Sunday, December 7, 2014

Full Moon Friday

Students sit shyly but rapt at the Nanwalek Elders tea, as four women speak in Sugstun about the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS) while sipping their sugared black tea. Much of the language is lost on the students who grew in a post-EVOS world, but not the emotion; anger, sadness, a sense of being stunned. Change. Throughout the week we visit Elders in their homes.

I am impressed at how ready everyone is to share their stories and experiences, and their quiet honesty. Ama (Grandma) Alice (pictured right) spoke of how painful it was to leave her four children to join the cleaning crew, but also how exciting it was to be together telling stories, and to experience an infusion of money. She opened a Cafe with her father and served the countless clean-up crews and visitors pouring through their village of 200. The good memories mixed in with the bad, and vice versa: "There was one man who seemed to come from nowhere, though, and he was terrible. He was dressed fancy, and as we scrubbed the rocks he looked around and said 'I don't see any oil.'" 

Tchabo brings levity as I hold the stories and the workload. He teaches me Sugstun words he learned at Headstart as we zag through the woods to our final interview with the students. I often wonder at his unique experience of a village. Our days end with his stories of going with his babysitter to her Godmother's house and enjoying dried & salted fish, or walking to the visiting dentist with the other Head Start kids. We are both relieved its Friday; he will play with friends while I sweat in the Banya before we call it a night. Reunited we are stunned by the milky light of a nearly full moon, drenching the village in festivity. Kids play basketball, cruise around on 4-wheelers, and from the darkness of the low tide splashes of light play off the coral reef; the flashlights of folks searching for octopus and bidarki entice us for our first harvest. We donned our extra tuffs and headlamps and scrambled across the barnacles and tidepools to join the others, the momentary brightness of star fish and anemones slicing through the night. 

We find Martha and Guy, who we had not yet met but welcomed us to join their harvest. The quiet excitement of the bounty of the ocean underneath the moonlight was wordlessly understood by all. Tchabo shimmied uriitaq (bidarki) off the rocks with a knife, and felt the suction of the amikuq (octopus) as Guy held it up for him to hold. Later I giggled with Martha who gently teased me for gathering only the smallest bidarki. "We would call you a cradle-robber, but you didn't know!" We laughed as she showed me how to shimmy the bones and guts from the mollusks.

That night as we drifted to sleep, Tchabo told me "I miss home, but Nanwalek is fun." The full moon and the knowledge that we collected our own food to eat tucked us in to a sweet sleep. I started to understand the grief and anger the community shares about EVOS, the most common comment being we couldn't eat our subsistence foods, or share with our kids how to harvest and collect the foods that we grew up on. 


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Now in Nanwalek

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware."
-Martin Buber

I forget that traveling used to be its own trip. Today we suffer the 8 hour flight, and forget the endless time of traveling by boat, road, or foot. Tchabo and I had a small taste of the fullness of travel as we slept through the rocking and rolling of the Tustemena from Kodiak to Homer before jumping on a quick flight across the bay from Homer to Nanwalek.

The echoes of a slower pace of life continue beyond the ferry ride. As we make a sharp circle
to land on the finger of gravel hugged by mountains in Nanwalek I see that my phone has no reception.
My sigh is simultaneously one of relief and of discomfort. I am forced to shift from my life of text messaging, emailing-on-the-go, and a laughable sense of the urgency of communication. I realize the joyful irony that I have come to engage the community in digital storytelling, and yet I celebrate taking a break from technology.

The first day with the students and community is punctuated by the nervous excitement inevitable on all sides of a storytelling project. I speak with Tom Evans, community leader and liaison for Cook Inlet Keeperabout advice for how to approach the community about a topic as painful as the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS). "After the Spill, no one ever came to ask us for our stories or what it was like for us. I think people will be ready and open to talk about it." I remember Kodiak student interviews about EVOS that ended with tears, but also a sense of healthy catharsis and processing.

The students started to choose their film topics ranging from the geography of the EVOS clean-up efforts to present-day oceanic health. They practiced interview triangles and composition. One kind 11th grader even indulged Tchabo in an arm wrestling competition, which she gracefully allowed him to win. I was reminded of what I love about film: it allows us to tackle the most challenging stories and have fun at the same time.