By Jenny Neyman
Some stories beg to be told — cringeworthy misadventures with honey buckets in the Bush, catching a halibut bigger than yourself while out fishing with your grandfather, getting caught literally red-handed (and red-clothed and red-faced and red-haired) after finding some paint in a shed.
Others take more resolve — the fear/fascination of meeting the family that gave you up for adoption, searching for a sense of belonging between Native heritage and a white upbringing, losing friends and loved ones but gaining a relationship with God, struggles with the demons of alcohol, drugs, violence and suicide.
The whos, whats, wheres, whens and whys are as different as snowflakes. The deliveries are, too — some as tentative as hoarfrost, others as dauntless as an avalanche.
But as long as they are authentic, sharing real experience and expressing genuine emotion, then they all share a very human potency, and they all deserve to be told.
“Our voices are the most powerful medicine on the planet. Because our voices are coupled with our intention, and when we have our intention in the right place, we can do miracles,” said Jack Dalton, a celebrated Alaska Native storyteller who performed at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus on March 27.
For Dalton, being a storyteller is akin to being a healer, a tradition he shares with his Yup’ik grandfather. They also share a name — Cup’Luaraq, the hollow part of a reed that can be used to breathe air when underwater or drink when thirsty, thus the meaning, “bridge between two worlds.”
Dalton’s grandfather’s tradition of shaman doesn’t heal directly, as a medical doctor would, but “is there to help someone be in a place of stability and knowledge in which they can heal themselves,” Dalton said.
And that is what stories can do — share with people new perspectives and different ideas, and move them to a place of connection, with themselves, with others, with the past and the present, where healing can happen.
“What if we all lived lives in which we have the intention that every word we speak will be words of healing? I believe that the words that I speak will be words of healing,” Dalton said in sharing “My Heart Runs In Two Directions At Once,” his autobiography of how he became a storyteller. “So I ask you, who are you, where do you come from, what is your story, what is your intention, what are your words? Can I hear your voice?”
Dalton visited KPC as part of the annual Alaska Native Oratory Society regional competition, held in collaboration with Alaska Christian College, which is located next door to the KPC campus in Soldotna. The day following Dalton’s performance, he moderated an open forum at KPC where participants shared a story of their own. Some of those participants — Jayne Hanna, Sandra King, Eugene Stevens, James Oaks, Marvin Kiokun, Gabriel Stone and Jimmy Andrew — went on to the state AkNOS event held at the University of Alaska Anchorage on April 12.
The speakers were buoyed with plenty of encouragement to take with them to the state event, delivered in the wry humor of “Gruncle Jerome,” a fictionalized Native elder character Dalton donned, along with a tie-dyed kuspuk, to emcee the open mic event.
Gruncle Jerome levied unsolicited wisdom to youth in the crowd, “Not too much pop!” and mood lighteners after stories with particularly heavy content:
“Remember, you don’t just get God, you get a $25 gift card,” Dalton told a student, awarding a prize after his story of how he accepted Christ after a particularly rough patch of life. “I know one’s a little more important. But sometimes God can’t get you gas money.”
Shelving humor at times, Gruncle Jerome also offered sincere congratulations to the participants — public speaking being nerve-wracking in any circumstance, much less when laying bare personal experiences.
“And I hope that you continue to have that courage. I hope that you continue to speak, because you don’t just speak for yourself, you speak for many others, whether they are in your family, whether they are the people of your village, whether they are the people of your church, or your culture, or Alaska Natives in general, or, heck, all of humanity. You speak for them. We honor you and we are so grateful that you are willing to get up and speak,” Dalton said.
Sharing the journey
The participants’ stories were, fittingly, as diverse as their lives — some were funny anecdotes about village life, others pondered heritage and history, many shared special moments with loved ones, and some detailed the difficulties many young Natives struggle with today.
Jayne Hanna, at 14, the youngest to speak, shared a story she wrote about a class field trip to a burial site from the 1940s near her village of Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island. As her mind wandered, she found the grave’s inhabitants come to life to take her to the village as it was in their time, where Hanna saw the beach dunes before human activity began eroding them, witnessed a shaman conjure up enough driftwood to supply the villagers for generations to come and saw general life in a simpler, more tradition- and subsistence-based time.
“It was just so peaceful. I closed my eyes for a moment and just felt the gentle breeze and listened to the seagulls calling from above,” she said. But her reprieve was shattered when a friend called her back to her time, wanting to race along the beach back to town. “Even if that was just a result of my active imagination, I realize that the facts are pretty accurate. Mekoryuk has an interesting history.”
Marvin Kiokun, an adult storyteller, gave Gruncle Jerome competition in the humor department as he
donned his kuspuk — storytelling armor, he said — to tell of the fishing trip with his grandfather when he was a boy that instilled his love of the ocean.
Grandfather was reluctant to take the boy, warning that he’d get seasick.
“I won’t get sick!” Kiokun protested, in the full bombast of youth.
Sure enough, the waves started rolling, and boy Kiokun began protesting.
“Help, Grandfather, I’m dying!” he proclaimed.
He didn’t want to follow Grandfather’s suggestion, however, to swish and swallow some saltwater. Faced with that or his certain expiration he finally cupped water to his lips, and soon felt ready to fish. He also didn’t want to listen to Grandfather when he became exhausted from fighting a halibut, to let his line out, then reel in again.
“Now what kind of grandfather would not help his grandson? But I got the courage to do it one more time,” Kiokun said.
Once again, Grandfather was right, and the biggest halibut Kiokun ever caught floated easily to the surface.
“I learned to ask for help — I learned something that changed my whole life that day. Now I’m in love with the sea,” he said.
Gabriel Stone had several misadventures from his young life. There were frequent crashes on his bike, including into a pond — “I didn’t know how to work my brakes back then” — he and his brother finding red paint in a shed and leaving a trail of handprints on a snowmachine and new four-wheeler on the way home, and his brother having an
unfortunate accident while emptying the family’s honey bucket.
“If you guys like the smell of your own bowels, I would recommend it,” Stone joked.
That sparked a memory in Sandra King, a teacher in the Lower Kuskokwim School District.
Her dad had quite the sense of humor, but was not to be outdone by her mother. One night her dad headed out with the honey bucket.
“My brother says, ‘Dad, where are you going?’ He said, ‘I’m going to heaven,’” King recalled.
This was before electric lights in the village, and in the dark her dad tripped into the hole being dug for an outhouse and dumped the bucket on top of him.
“He came back and knocked on the door,” King said. “It’s nighttime, it’s dark out and he’s knocking on the door. And my mom opened the door and she went, ‘Phew! Is that what heaven smells like?’”
Along with her levity, King also contributed to Dalton’s praise for the students willing to share difficult stories, ones without the safety net of humor.
“I’ve been inspired this afternoon to hear our village people come up and speak. I’m very inspired and encouraged. I’m a teacher, and this is just very heartwarming for me to hear you speak,” she said.
Eugene Stevens II spoke about growing up among the influences of alcohol, drugs and violence. Not knowing any better, he started down that path, as well, until his life took a turn for the better when he left home to go to school.
“Artic Village has one of the highest crime rates in any village in Alaska, which is pretty sad because I grew up there my whole life, and that’s how life was,” Stevens said. “… I didn’t know how to solve anything in a healthy manner, all I knew was what I saw growing up in my house and the influence around me in my village. So coming to ACC was a real challenge, but it helped me so much and I’m grateful that I came here. Otherwise, I’d be doing time or dead a long time ago.
“When I came to ACC, I was just shocked because I thought the people that were showing me love was crazy, because I didn’t really have that in Artic Village growing up,” he said.
Jimmy Andrew is another who found his way to ACC from turmoil and tragedy back at home. His turning point was finding his sister dead after a night of heavy drinking.
“I tried to wake her up but she didn’t move. When I picked her up and started bringing her in, I realized that her lips and her hands were starting to turn purple, and I knew something was wrong as soon as I saw that,” he said.
At the hospital, he found a Bible on a table and started reading Romans.
“I realized I wasn’t leading the life he was calling me to live. Not everyone gets a chance in the morning to wake up and ask God to forgive them, because my sister didn’t. I realized I was trying to serve two masters. I was trying to serve God and I was trying to serve alcohol. And I was trying to serve God and I was trying to serve drugs,” Andrew said.
He resolved then and there to serve God, to get his life together and, once he found AkNOS, to share his experience with others.
“Alcohol and drugs is destroying people’s lives and robbing them of opportunities and taking away the innocence of children and replacing it with all kinds of evils that they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives. The reason I wanted to share that is because I know that alcohol and drugs has a really big stronghold on the Alaska Native people. I’ve known that for a long time because I witnessed it growing up and I just know the lifestyle and the impact it has on people,” he said.
“Not long ago if we spoke of such things others would look at us like we shouldn’t be talking about that,” Dalton said. “But I think we can all see now that talking about these things is really important in this time, and I am grateful to our young people who are starting to use their voices to not just say the good things that they find in the end, but what led them there, because that is how we will all find a path. Maybe not the same path, but we will all find a way to get there.”
Finding ‘the way’
Dalton, too, has found a place of acceptance, and of advocacy for fellow Natives, though his path didn’t connect him with his ancestral village and Native heritage until he was an adult.
He was born in Bethel, to a Yup’ik mother from Hooper Bay and a German-
American father living in Arkansas. They met in Anchorage and agreed they would marry, but neither wanted to move to the other’s home, so they went their separate ways. Back home, her family forbade her to keep the baby, as she was single and already had one child. Her parents wanted a village adoption, to raise the baby as their own.
“Oh, we’re related!” Dalton joked about the practice. “You know, your cousin’s ex-husband’s close friend’s old nanny’s cousin’s sister’s auntie’s son’s old dog’s old owner’s wife is a cousin!”
But his mom didn’t want the pain of seeing her son but not raising her son, so she put him up for adoption through Catholic Social Services and Dalton was raised in a white, European family in Anchorage, vacillating between curiosity and discomfort about his Native roots. In fourth grade he saw a map of the Native language groups in Alaska and found Bethel — and himself — for the first time.
“I knew that I must be central YUH-pick,” Dalton said. “This was really, really, so cool to me. ‘Finally, I know what I am, I’m central YUH-pick.’ And, of course, later on I learned that it was central Yup’ik, right? ‘YOO-pick, we all pick.’”
But by high school, he just wanted to fit in.
“I wanted to be like any other teenager. I wanted to be accepted. And when I was going to a school in which I was the blatant minority, I did not want to be that minority,” he said.
It took an exchange trip to Sweden, with other students from ethnicities around the world, to spark interest in embracing his own heritage. He went home with excitement to visit Native Student Services at the University of Alaska Anchorage. But at Native Student Services, he got questions he couldn’t answer — What village are you from? Have you been hunting? Can you speak your language?
“And I started to get the feeling that I wasn’t very Native. I stared getting the feeling that I wasn’t Native enough,” he said.
He went to Catholic Social Services to find his birth family. He wrote them a letter and they — his mom and two sisters — wrote back, agreeing to meet.
“When you grow up with your family you take for granted that you look like people. You take for granted that you have So-and-So’s eyes or So-and-So’s nose or, if you’re unfortunate enough, So-and-So’s ears. … I’d grown up and I’d been used to not looking like anyone. And so it made perfect sense to me, ‘I’m not going to look like anyone.’ So the shock of the day, of that moment, was the feeling I had when I realized that I looked like someone. That somehow, beyond anything I had ever imagined, I was connected to a group of people in a way that was unfathomable,” Dalton said.
A fledgling relationship took root. He began traveling to Hooper Bay once a year to visit. Dalton met his “Uncle Time Mirror” — “I knew that’s what I would look like when I was 75 years old.” They fed him dried fish and seal oil, which he politely ate with 30 of his relatives watching.
“Oh, he really is Yup’ik!” an aunt exclaimed.
He was related to much of the village, and even those he wasn’t knew of him and the adoption.
“Oooh, you’re the lost one,” a woman told him on the plane during his first trip to the village.
“This has always been one of the strangest feelings of my life,” Dalton said. “The feeling that for 23 years I had no clue about two sisters. I had no idea that I had other family. I didn’t even know to think about that possibility. My siblings knew about me from as far back as they could both remember. And it’s a very strange kind of guilt when you realize that you didn’t know of someone’s existence for that long.”
His uncles took him hunting. He learned of his grandfather being a shaman. His mother gave him his grandfather’s name — Cup’Luaraq, bridge between two worlds.
“I started to get this worried feeling that no matter what happened, what if I was never Yup’ik enough?” Dalton said.
He graduated college with a degree in journalism/public communication, intending to go into advertising. On a lark he wrote a proposal and got accepted (“I B.S.ed my way in,” as Dalton puts it) to present at the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education. He was shocked, to put it mildly, as he had been all set to embark on his planned life in advertising.
“I wasn’t indigenous, I certainly was never going to be indigenous enough. So, live your Western life. Have your big car, move to Los Angeles or New York or Portland, to any of those advertising centers, and live your Western, European, white life there,” he said.
But the conference changed his life. Actually, not the conference itself, as it was the most infuriatingly pompous and boring experience to which he’d been subjected, with speaker after speaker just citing their accomplishments, not even mentioning the very real needs of indigenous education.
“A voice started speaking in my head. And the voice said to me, ‘Jack, if no one is going to tell the story, then you will tell the story.’ I don’t know if you’ve ever had a voice in your head, much less had an argument with a voice in your head. Let me just give you some advice right now — cave immediately. Because while you as one side of the argument can give whatever reasons you want to go against whatever the voice in your head is saying, all the voice in your head has to do is say the same thing over, and over, and over,” Dalton said.
So he requested to speak, took a microphone in the aisle of the massive auditorium, sat down and read a story he had scribbled in his notebook, one that just appeared, “downloaded to my brain,” he said.
It was about the first people, who lived by “the way,” in harmony with their brothers and sisters, the plants, animals, oceans, rivers and sky. But new people came to impose their new ways.
“‘You must become educated, you must become civilized,’” they told the first people, Dalton said. “And if you did not do what the new people told you, then you would die.”
The world became fragmented, and people stopped living by the way, he said. The new people had made many good things, but without knowing the way, even those good things did no good.
But it can change, Dalton continued. The first people still remember the way. They can teach it to their own, and to everyone, to save the first people and the new people, so they can all live in harmony again with their brothers and sisters, the plants, animals, oceans, rivers and sky.
“This young one has forgotten many things,” Dalton said at the end of the story. “Help him remember the way. There are many other young here like him, help them remember the way. And whatever you do, do not let them be educated in that other way anymore.”
Person after person came up to him and thanked him for the story. One particularly intimidating-looking Maori man from New Zealand came to him in tears, explaining how his elders no longer spoke to the youth, and the chaos that rift had caused in his generation, to the point where he had been ready to commit suicide. But he would go home resolved to connect again with the elders and get them to share their wisdom. He and his generation would live, and live by the way, thanks to Dalton’s story.
It was in that moment, Dalton said, that he realized what he would do with his life. That he would follow his grandfather and be a shaman, but do it with his stories. And that he didn’t have to be genetically full Native to do so. He could reach out from both parts of himself and be a bridge to his heritage and beyond.
“I understood how powerful our voices can be if we choose to use them. I understood that if you have something to say and you say it, people will hear you. I understood that the power of the voice is so great it can literally save people’s lives,” Dalton said. “I also learned in that moment the power of our stories, no matter where they come from. That when you tell a story from your heart, those words will speak volumes.”