Posts Tagged ‘names’

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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My name is Leon, like the Russian revolutionary.  I have a lot to live up to.  Most people name their children the most common names possible: John and Jason and Josh- all having nothing to do with meaning or purpose, but mostly just because they like the ring of it or the way it pairs with their last name.  But my parents named me after a man who’s convictions led him to try and change an entire country.  I’m sorry, my feet don’t fit in those giant leather shoes.  But the funny thing is that I am a political communist activist. Just not a famous/ brilliant/ ambitious one.  Which came first, the chicken or the name?  Was I named Leon because I was born destined to live in a commune and work for a political lobby group and think tank? Or do I live in a commune and work for a political lobby group and think tank because my name is Leon?  In either case, I have never lived on my own; I have never owned  even my own coffee cup, let alone a kitchen appliance; I have always rather eaten at potlucks than any restaurant; in grade school the only high marks on my report card was “Shares with others.”  Does that answer your question, or is it too much significance?  My apologies- It’s not just that I tend to go a little overboard sometimes, just jumping into a question or project; but that I am prone to diving head first into the deep end and racing to touch the bottom.

So you live in a commune.  Can you tell me more about that: how you chose it, what it’s like?

I would love to.  The commune is a very large house with 29 people living in it.  Each room and tenant is unique, and things are constantly changing.  People move in and out, guests come and go, walls get painted and re-painted and muraled and painted again, seven couches dance around the living room, and art projects are born and grow and die on a regular basis.  I chose to live here because I could never live any other way.  I couldn’t imagine a life without heated philosophical debates over how to cure a cast iron skillet; without the passionate nights of card games and wine; without wondering whose shoes found their way into the fridge and why; without long weekly meetings with vehement discussion about the brand of peanut butter to buy; without being a part of this pulsing, living web of individuals who all bring their own flavor to the table.  I read somewhere once this complaint:  “In a communal kitchen, no one has the authority to throw out the ugly mug.”  While very true, the point has been lost: it’s not about efficiency in removing (the subjectively) ugly object; but rather, the communal kitchen is about embracing what we all bring together to share, and about the process of intentionally and thoroughly examining the group’s values and goals.  Again, does that answer your question?  Or I have I gone to deep once more?

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