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04poets_600

Photo: New York Times
Fisher poet Dave Densmore, on his boat, wrote his first poem as a joke in the 1970s. Now he studies writing.

Jobs like commercial fishing can provide a lot of of time to think, and it’s amazing how thinking often leads to poetry. That is also true of experiences that are so hard to capture they must be addressed obliquely.

Poetic storytelling is alive and well in the fishing community, it seems. Consider this transcript of a National Public Radio (NPR) report, in which Melanie Sevcenko describes an annual fisher poet event.

“MELANIE SEVCENKO: Moe Bowstern named herself after the front and back end of a ship. She calls herself a fishing woman. And for her, writing poetry comes with the job.

“MOE BOWSTERN: Well, I mean, have you ever been fishing? …  It’s unbelievably boring. And so you just have to think of something else to do.

“SEVCENKO: Now retired from commercial fishing, Bowstern is one of dozens of fisher poets who have been meeting for their annual gathering in a Astoria, Ore. During the last weekend of February, the far-flung fisher people interpret the commercial fishing industry in prose, poetry and song. …

“Bowstern started fishing in Kodiak, Alaska, in the mid-’80s when women on commercial boats were scarce. Her zine shares a name with a popular brand of deck boots, XTRATUF. This piece is called ‘Things That Will Be Difficult.’

“BOWSTERN: ‘It will be hard, if you are a man, to understand why your female crewmate, who started out so friendly, is so silent now when you are only trying to help. It will be hard if you are a woman to go’ …

“SEVCENKO: The poetry onstage at FisherPoets touches on what Bowstern calls an incredibly difficult life.

“BOWSTERN: Not just because of the rigors of the actual physical experience of the life, but it’s just, how can you be a fisherman at a time of climate change? And, like, where are you going to position yourself with resource extraction?

“SEVCENKO: That’s something John Copp has written about. For 20 years, he ran operations in Bristol Bay in the Bering Sea. Multinational corporations want to mine gold and copper from the area nearby and have been angling to do so for years. His poem ‘Tsunami’ is inspired by his opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine. … Many commercial fishermen have been against the Pebble Mine because of the damage it could do to the biggest salmon run on the planet. Copp is retired and lives in Oregon now. But he’s still inspired to write by the natural beauty of Alaska. …

“This weekend, once again, the fisher poets will do what they’ve done for more than two decades — gather on piers, in cafes and in theaters to perform their poetry for grateful audiences in this seaside town. Bowstern feels lucky that people who’ve never even been fishing want to hear their stories.

“BOWSTERN: We’re participating in two traditions that have been going on. Like, storytelling is probably only a little bit older than fishing, you know? So we get to tell stories in our special, weird language. And people just can’t get enough of it.”

The NPR transcript is here, and there’s another good article at the New York Times, here. If you know people who fish and also write poetry, have them check out the Fisher Poets website, here.

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Photo: Clark Mischler
Hanging salmon at a fish camp near Kwethluk, Alaska, in the Yup’ik region, which has extensive coastline on the Bering Sea. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is tapping the traditional knowledge of indigenous communities as it works toward more-sustainable fishery management.

I was listening to the radio in the car when the United Nations’ dire warning about biodiversity came out. Called the “Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,” it predicts one million species could be pushed to extinction in the next few years by such things as overbuilding and loss of habitat, global warming, and pesticides and herbicides. (The scientists who did the research provided their services for free. The naysayers are being paid. Ask yourself: Paid by whom?)

One commentator suggested that a road map for preventing loss of species is right under our noses in indigenous communities.

For a window on one way government agencies are starting to collaborate with indigenous communities, consider this Pew Trusts report on the salmon fishery in Alaska.

“The indigenous communities of the Bering Strait region have a vast knowledge of salmon runs, ocean currents, marine mammal behavior, and other ecosystem dynamics — information gathered over millennia and passed down from generation to generation. Now federal fishery managers will use that Traditional Knowledge to help guide management for the Bering Sea.

“The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted at its December meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, to adopt a new Bering Sea Fishery Ecosystem Plan that lays the groundwork for meaningful incorporation of Traditional Knowledge into decision-making. Social scientists Julie and Brenden Raymond-Yakoubian, a married couple who have worked on the issue for years, say this is a groundbreaking action by the council.

“ ‘Indigenous communities have been living on — and with — the Bering Sea for generations,’ says Julie Raymond-Yakoubian, who is social science program director for Kawerak Inc., the Alaska Native nonprofit tribal consortium for the Bering Strait region. ‘They can see components of the ecosystem, including interconnections and relationships, that fishery managers might miss.’

“ ‘Incorporating indigenous perspectives is crucial for overcoming management challenges,’ adds Brenden Raymond-Yakoubian, who runs Sandhill.Culture.Craft, a social science consulting firm based in Girdwood, Alaska. …

Here are a couple of the nitty gritty matters addressed in the Pew interview.

“Q: What are the greatest challenges to ensuring that Traditional Knowledge informs decision-making?
“Brenden: One is getting recognition for Traditional Knowledge and ensuring there is a desire for it to inform policy and science. Another is getting natural scientists — those working in fisheries or oceanography, for example — to work with social scientists and Traditional Knowledge holders.

“Julie: There are five council meetings a year that each last about 10 days and are held in different places. Gaining a good understanding of how to work within the council’s process can be a full-time job. Most tribes don’t have the resources to do this. But if we want to include Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Knowledge holders in fisheries management, then these issues must be addressed.

“Q: How can Traditional Knowledge help address conflicts between federal fishery management and the subsistence way of life that Bering Sea communities have lived for millennia?
“Brenden: There are many ways. For example, management could include a broader understanding of the impact of commercial fishing on subsistence communities and of millennia-old practices and principles that have connected those communities to fish and the sea and sustained that relationship with the environment.

“Julie: Incorporating Traditional Knowledge will also help federal fishery managers better meet their existing obligations, such as the requirements to use the best scientific information available and consider social and ecological factors in management. It will also help them better implement ecosystem-based fishery management, which calls for managing fisheries at the ecosystem level rather than single-species level. Traditional Knowledge can also help federal fishery management become more adaptive, for example, by providing managers access to information about ecosystem changes they may not otherwise be aware of. This should help fishery managers adjust their policies to adapt to climate change, which would hopefully occur in a manner which ensured the sustainability of fishery resources for subsistence communities into a climate-uncertain future.”

More here.

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Photo: David Bedard
An example of the resurgence of indigenous theater is
Our Voices Will Be Heard, directed by Larissa FastHorse. It was performed at Perseverance Theatre in 2016 in Alaska. 

Another way that culture gets shared, revitalized, and preserved is through theatrical performances. Alaska and Hawaii, in particular, are seeing a resurgence of indigenous theater.

As Frances Madeson writes at American Theatre, “The pace at which producers of Hawaiian and Alaskan Native theatres are creating original offerings specific to their lands and peoples and mounting them on their mainstages ranges somewhere in the giddy spectrum between prestissimo and full-tilt boogie.

“ ‘We’re experiencing a Native arts revival right now,’ said Alaska Native playwright Vera Starbard, whose autobiographical advocacy play Our Voices Will be Heard was performed in Juneau, Anchorage, Hoonah, and Fairbanks. …

“Part of the exhilaration comes as a result of resources to match the rhetoric of support for Native theatre arts. In 2016 Starbard was granted $205,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to sustain her while she creates three full-length Alaska Native plays over three years. …

“There is also an attitudinal shift by institutional gatekeepers toward inclusion of Native theatre artists, some of whom have been maintaining the vision for a very long time with minimal support.

“The first Hawaiian-language play presented at the Kennedy Theatre at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa was in February 2015, ‘in the theatre’s 51st season,’ said Tammy Haili’ōpua Baker, who wrote it. … She repeated for emphasis: ‘Half a century to get anything Hawaiian on that stage.’

“But now that the vessel’s been unstoppered, there’s a growing groundswell of audience demand for shows with Native-centric realities and expression.

“ ‘The success of Our Voices was completely community-driven,’ said Starbard. …

“Tlingit actor and playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse said he sees a category shift. ‘Indigenous stories are now seen as American stories.’ …

“Katasse teaches theatre in schools to Alaska Native kids, and encourages them to take acting seriously. ‘They didn’t even know this was a career option,’ he said.

“Indeed, to keep pace with demand, artistic directors Harry Wong III at Kumu Kahua Theatre and Eric Johnson at Honolulu Theatre for Youth (HTY) on Oahu, and Art Rotch of Perseverance Theatre in Juneau and Anchorage, are prioritizing both actor training and play development. …

“In Fairbanks, Alaska, [Allan Hayton, language revitalization program director at Doyon Foundation] pursues theatre as a vehicle for cultural and linguistic survival.

“ ‘We are restoring balance,’ Hayton said. ‘In indigenous tradition theatre is performed to achieve something for the people and balance for the world in the natural environment. Theatre is a healing art form in which we can address very serious and difficult issues safely, and offer a larger healing for society.’ …

“For Starbard, Alaska Native theatre artists literally standing on thousands of years of storytelling tradition have nothing to prove.

” ‘Our goal as Native artists and theatremakers is not to develop this “uncultured” audience so they can come in and understand what a Western theatre is like. I think that’s the attitude taken sometimes,’ she said, choosing her words with great care. ‘I’m proud of Native artists who are pushing back against this mindset. It’s not about how we can help our people adapt to the Western theatre, but how we can help Western theatre to be an even more dynamic and beautiful thing.’ ”

More here.

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Arts Journal often links to interesting articles on languages, especially vanishing ones. In Alaska, there are actually several native languages that are endangered. The Sealaska Heritage Institute has been tackling one of them and is starting to add more.

Wesley Yiin wrote about the effort at Pacific Standard.

“According to a 2007 study by linguist Michael E. Krauss of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, only three of the 20 recognized Alaska Native languages have more than 1,000 native speakers. (Compare that figure to the most commonly spoken Native language in America, Navajo, which has 170,000 native speakers.) Several are extinct or close to it: The last native speaker of the Eyak language died in 2008, as did Holikachuk’s last fluent speaker, in 2012.

“One of the most endangered is Tlingit, one of four languages from Alaska’s southeast region. …

“Recently, advocates who have been establishing means of revitalizing Alaska Native languages have created new opportunities for the preservation of Tlingit. Perhaps the most creative effort has been that of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, a non-profit based in Juneau that promotes understanding of Southeastern Alaska Native cultures. In late 2016, it produced two phone applications and a podcast that aim to teach users the Tlingit language. One app teaches Tlingit sounds and some basic words and phrases, while another instructs listeners on the Tlingit words for animals that live in Southeast Alaska through interactive games.”

Katrina Hotch is the language project coordinator for Sealaska Heritage. Here are some of her comments on the work.

“One of its goals is to help teachers create welcoming environments for their students and to create culturally and linguistically sensitive learning environments within their classrooms. …

“You can revisit words and phrases as often as you need to. You just hit the button again and then you hear it again. I think this will help people with their pronunciation quite a bit and will expand their vocabulary and basic phrases. …

“It’ll help them to speak with more advanced speakers. It’ll be easier for them to be understood because they have so many examples of fluent speakers — all of the speakers in the app are fluent speakers. …

“Passion is contagious, and if people are hearing people who are passionate about the language, then it draws them in more.” Click here for the whole interview with Hotch.

The one thing about the interview that struck me as discouraging was that Hotch herself has been studying Tlingit for years and doesn’t feel fluent. A whole different worldview is involved, she says. That tells me that the initiative is best focused on helping children who grow up in the culture to keep it going. There are not likely to be many brand-new adult speakers.

Katrina Hotch’s podcast is a first step in preserving a Native Alaskan language called Tlingit.

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Photo: Floyd Davidson
Genuine “Eskimo Kiss.” Iñupiat sharing a kunik at a Nalukataq festival in Barrow, Alaska.

For Asakiyume and others interested in inventive efforts to preserve the culture of marginalized groups, this New Yorker story may be of interest.

“Iñupiat people, a tribe native to Alaska, did not have a written language for much of their history,” reports the magazine’s Culture Desk. “Instead, for thousands of years, their culture was passed down orally, often in the form of stories that parents and grandparents would tell and entrust to their children.

“In recent years, those stories, and the lessons and values and history that they contain, have become harder to preserve, as the young people of the tribe, growing up in the modern world, have drifted further and further from traditional ways.

“[A new] video, which originally appeared on ‘The New Yorker Presents‘ (Amazon Originals) and is based on a story by Simon Parkin, is about a recent experiment in transmitting Iñupiat culture through a new medium: a video game … in which an Iñupiat child travels across the wilderness to find the source of the bitter blizzards that have been hitting his village.

“Before they began building the game, E-Line developers travelled up to Barrow, in northern Alaska, in the deep, dark cold of January, to meet with tribe members and to lay the groundwork for the project. The resulting game is called Never Alone. …

“Never Alone was created through a highly collaborative process: ‘We’ve had everybody from eighty-five-year-old elders who live most of the year in remote villages to kids in Barrow High School involved in the project,’ Amy Fredeen, the C.F.O. of E-Line, told Parkin. …

“As Clare Swan, who sits on the tribal council that had to approve the project, recalls, ‘We just said, “Shoot, of course it’s difficult.” Anything that’s worth it is.’ ”

More at the New Yorker, here.

I imagine that elders and students got a thrill out of this project in different ways. I would love to know to what extent their feelings overlapped. Did the elders care more about the preservation aspects and the children about making modern media?

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Do you know about the “Great Animal Orchestra“? Rachel Donadio at the NY Times has the story.

“The bioacoustician and musician Bernie Krause has been recording soundscapes of the natural world since 1968, from coral reefs to elephant stamping grounds to the Amazonian rain forest.

“Now, Mr. Krause’s recordings have become part of an immersive new exhibition at the Cartier Foundation here called ‘The Great Animal Orchestra.’ Named after Mr. Krause’s 2012 book of the same title, the show opens on Saturday and runs through Jan. 8, [2017].

“At its heart is a work by the London-based collective United Visual Artists, who have transformed Mr. Krause’s recordings of the natural world into 3-D renderings. Imagine stepping into a soundproofed black-box theater whose walls spring to life with what look like overlapping electrocardiograms, representing different species’ sounds. …

“The installation includes recordings Mr. Krause made in Algonquin Park in Ontario, where he found himself caught between two packs of wolves; in the Yukon Delta, a subarctic area in Alaska, where birds from different continents converge; and in the Central African Republic, where he heard monkeys. He also captured the cacophony of the Amazon, and whales off Alaska and Hawaii. …

“Mr. Krause is a polymathic musician who performed with the folk group the Weavers and helped introduce the Moog synthesizer to pop music — including songs by the Doors and Van Morrison — and film scores. He hears natural sounds with a studio producer’s ear.”

Read more here about Krause and his efforts to get the word out on the disappearing habitats of his featured animals.

This article inspires me to pay better attention to the music of the natural world on my morning walks. So much beauty goes right over my head.

Photo: Tim Chapman
Bernie Krause on St. Vincent Island, Fla., in 2001.
 

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One of these days I hope to see a moose in the wild, but not under the circumstances described in this recent report on National Public Radio.

“It was the brown snout and ears that caught their attention. Then they heard noises coming from under the snow. That was reason enough for three passing snowmobile riders to jump off their machines and start digging.

” ‘It looked like a guy’s arm at first because we were expecting to see a skier,’ Marty Mobley told the Alaska Dispatch News. …

“Mobley said he and two friends, all residents of Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Alaska, used their shovels to free the animal. …

“When the moose was mostly free, one of the men gently poked the moose, which suddenly stood up. Mobley said it looked like the abominable snowman, as it was covered in packed snow.

“It shook off the snow and ran down the mountain ‘at full steam’ and was apparently uninjured.

” ‘I am an animal lover, and I couldn’t leave it there,’ Mobley said. ‘Besides, we deal with a lot of avalanches and a lot of snow. That kind of karma is something we don’t pass up.’ ” More at NPR.

Photo: Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, near Aspen, Colo./AP
Not moose but elk. It’s bad all over. Two out of three elk were saved in time.

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