I met a native Alaskan last week. Her name is Grace and she is Yupik. Her family was vacationing on the Kenai Peninsula from McGrath, an interior town and one of the check points for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. They were headed to Seward and the family wanted to stop by and see the chain saw carvings, the carousel, and take a look at our gold panning outfit. Grace, a shy woman, came into the shop and inquired if we'd be interested in purchasing some of her handmade birchbark baskets.
Truthfully, I didn't think we could do it but I asked to see them anyway. I wanted to see them and I wanted to encourage her. Something drew me to this woman. Probably because I've been reading about Alaska natives of old and their old ways, their handmade ways of living and creating.
She showed me her beautiful work. White birch bark had been cut, coaxed and molded into ovals forming hardy bowls. She rimmed each basket by setting a narrow strip of bark, about 1.5" wide white side in alongside the basket rim and lashing them together with birch bark root she stripped into cording. She sells them to the Native Heritage shop in Anchorage among other places. They're beautiful!
Next she pulled out a paper plate from a plastic grocery bag. Hooked onto the plate were a dozen pair of earrings she'd made. Now she really had me. We have a ton of jewelry in our shop and couldn't take any more but I bought a couple pair for myself. Here's one of them.
They're not what I would normally wear but I was fascinated by a couple of things. One is that they were handmade by a native Alaskan Indian. Another is that those flakey things strung together with small beads in between are...fish scales. Cool! How native is that? And then, it gets even better. She used Low Bush Cranberries to dye the scales that orangy salmon color. Now that's just plain cool.
I also bought a blue pair.
I almost bought a purple pair instead of the blue, but I really liked the short design of the blue and thought the purple wouldn't show up well against my brown hair. (It's still brown behind my dangling earrings, even though most of the rest of it is white!)
The purple earrings she dyes with blueberries. Blueberries are wild in Alaska, as are many other berries. I love that she uses natural dyes. Some of her colors she admittedly used Rit for, including my steely blue ones. But I didn't care. I love the natural, Alaska-y, native-y, fishy, earthiness of the whole thing.
And I loved my brief talk with Grace. I was fascinated by the things she told me in our brief encounter. She speaks the Yupik language and learned English in school. She said they would get hit for speaking their native language in school. Ugh! I recently learned of this horrible time in Alaska's history when well intentioned educators designed programs that took children away from their families and villages to attend school. They were not allowed to visit home, not allowed to receive visitors, not allowed to speak their own language. Such harshnesss is unthinkable. (Hannah Breece, the old Alaska schoolteacher I just finished reading about, was not a teacher like this.) Grace said she was shy in school. Her shyness and the teachers' cruelty caused her to not raise her hand very often.
Grace said it was difficult to translate Yupik to English for her because in Yupik sentences are spoken backwards to the way they're said in English. Sometimes she'll start to say something to her children and then pause. She laughed and said they say, "Finish your sentence, Mom!"
She also explained some particularly dark purple fish scale earrings she had. She grinned and revealed that she had forgotten them in the blueberry dye for a whole year.
She told me that some people get upset that she uses birch bark to make baskets, thinking she's hurting trees while robbing them of their bark. She said that she uses the bark from trees that are falling down over the river and are going to soon die anyway. She also uses bark from logs her husband cuts for firewood. She tells him, "Don't hurt the bark!"
I had a lovely talk with this sweet and gentle woman from native Alaska. I felt so privileged to have met her. And who knows, if I ever get to do one of those Iditarod trips where they fly you in and out of various checkpoints along the 1000 mile race, maybe I'll run into her in McGrath!