this wonderful piece of writing and the gorgeous photos - I particularly like the one of the two girls in their fabulous head dresses, and the one of the girl kneeling, smiling shyly. What a wonderful sounding event, and such generous people. Brightened my Sunday morning reading about it. I hope that maybe one day you will be able to film such a festival. Your friend Susan obviously had a great visit with you! Very best wishes from Liverpool (UK), where we have a cold North-westerly blowing, though obviously not like the cold you know! ;-)

Sunday, March 18, 2007 2:36:00 AM  
Blogger Wil said...

As always, a great job reporting on your travels and experiences, TMD.

Just a thought, I suspect that rick-rack has been a trade item amongst the French and later, the Hudson Bay Company, judging from some of the ancient garments on display here at the Hudson Museum. Seems to follow logically that any itinerant traders would have included it in their kit.

Again, thank you for a wonderful window on contemporary life in SW Alaska.

Sunday, March 18, 2007 9:40:00 PM  
Blogger Oleandra said...

Definitely the superior culture. So sad that we European-Americans didn't adopt the Aboriginal ways. W

Wednesday, April 04, 2007 6:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason why the dancers in the mural aren't holding dance fans is that not all dances are danced with fans. If you notice, the men are dancing standing up. There are some dances where they all stand, and during these dances everyone wears gloves.
Terri - LY Yupik Eskimo

Monday, June 04, 2007 2:14:00 PM  

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