Grandmother Could Fly by Sean Mooney I take a small propeller plane from Nome, Alaska to the native village of Elim, which appears along the coastline from among the trees and rocky cliffs. There are no roads connecting it to any other place, and my once-daily plane is anticipated on each occasion by a small gathering at the end of the gravel landing strip carved out from a level stretch of ground uphill from the village. It is raining but no one seems to notice, or to mind it. Besides myself, three others get off the little plane, after the pilot, who opens the rear hatches where the locals eagerly help offload a variety of packages, boxes, bags, rifle cases, supermarket shopping bags. A middle-aged woman with an open 4x4 vehicle and a flat trailer attached to the back of it grabs much of the cargo and two of the passengers and they zip downhill towards the village, overstuffed and precarious. I’m the last person left with the plane, except for the pilot, who is chatting with an elderly man with a jeep that is already full with cardboard boxes, occupying the passenger seat, roof rack and rear compartment. He has met the plane to receive the mail. I start walking down the pathway towards the village in the misty rain, having nothing to carry and knowing nobody, but the old man stops me to offer a ride. It seems impossible that he could fit me in amongst the boxes, but he manages to find space on the seat, strapping a few more boxes onto the roof, and I hold a few on my lap. We coast down the hill into town, to the only official building, other than the school, which houses the post office, village administration office, a small store and a community center. I am going there to meet someone, and we depart as a couple of younger people help him take boxes inside. The reception of the mail is a community event, and I am a stranger, thus my involvement in such an intimate act ends here. At this point, the village remains itself, as it always has been, a small collection of about a hundred people, each related to one another in some measure, and existing as a family. Except for two or three schoolteachers and a research scientist studying the local ecology and something to do with salmon, everyone is Inupiat. Despite the gentle rain, standing outside the door to the community center are three young villagers, one of whom is missing an arm and is smoking with the other. He introduces himself as Michael and says that we should go up the hill to the school. He wants to show me something. I hop onto the fender of his 4x4, clinging for dear life as he barrels up the hill with a smile on his face. I think he knows this is not something I do every day, and he relishes the entertainment, perhaps going a little faster than he normally does. But I never ask about his arm. The Elim High School is indeed high, at the top of a hill overlooking the village, the coastal cliffs and the sea beyond. Basketball is the local passion among every village I have ever visited, and in front of the school is a drab concrete court with two nets, as one might find in any other American town where there is a playground. I tell Michael that I am from Brooklyn, where kids play basketball everywhere, but this is the most beautiful court I have ever seen. He laughs and says that they played a team from Brooklyn once. We go inside the school to look at the display cases. There are some windows with paintings and crafts done by the students, and some more serious-looking displays by adults. There is a large bronze eagle in a case by itself, looking very official and generic, as if supplied by the state government. And there is a case full to the gills with basketball trophies, medals, photos, newspaper clippings and other paraphernalia of team spirit. Surrounding the inside of the doorway there is a series of square portraits of village elders, the guiding spirits of the place, looking down. Michael leads me to another glass case, which is full of a variety of artifacts. There is everything from an elaborate woman’s parka, with fur trimming, carved buttons, and matching boots, to various fishing tools, decorative objects carved from ivory, antler and wood, dolls, bowls and sundry old photos. There are some relics from the native village store, like a package from some canned food labeled 50 cents, and some postcards. These all seem to have equal importance and nothing has a label of any kind. Michael explains to me what each item is, knows who found it or made it, is full of stories. And he is only 24 years old. I can only imagine how much his elders must have in their memories. Michael is particularly proud of a blackened wooden toolbox, which looks to be from the 19th century or so, with hide strips and ivory buttons to clasp it shut, and a lovely handle. A few carved harpoon points and fishing lures are laid next to it, as examples of what else may be inside it. It belonged to Michael’s grandfather, he says. I meet next an older woman, perhaps in her 50’s, who works in the school. It is August, and so nobody else is around, and she has some time to tell me about the language archive she has been working on. Someone before me, some years ago, came to make recordings. She tells me with urgency how important it is to collect the elders’ stories before they all die, as they are disappearing so quickly, and their culture is already almost lost. Her particular concern is the native language, which everyone understands but few speak, and so she is trying to establish this into the regular school curriculum. She has endless stacks of folders full of lesson plans, articles, notes, photos, which she pulls out to show me. She speaks rapidly while she reads through them all. We turn to talking about the village and the artifacts in the display cases, and she speaks of her grandparents. I make some remark about the remoteness of the place, but she dismisses this, stating very matter-of-factly that there was never any problem of communications between the villages, “because my grandmother could fly. Everyone could fly in the old days, before the missionaries came and told us we couldn’t, and so we didn’t anymore. But my grandmother could fly.” She said this without smiling or with any emphasis or drama, because it was perfectly true. I didn’t doubt her at all. It was true because she believed it was, and the idea confirmed for me the thread of connectedness to shamanism one still feels in the native Inupiat and Yup’ik villages of Alaska. In the indigenous art from the Bering Straits and adjacent villages, there is often seen hybrid figures, those of animals and humans and birds and sea creatures, all cohabiting the same corpus. One might see a seal with a human face, or a caribou turning into a salmon. In particularly spectacular examples, these are so skillfully executed that three or four different animals can be seen, only by turning the object around, upside down, side to side. One figure appears out of another. There is movement and morphing. This is all possibly understood through shamanism. There are many stories in which a shaman must travel to another plane of reality, in order to plead with a particular spirit for the release, or health, of another. One must travel down to the place where the seal spirits live, or up to where reside the birds, in order to make the appropriate offerings. It is all a matter of communications, a form of prayer, but is conceived of as a physical experience of traveling. And in order for it to work, the shaman must have the capacity to change him or her self into whatever animal is naturally capable to execute the conveyance. The human becomes bird, or walrus, or tree, depending upon where he needs to go. In art, then, there is often an expression of this process of becoming, of going. Figures are often shown in motion, usually flying, almost never running. In other cases, this is expressed in masks, which were used ritually by villagers, sometimes aiding the shaman on his journey, and at other times during potlatches, village gatherings where dances were performed, over a series of days of feasting and drumming. The masks are particularly interesting from this point of view as well, since they are, by definition, transformative. We become someone else when we wear a mask, covering the specificity of our own identities. For the shaman, or a native villager in general, the wearing of a mask is a universalizing gesture. The individual becomes all people, or becomes a spirit, connecting with the other spirits, upon which life depends. So, that fact that Grandmother could fly made perfect sense. It also made perfect sense that the missionaries told them they could not, and therefore they stopped flying. For if one believes in a separate, fixed-entity deity, whole and intact, living in a Heaven that is attainable only after death, then one has no need to go anywhere in the current time and place. Life and death have inviolable boundaries to the Christian, and shamanism violates these laws, certain aspects of physics and other natural sciences. When the native villages were converted to Christianity, a process that is still being undertaken, Inupiat and Yup’ik people either stopped practicing shamanism, or were forbidden to do so, to the point where even dancing was not allowed, for its native power. Some villages have strongly returned to dancing practices in an effort to restore native traditions, but these are mostly performances, putting indigenous culture on display, an expression of techniques rather than attempts to travel across spirit-planes. Still, my visit to Elim confirmed that the spirit worlds exist for them, and that there is no way to remain alive in the delicate balance with nature in such a climate and a remote, small community, without some deep respect and understanding of the environment which has always fostered human existence there. As such, there is little separation between what is considered a tool versus a decorative or fetishistic object. Functional objects, like hunting or fishing implements, are imbued with spiritual significance, because they need to be. When one is hunting, one might encounter an ancestor, inhabiting the body of a seal or walrus or caribou, and be thankful that they have come back to you, to help the family survive. Perhaps this was partly why Michael was so proud of his grandfather’s toolbox. It is a sign of continuity and wholeness, in a present so rife with scattering and disjunction. Migration In the popular imagination of remote southerners like myself (that is, those inhabitants of the Lower 48 American States), indigenous Alaskans such as the Yup’ik, Inuit and Inupiat are thought of as nomadic, seasonally hunting game, fowl, fish and sea mammals, and establishing temporary shelters throughout their journeys across vast stretches of terrain. While this is true, in part, what is not commonly understood is the strong identification with villages among traditional hunters. Nomadism is a misnomer when describing those who venture forth in search of game. There is no wandering involved. All travel, especially during seasons when conditions are harsh, is purposeful and skillfully considered, following the accrued knowledge passed down through hundreds of generations. And, it is all centered on the common purpose of sustaining the extended family of the village. Nomadism would imply extended one-way movement. In Alaska, travel is equally about the return, and has no other true purpose. Nonetheless, vast distances are traversed in order to meet the demands of hunting, and native villagers have developed sophisticated tools and techniques, refined by trade and the introduction of different materials, but well established since earliest times. One can say that these are cultures defined and revealed by their tools, in the purest sense. A villager’s toolbox will house every aspect of his identity, that of his village, and of his ancestors. All practical and spiritual matters are fused within it. With the highest degree of visual economy, an animal may be depicted on the very tool which is designed to hunt it, using its cousin’s bones. There is a startling level of distillation among such objects. But before discussing the visual and artistic qualities of such things, suffice it to say that hunting is the dominant activity that defines the life of Alaskan natives, to this day. In hunting, there is ancestral continuity, in the carrying out of essential practices passed down through families across centuries, and as a result, there is life, in every sense. In order to succeed, there must be travel and migration. So, naturally, migration plays a huge role in understanding native Alaskan cultures, back into Paleolithic times. The objects in the Steven Michaan Collection are drawn from several Alaskan native cultures across many centuries. One can roughly divide them into two distinct cultural periods: that which is referred to as the Old Bering Sea, the earliest known ancestral period (c. 250 BCE – 500 AD), centered on Saint Lawrence Island and coastal Siberia (Chukotka), and to the Yup’ik and Inupiat cultures of mainland Alaska that were established slightly later. These modern mainland artifacts date, for the most part, from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, in both pre-and post-contact periods, but the forms of these objects predate any influence of southerners or missionaries. What distinguishes the qualities of these two groups of artifacts, aside from their dates, is their materials. Old Bering Sea artifacts are almost exclusively carved from walrus ivory, an abundant material on St. Lawrence Island, a place largely devoid of trees. By contrast, many of the Inupiat and Yup’ik masks, dolls and tools are fashioned from wood, and decorated with ivory, shells, jet, earth pigments, animal fur and plant fibers, all materials more readily available on the mainland. Where mainland villages are very far north, and along the coast, these materials were scarce, and in places like Point Hope, just as on Saint Lawrence, any wood utilized is usually some sort of driftwood washed up from distant southern locations. In any case, the utility of artifacts in the variety of locations is often the same, but expressed with slight differences relative to its choice of materials. This suggests a high degree of cultural continuity though people living across very wide expanses, and it can be argued that all native Alaskans descend from common ancestry dating back to Old Bering Sea times. And herein lies the source of the common mythology regarding nomadic practices among the Inuit of Canada: the fascinating act of the great migration of Old Bering Sea peoples across a stretch of land more than 3000 miles wide, within a three hundred year span. There are many speculations on why this happened (warming trends in the 13th-15th centuries, the chase for game during famine periods, the introduction of new trade sources in the east, etc.), but the fact that it did helps us to realize that the Inuit of Canada and the Kalaallit of Greenland have common roots in Siberia. This fact alone is a remarkable reality when trying to understand a culture that survived into modern times using, basically, stone-age technologies and hunter-gatherer ways of life. We southerners used to define these far-flung people collectively as Eskimo. The term has its roots in Canada, where the indigenous population in the far north is largely Inuit, and there the term is considered taboo today. However, there is no such taboo in Alaska, where in fact the term is preferred to Inuit, among villagers who might be Inupiat, Yup’ik, Siberian Yup’ik (those of St. Lawrence Island) or Chukchi (more specifically, Anqallit, those indigenous to the maritime coasts of the Chukchi Peninsula, that land mass reaching out to nearly touch the Bering Peninsula across from it, which together formed the ancient land bridge of which so much legend is supposed). All of the major indigenous groups of the far north have common language roots and can be loosely understood amongst each other, albeit with some significant structural differences and local dialects that vary between villages and regions. To generalize, then, west to east, those we came to call Eskimo or Esquimaux in the 18th century can be broadly understood under the classifications of Chukchi (Anqallit) in coastal Siberia, Siberian Yup’ik on St. Lawrence Island (there may be no ethnic difference, in fact, between these two groups), Inupiat and Yup’ik in large regions of coastal Alaska, Inuit in Canada, and Kalaallit in Greenland. Interestingly, and unsurprisingly, each of these groups’ names mean, in translation from their respective languages, “the People,” or “the Real People.” And, as noted above, broadly speaking these groups can all claim common ancestry from those Paleo-Eskimo villagers who inhabited the Bering Straits in earliest times, who flourished on St. Lawrence Island in the center of it, and who around 250 BCE began creating some of the finest artifacts of artistic accomplishment anywhere in the world. That they did so under arctic conditions makes their achievement all the more compelling.