It was late in the afternoon and I was exhausted from two solid days of interviews about learning and teaching Inupiat language and culture. I thought I understood the importance of maintaining the culture and traditions, but I had already scheduled an appointment to meet with a young man from a whaling family and I felt I shouldn’t break it.
Josiah Patkotak is 18 and recently graduated from high school – though just barely. He missed between 25 to 40 days of school each year while growing up. He was out hunting and camping with his family.
“My graduation was on the line but I think it was worth it. Well worth it. Because of what I was able to learn from my community and from people. And some of that information and knowledge and information is sacred for some people. Because learning stuff from somebody the way they specifically did it and learning it from someone and them passing away, I can say this is the way I learned it. This is what they told me,” Josiah said.
After graduation Josiah and his new wife, Flora, started a semester at UAF but soon decided to put school off for a year and come home to record interviews with elders about the Inupiat way of life.
Josiah spoke eloquently, almost philosophically, for a half an hour about learning Inupiat through being out on the ice with other hunters and his passion for living his culture. Then the conversation turned to his 14-year-old brother Samuel, who had mostly been focusing on his iPad.
“I miss a lot of school hunting, but I don’t learn as much as he does.” “Why? Why do you say that?” “I goof off a lot.”
His older brother relocates to a chair directly across from him, and doesn’t let him get away with that answer. Josiah and their mother remind Samuel of how much he knows about hunting and contributes to the community. He tries to make Samuel think about what Inupiat words he uses when out hunting.
“Do you say caribou or tuk-tuk?” “I say tuk-tuk a lot” “When you see an animal come out of the water, do you say surfaced or ____?” “Came up?”*
Their mother, Laura, enters the conversation.
Anne: “I feel like they aren’t giving themselves enough credit.”
Laura: “They aren’t! I’m sitting here thinking why won’t you tell her who you are.”
She stresses that her sons and their 15-year-old cousin Randy are highly experienced hunters who have harvested caribou on their own to feed the family and killed bears to protect the camp.
“They’re unique and they’re special. They have a step above most of their peers and then some. Because of the lifestyle we have forced upon them. They are whalers because their dad is a whaler. They’re hunters because their ancestors hunted in that region four generations ago,” Laura said.
As Josiah pointed out, that level of family dedication is diminishing.
“How many people do you think your dad, his classmates would go out camping and couple of people would stay back and listen to rock and roll and party and stuff versus now. How many of your classmates do you see going out there and living the life that we’re losing versus staying here and playing with the X-Box. Think about that. That’s a kind of change,” Josiah said.
As Laura talks and thinks about her family and how they’ve raised their children, she reflects on this change within the community.
“Maybe that’s where we’re failing, you know? As a community. Maybe the parents forgot that when our ancestors were this age, they were doing what these guys are doing,” Laura said.
She says people need to have more confidence in their children.
Josiah’s wife, Flora, sat silently through the hour-long conversation, but after this statement, she jotted down a note.
“Parents worry. Parents sometimes don’t have that confidence in what they taught their children to just let them go,” Flora said.
Flora wasn’t raised like her husband. She studied hard at school and learned from books. But she says her own children will be out on the ice.
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