Friday, January 13, 2012

Timeless Inupiaq Treasures From Kotzebue: The Revered Elders

By Pamela Rae Schuffert presenting investigative journalism from a Biblical Christian perspective-

The Inupiaq culture contains many honorable and outstanding aspects affecting every part of their society. One important aspect of their belief system from ancient times is THE HONORING OF THEIR ELDERS. One of the first things I noticed when coming to the Inupiaq village of Kotzebue, is the great honor and respect, love and care that is bestowed upon all elders here. The same applies to all Inupiaq (Inuit) villages and dwelling places.

Often, we in the western world forget the importance of elders and their place in our society. In the Inupiaq culture, they recognize the importance of these people continually. For they realize that  is the elders who carry on and pass down the traditions of this proud and ancient people and preserve them carefully, from generation to generation.

For example, it is the elders who know their native language thoroughly and are able to then teach it to a younger generation. It is the younger generation who are continually in danger of being assimilated by the modern culture and language of their world today. The elders are able to pass on to younger generations the timeless skills for survival and every day life that have preserved the Inupiaq for centuries from this harsh climate and geography.

Such skills include being able to live off of what nature provides, in the forms of food and clothing. The Inupiaq are skilled hunters and fishers and trappers. They then take what they have obtained from nature and carefully process this into both food and warm winter clothing as well. By such means Inupiaq have been able to survive in this harsh climate for thousands of years. The Inupiaq want their language and culture to survive well into the 21st century and forever.

However, the danger to the Inupiaq people and their culture lies in the threat of assimilation into modern civilization. Their youth are being educated in schools that teach primarily in English. Traditional fur parkas, leather boots and clothing are being gradually replaced with modern synthetics including down and Goretex.

Many modern Inupiaq youth reason, "why learn traditional fishing and hunting skills, when we can buy anything we want at the local grocery store? Why learn our Native language, when everything from movies to the Internet to popular rock music is all in modern English?"
           Kotzebue Elders passing on traditional tales of   "innukins-tsenin" of Alaska
             Photo courtesy of Bigfoot Encounters 
The reason is clear: in order to preserve WHO YOU ARE (your culture, your heritage, and yourselves as a distinct people and language,) you MUST choose to value these things and carefully preserve them. There is no one more qualified to pass on this priceless heritage, than the revered elders of the people.
              Inupiaq elder Fannie Akpik and Inupiaq educator
                       Photo courtesy of Polar Fields Services
Furthermore, in the troublesome times this nation may unfortunately face in the future, there is no sure guarantee that there will ALWAYS be food on the grocery store shelves. Or always be clothing in the stores. Nor many other things that we have learned to rely on in our modern culture of today.

There may come a time when the survival skills learned, practiced and handed from generation to generation among the Inupiaq through the elders, may be needed more then ever before. In fact, I tell you: there is coming such a time to North America and many other parts of the world. The grocery store shelves will be emptied! There may be no gas, no electricity and nothing left on store shelves in the future. Such survival skills as learned and practiced by the Inupiaq will become essential. This is why Inupiaq youth must choose to learn from the elders, the ancient and profitable skills that have kept them surviving against all odds for thousands of years!
     Traditional ULU KNIFE used by Inupiaq for thousands of years
Just ask Kotzebue's own Native hunter LANCE KRAMER. He even knows how to make traditional ULU KNIVES from native stone here. He knows how to successfully run a TRAP LINE and harvest the furs for practical items such as booties, "parkees" and gloves and other items necessary for survival here. He can hunt and fish. He learned so much of this from listening TO THE  ELDERS in his community. And from observing their skills first-hand. And now he can pass these skills down to others. Smart man! (And smart enough to marry one of the Inupiaq's most beautiful and finest, Corina, now with darling  children of their own! You can read more about Lance Kramer and his wonderful wife Corina of Kotzebue by going to other articles in this blog, December 2011 and January 2012.)

But of course, there are many other fine and skilled Inupiaq men and women, who have learned such skills from their elders and have passed them down to the youth as well.

These elders of the Inupiaq people are indeed a national heritage. They carry priceless wisdom, years of experience, and the language and skills and practices of the people, passed down from ancient times.

I have already enjoyed the memorable experience of being in contact with several elders here in Kotzebue, and have found these people to be a delight. The Christmas Eve presentations by the elders in the Friends Church, for example, I can never forget. Their deep sincerity in presenting the Word of God to us that night was moving, and  even their distinct Inupiaq humor displayed in some of the skits, was unforgettable. At one Christmas dinner I attended in Kotzebue, before we ate, a much beloved elder known as Sister Flora was asked to stand and give the prayer of thanksgiving for this feast.

Her words and sincerity in even this simple prayer moved me to tears. I later came up to dear Sister Flora and told her how much her prayer meant to me, and told her that it was evident she was a woman of deep character and conviction. There are many other wonderful people among the elders here as well. As I have spent time in their presence, simply listening to them, I have already begun to appreciate their wisdom and insight coupled with many years of experience.

Something that moved me deeply, was a beautiful hand-made banner hanging in the High School cafeteria of Kotzebue. It portrayed the traditionally important virtues upheld by the Inupiaq people. One of them was RESPECT FOR ELDERS. Amazing. Something like this would never have been allowed in high school cafeterias in America! But these wise people made SURE that such a banner hung there for all the youth to see and be reminded of every single day. How smart!

Here is one excerpt from an Inuit website confirming their honor and respect for elders in their society:
Ultimate cultural authority rested with the elders. Not only were elders held in high regard, but they also represented a vast wealth of traditional — and vital — knowledge. Without a written language, Inuit preserved their culture through oral history. Consequently, they excelled at storytelling. Adults and children alike once snuggled together, in the light of the qulliq (seal-oil lamp), to eagerly await stories. Such stories contained important themes and knowledge that served to educate the younger people.

In our modern Western culture, we are often guilty of glorifying our modern skills and technology. We think that everyone should learn from US. After all, we have the newest 21st century technology available in the world today.

But does modern technology always provide for development of quality of character in people or a society? No. In fact, it can actually provide for modernized barbarians instead. Our "modern technology has poisoned the entire planet and her oceans as well! It has paved the way for the destruction of mankind through weapons of mass destruction. It has created extinction of species. Depth and quality of character  in people is actually more important in any society, than even possessing advanced technology.

Did Native and Indigenous tribes throughout the world ever do this to the earth, to her people or her creatures? No. But modern technology from "civilized people(!)" has!

As I spend quality time with these Inupiaq of Kotzebue, I am discovering more and more as I live among these people, how much we have to learn from THEM. While I am here, I will respect, and honor, I  will listen carefully, and I will learn.

-Pamela Rae Schuffert reporting from Kotzebue, Alaska

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