In this season, I often remind my children of the important lessons we learned about giving and sharing when we lived in Alaska. In this photo, Kyra (5) and Ethan (2) are presenting their first harvest of petrushki (beach lovage) to Rita Blumenstein, a renowned traditional healer and member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. Auntie Rita had spent Mother's Day with us on the coast of Turnagain Arm, Alaska, where she taught my children not to take too much, so other people and animals can harvest too.
At Anchorage Museum’s Living Our Cultures, Sharing our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska exhibit, Elders and youth are interviewed among the Athabascan, Eyak, Haida, Iñupiaq, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Unangan, Sugpiaq, Yup’ik, and Saint Lawrence Island Yup’ik..
In the Yup’ik video, Alice Rearden (Cucuaq Aluskak) speaks about ella, or awareness. Growing up in Napakiak, her Elders taught her “that if you are out walking and see a piece of driftwood sticking out of the mud, you should pull it out and turn it over so that the muddy part can dry. That piece of wood is alive and aware, and it will feel gratitude for your kindness.”
Her features are delicate, but when she speaks, her voice is laced with the weight of more than 12 years of wisdom, gleaned from serving as lead translator for the Calista Elders Council. The video pans to a scene of fish hanging on a dry rack while Rearden says off screen: “We always grew up with that sense, of not putting yourself first or above others. Giving gifts to people, those kinds of, you know, unselfish gestures that you do for people—it will come back in turn.”
Yup’ik Elders explain that "those who are capable must help those less fortunate through sharing food and doing chores for them. We were admonished: ‘Even though an old woman wants to pay you, you do not receive it.’ When an elderly woman or man is given something or helped, she is extremely grateful and thanks you with enthusiasm. And they give the person who helped them something beneficial, thinking of something in their minds that will aid him positively in his life.
“Yup’ik discussions of the ethics of sharing describe its consequences in terms of its nonmaterial return—the grateful thoughts it elicits.…Today, sharing knowledge is as critical as sharing food in both the transfer and transformation of Yup’ik moral standards. Admonitions to act with compassion and restraint remain foundational not only in Yup’ik interpersonal interaction but in their relations with their environment.”
Living in Alaska, it seemed easier to teach my children about sharing. While dip-netting, we always collected fresh fish heads discarded on the beaches and delivered them to Elders whom I worked with in town. They helped me clean, pack, freeze, and ship salmon to relatives in the Lower 48. Now as they get older and we move further away from Alaska, I hear them yelling "mine" at each other and slipping into that urban self-centered way of thinking.
As a mother of three, Kyle (13), Kayla (11), and Christopher (4), Rearden trades ideas with me on how to teach our kids tuvqakiyaraq, the custom of sharing, in an urban setting. Rearden grew up “feeling shame to get more than someone else. Whenever I was asked to share, I always gave the other person a bigger piece. I would cut a candy in half and be ashamed to take the bigger piece.”
She raises her children, who were all born in Anchorage, with these ideas: “The more you give, the more you get back. If we are stingy, like if you don’t share your toys, then [they] will break right away. When you give, it will come back to you. Your selfless act is always rewarded. They see that I don’t hold back when it comes to helping in any situation. I hope they [her kids] watch me and observe what I do.”
Because it is hard to keep traditions like tuvqakiyaraq in the city, Rearden goes out of her way to share food. She often hosts feasts where she cooks all day, serving her most precious subsistence foods, making sure her kids see that she is serving her last bag of salmonberries. She says, “it’s just enough for them to see. I am always talking to them and explaining the reasons behind sharing, the reason why it’s important to give to others and have compassion for others.”
Here's something simple that I try with my kids. I take an apple and cut it in two. I present both pieces to my oldest. Sometimes she will try to stuff them into her mouth before her two younger siblings notice. Sometimes, she'll bargain with them. "Okay, I'll give you this apple, if you give me that Xbox controller."
Always, I'm patient. Using these opportunities as teaching moments, I'll remind her of the lessons we learned in Alaska. Always, she'll give away the larger piece or press both pieces into the little hands of her brother and sister.
Parts of this post are excerpted from my original publication in First Alaskans Magazine.