Click for Kotzebue, Alaska Forecast

Thursday, February 20, 2014


A few days ago, my sister asked me to design a tattoo using an anchor, similar to the ones our grandfather, uncles and dad used in their boats and for fishing.  She was simple in the request.  Beach grass, anchor, and longitude and latitude for our Sisualik camp.  Representing us kids being anchored there in roots and culture.

So, I drew.  And drew, and erased, and drew...  and then I burst into tears. 

Because, I want it to be perfect.  I want it to represent my childhood.  My happy, healthy, spoiled by my grandparents childhood.  So buried memories swamped my emotional state and the tears came.  I wanted to remember everything good about Sisualik.  I wanted to draw everything that reminded me of Sisualik.  And I knew I wouldn't do it justice.

When I was a child, I ran around with no socks and shoes on.  I ran through fireweed, away from bumblebees, and picked wild onions.  We stayed up late at night, bright in the midnight sun, running around the tundra playing Norwegian, kick the can, and more.  We hunted mice with swords made of driftwood, in their underground castles made of plywood.

My tatta built Goober, Josie and I a swingset 35 years ago with driftwood, rope and old 2"x10" boards.  It still stands, parts re-built for the other 70 grand children, and 50 great-grandchildren.  But I still retain ownership of the swings, and even in the stormiest weather, it stood, as a beacon calling us home.  Right next to the Inisaq's and the old siglauq.

We fed 40 hungry dogs, and ran around with the puppies.  We got in trouble together, we slept on the floor, and we fought like enemies.  Each one of use was spoiled in our own way.  I never did the dishes.  I never had to wash the oblong rectangular avocado colored plastic bowls that we ate our daily caribou soup in.  I got to stay up late and listen to my grandparents play pinochle and speak their native tongue.  I asked them, "Do you want tea?"  "Do you want coffee?" in Inupiaq. 

We gathered and stored broken seashells like they were diamonds and gold.  We put tiny white clamshells on our fingernails and called them "Devil's Nails."  My grandfather and his brother built a church at camp.  A simple structure, four walls, no insulation, simple benches, and a wooden pulpit.  He donned his best button up shirt and tall mukluks and preached to us.  Kids sat on the floor, and giggled, "Quyaanan Agaiuun, Qaitchuna Ilipnun Agaayun," we learned to say. 

Hotcakes were fried in cast iron skillets with bacon grease or Crisco every.single.morning.  We never got tired of them.  Spam, bacon, sausage, corned beef hash or fried caribou accompanied them, with leftover qayusaaq to dip in.   In the springtime, seagull eggs were boiled for us to eat with breakfast.

The boys got to go out and hunt for birds on the spit, they walked with a shotgun, a couple shells, held across their backs with rope, and came back with ducks and geese in the fall time.  Duck soup was a favorite.  We fought over who ate the brains.  Sometimes I even won.  We said, "Jesus Qaqiaq, Amen" before every meal, and sat outside, on the ground to eat.  Summer birthday's were a treat, because all the kids from all the camps came over and we had DOUBLE decker birthday cake, with frosting from a can. 

We stole gas from people and went joyriding back and forth along the beach, happily oblivious to the wrath we would face when we went home.  And we always went home.  Because even though my grandparents were mad, they still showed they loved us the best.  They took care of us, together.  Quietly allowing us to make mistakes, showing us how to be servants of humanity. 

We visited other camps, and walked to Nuvugurak to see how everyone's ugruk and salmon was drying.  We cut beluga and seals on the beach, and swam with the salmon net.  Sometimes, we checked net, by swimming in the ocean to the buoy and bringing it back to the boat.  Sometimes, we used a qayaq.  My grandfather used a qayaq to check his seal and beluga nets miles offshore.  It was a celebration when he brought one home.  We cut more fish on the beach than I can count.  Hurriedly so we could run around and play afterward.

Us kids fought over who got to stand at the bow of the boat when we went back and forth, or went hunting.  Perfect for the salty spray to barely kiss our faces.  Or who got to sit on the side that got the wettest from the rough waves, and we were never scared with our Tatta.  We had new mukluks every year instead of shoe-packs.  We had new parkys instead of north face coats.  We had new fur hats and mittens, and our old ones went to the younger kids. 

 We HAD to pick berries.  Boys, girls, moms, dads, uncles, aunties, old and young.  Berries, berries, and more berries.  "Fill your aimmaq before you go play out."  The fast kids would steal berries from the slow ones, and run to aana, exclaiming they were done!  We staked claim to berry patches 20 feet wide, and fought like bears if anyone came to our patch. 

There are so many things we did, so many memories that flooded me that my body couldn't hold it in.  I sobbed and shook and cried that my aana was gone.  That my tatta was gone.  That almost all the elders we knew and loved are gone.  Everyone who grew up at Sisualik got cinnamon rolls from aana Katak, they said Good Morning and Good Night on the CB to Aana Carrie.  They got scolded by Aana Dora, and got smiled at by Aana Irene.  We were all scared of Mendenhall's house.  Even though it probably wasn't haunted.  We all walked miles and miles to play with the Noatak kids who came for the summer at Nuvuguraq, we walked to aana Carrie's and gave her our first duck.  We went to Greene's and Wilson's cause they had landing strips. 

We bring our newborn babies to camp to show them where they are from.  The breaths of our ancestors whisper in their ears thousands of memories within.  The tundra speaks to them of the family that once sailed across in the winter, and used a dog team in the winter to get around.  Beach grass dances for the babies as the ocean sings it's sweet song. 

We bury our family there.  To bring them back to the place where they belong.  So their worldly bodies may rest and their souls can breath in the happiness there.  A world untouched by technology, minus the ubiquitous telephone solar panel on the elder's homes.  A world were fish are still hung, ugruk is still cut, berries are still picked, shells are still gathered, and porcupine are still curious.  I, too, will be buried there, because that is where I belong.

Happy tears were shed, I think.  Happy tears for a happy childhood.  One that I am grateful to have shared with Bessie, Josie, Goober, Doccy, Cody, Junior, Stacey, Saima, Charlotte, Bunnik, Andrea, Cathlynn, Johnson, Ethel, Irene, Phyllis, Francine, Mable, Madeline, Joey and Nikki, Saul, Nathan, Eli, Vernon, Vanessa, Ootut, Janet, and more.  And one that I hope my daughter remembers just as well as I do with her grandparents, and all her cousins. 


gpc said...

It's so good to have you back, Maija.

Matt, Kara, Hunter and Cavan said...


rockygrace said...

This was beautiful. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I just chanced across your "Anchors" entry, and found myself welling up with tears of remembrance. You have so beautifully and eloquently expressed the joys of your childhood. Though mine differed greatly in the details (Chicago suburbs in the 1940s & '50s), it also was one of great freedom, supportive extended family, and wonderful exploration & play. We were allowed to invent our own fun, unencumbered by rules & hovering parents. As you do, I also feel incredible gratitude for the gifts of this childhood and the examples of my ancestors.

Cubanmidwife said...

Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful memory. I have read your blog for two years now and enjoy so much keeping up with Kotzebue. Thank you.

merinz said...

What a wonderful account of your childhood. And a wonderful childhood. You are the memory keeper for your children and your future Grandchildren.

Josephine Faith Gibbs said...

Found your blog last night in a meandering search for kuspuk photos. This post about your childhood and losing your grandmother is beautiful and moving. Thanks for sharing your heart and your life. I stayed up til 1am reading entry after entry!