I was raised in a multi-generational family in which the strongest tradition is sharing what we appreciate, and what we have learned through stories about the history of our own and our family’s lives. In thanks for the people with whom I was able to travel Chile and Argentina, I share this story. Thank you.
Travel from Alaska to Argentina
I was six the first time my maternal Great Grandmother, Umma, left the state of Alaska. As a full Aleut, she’d lived her life on the Western coast in first one fishing village, and then another. The area is Russian Orthodox.
Orthodox priests were assigned regions to lead, rather than individual churches. Every few months the priest would arrive in a village, and the people would quickly get married, buried, and baptized. And confess.
Confessions occurred in the small church cabin painted with holy pictures, and maintained by my Great Grandfather. Inside, the village would gather, most standing except for seats for the elder women. My Umma would sit through the service, as I stood behind her, my hands crossed on her right shoulder.
Villagers would wait through incense and prayers, blessings till time for confession, then stand in a line to speak to the priest. But first the priest would cross to the front to give communion to Umma where she sat, then return to the back to receive all the others.
Confessions in Orthodox tradition occur in full view, rather than to the side in a small box of a room. After the people proceeded past the priest at the back of the church they would continue in a circle around the sides, kissing holy pictures, till they met Umma. Then the villagers would stand and wait to greet and kiss her too. Sometimes they would also bless me. She was an elder of the community. As her great grandchild, I received honor from her too. It was a blessing I carried with me by being her relation.
My mother was the oldest of her family. She was raised by her grandparents, while also close to her parents. It was partially tradition of staying close to her elders, partially particulars of their own family.
As the story was told, when still young enough to walk to the back of the church, Umma met with the priest. My mom was still little. He said to my Great Grandmother, “someday this one will take you much farther than you’ve ever expected.” Our trip out-of-state was the journey.
Our entire family traveled together landing in Seattle, then driving to Oregon to my Aunty for Easter. I sat in the back, on the edge of the seat between my great grandparents on one side, my middle sister on the other. In the front, my parents and oldest sister rode. On the drive we would come around corners and discover another tall building, or a greater expanse through the trees. Umma would grab my back, squeeze, and whisper, Aling-na! her surprise for everything new that greeted her. On our arrival in Oregon we shared a bedroom. She told me the story for the first time of how the priest had predicted our travel.
She told me too how after I was born she would look at me and smile, then say to my mom, I don’t know where that one came from. It was her way to say too she didn’t know how far I would go.
My parents were both raised in coastal villages. My father, Inupiat, originates further North. Their home regions were small enough both chose to board elsewhere in the state for high school. For university they studied in Fairbanks, where finally they met and decided to marry. Both remained close to their extended families but in having children they made a choice to raise their daughters outside their villages. We spent winters in Anchorage attending a mainstream school, summers on the Western coast commercial fishing with our Native family.
My parents’ wish for their children was for us to be clearly based in our Native heritage while capable of asking only what it was we wanted to do, without question of if we could do it. A life migrating between Anchorage for school in the winters, and the coast for work in the summers was part of that.
Reflecting on my recent trip to South America, I find myself overwhelmed by generations of gift. I am the only member of my family, besides my daughter, that no longer lives in Alaska. My sisters are both quite accomplished but have chosen to live their lives there in the state of our birth. In this way, I stand both as a fulfillment of my parents’ wish that we succeed in the broader world, and as the one who suffers an effect of that gift without family near by. Family for Native people is integral to who we are, and part of any accomplishment we keep. It is me that must do my work, but my family that has made that possible.
We departed Argentina recently on their mother’s day, a celebration in recognition of the generations of women that are family. Before leaving we shared lunch with Nicolas and Elena Catena. They are two people that, like Robert Mondavi for California wine, helped carry Argentine wine into the greater international presence it has today. Spending time with them was an honor.
We were asked, each of us, to speak to what we learned in tasting wine in Argentina. Alyssa Vitrano began by realizing the parallels of her Italian heritage with that of many of the people in wine of Argentina. Mary Orlin, Kelly Magyarics, and Mary Gorman-McAdams spoke eloquently about the quality of the wines we’d tasted, and the intricacies of vineyards with landscape. We all mentioned the warmth of people that received us. When it came my turn to speak I was flooded with the voice of my Great Grandmother — her story from the priest and my birth. Sitting with such accomplished, warm-hearted people there in Argentina, my family’s wishes for me had sent me farther than I ever expected.
Thank you most especially to Marilyn Krieger and David Greenberg.
Thank you to Alfredo Bartholomaus, Alyssa Vitrano, Kelly Magyarics, Mary Orlin, and Mary Gorman-McAdams.
Thank you to Nicolas and Elena Catena.
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