“I don’t feel part of the United States.”
She said this after leading our small study group in a two hour lesson in how to introduce ourselves. She is Yup’ik. She was raised by her grandparents until she was 12, moved to five different camps corresponding to different seasons – three different fish camps, squirrel and greens gathering camp, and moose camp. Then her grandparents died and her family “disintegrated into alcoholism.” They lost their boat and engine, their camps fell into disrepair; she lived in foster care for a while, married twice but neither marriage worked out, and yes, she would go back to moving from camp to camp if she could afford it and could find a good man who could hunt.
I know all these things because she told us in her introduction. She told us that a good Native introduction offers something for the other person to connect to – shared knowledge of a place, a common distant relative, an experience during a storm or bad winter.
Her own introduction, delivered calmly with the barest adjectives, set a high bar for the rest of us.
We’re taught to introduce ourselves with our resumes. It is our way of showing where we are in the hierarchy. What we’ve done, no, where we’ve worked, becomes who we are. So it was very freeing to introduce myself with no mention of any of that. And to hear my husband do the same, both of us big on achievements as measures of ourselves and others.
Some of the other people in our group introduced themselves, a few passed, their discomfort worn like special red t-shirts. I felt bad for them, their self-consciousness. I tried to mimic our leader’s manner, the relaxed way she was sitting, her face with a slight smile. I am mindful that my face in repose sends a harsh message so lately I have been trying to smile just a little bit all the time, like I’m recalling a favorite joke. So I did that tonight, trying to take on the persona of the quiet, truthful Yup’ik woman. I wanted to be welcoming and kind like her.
The group responded to her comment about not feeling part of the United States like it was a bit of a joke; after all, many of us feel estranged from our country at the moment. But she meant more than that. Her country, her nation, was here, in Alaska. Her loyalty was to native people across Canada, Greenland, North and South America. It made me sad in a way. I wanted her to be my countrywoman, if that makes any sense. I wanted us to belong to the same nation.