49 Voices: Michelle Sparck of New Jersey

This week for 49 Voices, we’re going far afield, to hear from an Alaskan living in …New Jersey! Michelle Sparck grew up in Bethel, one of a set of triplets born to Lucy Sparck, of Chevak, and the late Harold Sparck, who moved from Baltimore to Bethel in the ‘60s.

Michelle and her two sisters run Arxotica – a line of skin-care products made from botanicals they pick from the tundra of home. Michelle still feels very Alaskan, but these days she and her husband are raising their family in his home state. We asked how she keeps her Native culture alive for her two kids as they grow up near Princeton, New Jersey.

ArXotica is owned and operated by Alaska Native triplets Michelle, Amy and Cika Sparck of the Qissunamiut tribe in Western Alaska. Michelle is raising her family in New Jersey, with one foot still firmly planted on the tundra. Photo: ArXotica.
ArXotica is owned and operated by Alaska Native triplets Michelle, Amy and Cika Sparck of the Qissunamiut tribe in Western Alaska. Michelle is raising her family in New Jersey, with one foot still firmly planted on the tundra. Photo: ArXotica.

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“Oh it’s very suburban. A lot of towns merge into each other. Which is something I’m not used to, being from Bethel, where our villages … you know Oscarville is 10 minutes away, it’s still usually a plane ride away, or a boat ride away. I’m not used to merging seamlessly into new towns. But I do here in Jersey.

“Jokingly, to my husband, I’m like ‘I can’t just have these white kids from New Jersey in my household. We got to have our Alaskan, and especially my Cup’ik culture identifiable.’ The house is loaded down with Alaska Native arts and crafts, so I try to keep the identity very present.

“I do have seal oil in my freezer. I have dried fish. I have fish strips. It doesn’t mean so much to me when I bring it home and I’m eating it here in my New Jersey kitchen. It’s a lot more meaningful when I eat it fresh from home, when I’m, you know, on location.

“I still kind of speak in imperatives, you know, in the Cup’ik language. I’m just used to being bossed around in it. So I kind of do that with my kids, too. And they know the words. They recognize them. You know like ‘arr’ca’ which is ‘be quiet.’ Or ‘asirr’tuuq’ — ‘that’s really good.’ Or ‘linurrcii’ — ‘Go to bed.’ That kind of thing.

“We do our best to bring them home, you know, for holidays or for the summer. They’re still young. They’re only 6 and 10, but last summer they started helping us. They were just bouncing off the tundra. It was really adorable. And I thought: I could get used to this. I could use their help. And this is just the best way for them to connect to their homeland, to be one with the earth and basically harvest from it.”

Michelle Sparck, originally from Bethel, now living in suburban New Jersey.

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz