When I gaze at the stars on a cold winter night, I am reminded that my grandmother’s legacy shines brightly in the northern sky, guiding me to her through each of life’s lessons. Straddling our land much longer than the light of the endless summer days, the night sky guides our people through the long, harsh winters. I learned from a very young age that it is important to work hard to be a good Ancestor, even while I am here. Inupiat are taught that our lives are not written in history books or put into archives for safe keeping; they’re written in the stars, the rivers and lakes, the mighty oceans, the land that provides. Our lives are carried in the wind and send messages through the sky. Have you ever seen the northern lights or watched the sun set in the Arctic? Have you ever heard the night wind howl during a winter storm on the coast? It’s majestic. Our Ancestors are carried in these voices of Earth and through the words we speak, the lessons we teach.
You see, Inupiaq people didn’t sit in classrooms or strive for corner offices or want to live in big houses until about a century ago. We certainly didn’t have multi-million dollar corporations that deluded us into this fossil fuel and mineral extraction development and dependency. My people were nomadic. We were forced into colonization and assimilation through religion and western education and, for a moment, our Ancestors were thought to be silenced. Little did they know, those who tried to silence my people were planting seeds. Our people have always been strong and resilient warriors.
At birth, babies are given a name from someone who has walked on, someone who now watches over the ones that whisper their names—the living. Sometimes babies are given a name from someone in the community with great stature and is a helper. My name is Aakaluk, after my aunt, and she, after our grandmother. This name is to be carried with pride and care for, in good time, it will be passed on to another newborn as a vessel of our stories and our family tree. This name will help our warriors as they find their place in the shaman’s visions. We slowly manifest ourselves as the characters of these stories told.
Our Ancestors are great chiefs, the plant and medicine people, the seamstresses, the doctors, the hunters, and the weathermen. They each had a unique ability, believed to allow them to communicate with the animals and the elements. Each person has a purpose coming into this place and each a legacy leaving. We are told this is the era our grandmothers have been waiting for.
The Inupiaq people live from the land, the river, and the sea. When the Creator put us here, we were blessed to have a home where we didn’t need to own the land. In this place, wealth is defined by the size of your family, by what is stored in your cache for the winter, and by how much you have helped others.
Bless and be blessed. Honor your elders. Teach the young. Do it all with love and compassion. Respect the animals, for they give themselves to you. If you make a mistake, whether it be in sewing or in life, make it right. What you put into the universe will be returned to you. Be a steward of the land and water and what they provide. When you are born Inupiaq, remember, you are born with great responsibility. For what happens in the North will affect the rest of the world. Those visions are more than just dreams.
In my childhood, we borrowed songs and dance and our shaman were asleep, yet I was raised rich in cultural traditions through food and storytelling. Our stomachs were never empty, and our table has always welcomed people from afar who share their stories. Seal grease, whale blubber, salmon and the caribou, greens and berries, along with the other nutrient-rich foods from the land have taken care of my people since time immemorial. The animals, the places, the trees, the water, they too are thought to be our Ancestors. Our food is our medicine and our land is where we go to heal ourselves.
My grandparents taught us to balance our relationships with neighboring villages by bartering what goods we had to offer and by inviting in travelers to our table. I live in Fairbanks, Alaska, which means I am living farther from my village than the distance from Los Angeles to Phoenix. Although I am far from home, I continue to open my door regularly for feasts of food from the land to remind myself that I carry a great responsibility. We gather in plenty to sit on the floor where we eat with our hands and dip everything in seal grease.
During the twenty-four-hour daylight that carries us through the summer months, our Ancestors gift us the light of the sun to guide us through all of the work of harvesting and gathering and hunting. With this gift to guide us in our work, we use the endless days to teach our youth about the value of our food, our land, our recently returned songs, and the beautiful places we carry with us, no matter where we are in this big world.
The work I do in advocating for our way of life is a part of my legacy. I do this work so that our children will be able to carry me as an Ancestor when I join my grandmother in the stars. Our team puts in countless hours at the office and at home late at night after the day’s work is done and the kids are in bed; meeting after meeting, call after call, action after action. I want our children to know that I did everything I could to ensure that when I am looking over them—when I am called to the next place—they’ll be ready to take up this work defending the sacred. When I touch the ground and pray, I know that the roots of my home grow up in me; I carry them wherever I go. When I touch the ground and pray, I am being a good Ancestor right here in this place I carry in my heart.
My responsibility as an Inupiaq woman is to carry my grandparents with me. When the endless days turn to night, I see their lives written brilliantly in the sky above me. They are my Ancestors and they show me that to be a good Ancestor, the sky is the limit. Reach for the stars.