26: Family

Attu, Agattu, Kiska, Amchitka, Tanaga, Kanaga, Adak, Kagalaska, Atka, Amlia, Amukta, Yunaska, Umnak, Unalaska, Akutan, Unimak, Unga,1 over 200 islands over 2000 kilometers, “treeless, windswept, foggy, and volcanic,”2 yet among the richest and most beautiful places. There on Unga, my mother’s father was born an Aleut, an Unangan, and I’ve never seen the islands. I haven’t made, with drift wood and sea-lion skin, a baidarky;3 I haven’t cast a harpoon at a seal; I don’t hunt, or gather, or depend on my family for survival. That would be something to dream of— listening to stories in the smoky barabara,4 throwing darts at a wooden whale,5 keeping a gull on a string,6 hanging and falling from the rafters,7 grandpa squeezing my fingers to make them as warm as his.8 Instructions were never shouted. Always encouraged, never criticized as a boy, I could do no wrong, and if misfortune arrived my godfather would always defend me.9 Later, our well-being would rest on me. Observing carefully, always busy, respecting silence, I would tell only the little deity10 where I would be hunting, lucky to have the fresh world outside, the salty air, the ocean water, all the animals of the sea ready to die for me— renewing the spirits of my ancestors, here in my heart.

  1. Islands in the Aleutian chain, home of the Aleut people—in their own language, Unangans.
  2. All quotations and ethnographic details are from Aleuts: Survivors of the Bering Land Bridge, William S. Laughlin. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980.
  3. Baidarka, the one-person to three-person kayak, is often spelled as it is pronounced, “baidarky.”
  4. Barabara, the Siberian Russian word for underground house, would have been pronounced “malamala” in the Eastern dialect, which had no bilabials or letter R. “Story telling was one of the great arts of the Aleuts, from Port Moller to Attu.”
  5. Two boys, sitting on the ground facing each other fifteen feet apart as though sitting in baidarkas, hold small models of a whale tied by a string to a flexible stick and take turns throwing a dart at the other’s whale.
  6. Captive animals taught the child what they liked and how they responded to humans. “Since each bird has a flight distance, which he is likely to betray, it was important to learn how close to a bird the hunter can approach, in order to get the best possible shot, before the bird will fly off. A shift in balance of a grouping of a bird’s muscles may betray its intent to fly off.”
  7. This game improved the boy’s ability to climb cliffs for eggs and to fall without being hurt.
  8. “Old men prided themselves on having warm hands and believed this kind of exercise was responsible for them.”
  9. The anaaqisagh, an adult appointed to a young child, helped the child an every way possible, sharing its mistakes and blame. In turn, the child helped the anaaqisagh when he or she grew old.
  10. The kathagathagh, literally, diminutive image of the deity, was made of ivory and suspended from a rafter of the home.