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Archive for the ‘8. Why do the water colors run?’ Category

I am graduating from high school soon. The spring time fever. Everyone is excited for the summer, for their travels onward. The animals perform rites of migration and mating. I watch the sanderlings toddling about getting ready to breed, the soft budding of elk antlers. Soon the trees will fill with nests of loud, hungry babies. This fever is paralleled by hormonal teenagers in pairs; they walk holding hands with ripped jeans and find quiet basements to push their tongues and hips into eachother. Inevitably several girls will get pregnant because the conception roulette was not on their side and they will bring the drama of abortion or teenage motherhood to the hallways. The way I see it, you either pair up like mating birds, group up like herding deer, or end up a loner, like me.

The plants push out bright healthy green shoots, stretching upward and outward. I wonder if I myself will grow at all this year. I stand and look at my reflection with no shirt on. Pretty worthless. Thin arms and a ribcage that expands noticably when I breathe. My hair is dark and messy, sideswept bangs over my forehead. My jeans are black and my converse shoes are scuffed to the point the white is a mottled brown. I picture the several tattoos I plan on getting once I turn 18. Several of them based on artwork I created, some of them based on native art. I imagine the needle dipping in and out of my thin stretched skin around my ribs, taut like a hide drum. Dark ink spreading like an oil spill into the deeper layers of my dermis. I turn away and back to my canvas.

I paint the springtime colors in bold, sure strokes. A cloud temporarily covers the sun, dampening the light coming in through the window. My mother opens the door. “What are you doing?” She asks with a bored inflection. I put my shirt back on. “I’m self-injecting a massive dose of opium into my veins and coordinating an international violent uprising. What are you doing?” She sighs and tells me I have to come help her do some yard work. “Why?” She doesn’t answer me but walks away with the door open. “Shut the door, Janine! The cops could arrest me for all this illegal activity!” I dump the paintbrushes into water and follow after her.

Our yard is ugly. No, wait. The whole neighborhood is ugly. The rain has left muddy puddles all over. The grass in most yards is patchy at best and non-existent at worst. Trash blows in alleys and gathers in huddles around fence corners like gang members on the prowl. A large, shiny black raven sits on a roof gutter and eyes us suspiciously. They act and move like bodyguards, staring from the corners of their eyes, stalking with exaggerated movements, loudly announcing their indignations. I grab a rake and poke at the soggy leaves. I look over at my mother.

She has given up on herself. The man she fell in love with in high school got her pregnant and left her. She found someone else, and he did the same thing. She tried on men like bad sweaters at a thrift store, endlessly trying to find someone to help raise us boys into strapping young men and to keep her company. What she found was a tattered string of abusive relationships. See, a lot of the men here either drink, hit their family, or both. Some academics refer to is as “group cultural trauma.” The oppression of an entire culture, much like the white oppression of native alaskans, will create a ripple effect of oppression in a community. The men have lost their power, so they in turn enforce their power over their wives and children. Or over their livers with a dose of whiskey or twenty. I ponder this as I watch my mom tuck her hair behind her ear and pull the dead iris leaves, jerking them in a backward thrust. “Janine. What are you looking for in a man?” She hates it when I call her by her first name; a sign of disrespect for an elder. Why is it so irresistible for me to do this to her? I of all people know the value of a respectful name. If I was smart, I would look at myself in the mirror, and open the door of my ribcage and look inside. I would find the age-old inherited wounds and poke at them until they bleed. Then I would be able to recognize my own need to assert power and control, cut it out of me, stitch up that hole and start healing. But instead, I poke and prod at anyone and everyone else.

 

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My mother had been working in the Sitka Hospital as a nurse. She had a patient come in named Steven James. When he was admitted, he was elderly, and very sad. She spoke with him at the bedside, Uncle why are you so sad? He told her, when I go I have no one to bring me back. No one will carry my name on for me. You see, in our culture there is a certain belief of reincarnation. My mom thought about this for a while. Having recently lost her husband, maybe she was looking for a hole to fill. She asked if she could name her first-born son after him. See, mom and Steven are from the same clan. Of course this made him very happy. He began telling everyone on the recovery floor that he was coming back. He passed away three days later. This was in 1991. I was born in 1993. When I was very young, we took a ferry ride to Haines. I remember being excited, and pointing out all the coves and bays that I thought would make the best fishing spots. We would find out later, through a friend of Steven James, that most of his favorite fishing spots were exactly along that route. It appears that his name was not the only part of him that came back.

A story and a history can change a name. A name for a person or an object is not just a word, a label, but a history. This is what I mean- our culture, our people have a name. You hear it and form an image in your mind about what that word means based on your experiences, what you see in the news, what your friends tell you. But if you never bother to ask the owner of the name, will you ever really know what or who they are?

When people would ask: What superpower would you want to have? I always think about having the ability to see people’s thoughts. Not read minds, I mean literally see the images that form in their heads. Like in a thought bubble floating above them. Imagine asking a theater full of people to think of home. One word- and if given a multiple choice test, everyone would be able to identify the same definition. Yet truly, no one has the same definition of home. Some people picture the houses of their parents at childhood. A man visualizes his family spending time together in the living room. Maybe a girl thinks of her entire hometown- all the streets and people evoke a familiar warm sense she names as home. You see? Words are not just a chain of letters, they don’t just symbolize some objective form of an idea. They do not just have definitions, they have meaning, often specific to the reader, the writer, the speaker, the listener. Do you see? What if you could see my thoughts? When I said my name you could see the history, the meaning, the depth behind the letters? Would that change how you see me?

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Do you mean the near future? Or do you mean the next five years?  Or a life plan? Are you referring to a career or personal goals? Or definitive plans or pipe dreams?

 (I would just like to know when you are going to graduate from high school, and if you know what you want to do after that- career wise?)

Well I graduate on June 7th this year.  And I’m already doing what I want to do after that.

(Could you please elaborate on that?)

On graduation or on what I am doing?

(You can pick whichever is more important for you to talk about.)

I am a painter.  I paint landscapes and people and still life and native Alaskan line art.  I paint on canvases, on totems, on drums, and masks.  I like using oil paints and thin, fine brushes because then I can control all the details.  Have you ever seen Tlingit art?  It’s all about symmetry and images within images and symbolic use of color and tiny details.  I like painting because I can get lost in it, because I can be in a world of bright turquoise, and not look up at the trash blowing down the street, or hear the kids picking fights with each other, or my brother playing violent video games too late at night.

(Do you earn a living doing this?)

A little bit.  But mostly I work after school for a historical tour company.  I don’t really like it too much, people get off their cruise ships just long enough to take pictures of our mountains and ooh and ahh over our artwork, and to ask dumb questions like what elevation are we at? (Duh, you came in on an ocean liner.)  Why do you think people enjoy doing things like that on their vacations?  They memorize “Fun Facts and Points of Information” about a history that’s not even their own, and then return home to a place who’s history they don’t care about knowing, so they can brag to their friends about how much they know about the world.  What’s the point?

(Do you know a lot about the history of where you live?)

It’s one of the most important things to know, along with the true names of things. You see, the names and the history are the same; to know one, you know the other. In Sitka, there are two predominant native Alaskan tribes: the Tlingit and Haida, which have been around longer than America was called America. To say you are a “Tlingit” from “Sitka” originally meant you were one of “The People” from “The Outside of Shee Island.”  Most Americans don’t give much thought to their names, but to our people, the true name of a person, place, animal, or object is to give it respect.  For example, in common speech you would say, “There goes Shaun Sloan, a high schooler from Sitka.”  But if you wanted to say it with truth and respect, you would say “There goes t`sagwalt` from Shee At’ika, an artist and student, of the Lukaax.adi clan.” Which tells more of a story.  The Tlingit are divided into two moieties- the Ravens and the Eagles. I am a member of the Ravens, and furthermore, I am part of the Lukaax.adi clan, whose crest is the Red Salmon.  Every name has a history, a purpose.  Including my own.

 

 

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