“What’s your name?”
“No, what’s your Iñupiaq name?”
“ Is it on your birth certificate?”
“So it’s not your real name.”
And that was the first pain.
I had always been Iñupiaq.
Growing up in Wasilla, the people I knew who were also Alaska Native were our family members, introduced to me by my mom. We spent weekends with my Aapa and Aaka, who lived on 3rd Avenue, blocks away from the old Alaska Native Medical Center, and their friends, all now Elders past, would visit, enjoy food, and speak Iñupiaq. It’s where I grew my taste for niqipiaq, because those flavors have been in my mouth since infancy, and why the sounds of Singspiration and drumming sound like they’re coming from inside me, when I hear our singing and dance. Throughout my life, my mom prioritized us meeting and knowing our family members, and we’d be taken out of school whenever an Aana or Ataata was in Anchorage for the hospital, or shopping or to visit, or AFN, to the slight confusion of some of my teachers.
But always introduced by my mom. It’s one reason why interning and working at my own Alaska Native Corporation (ANC) was such a big deal — I was presenting as an Iñupiaq person, on my own, for the first time.
I was young, 10 years younger than I am now, and excitable and eager. But were the questions. Questions I didn’t have the answers to — not because I didn’t know– (though there was a lot I didn’t), but because I had never been asked. Nobody had asked prior, if my Iñupiaq name was on my birth certificate. I never had to think of it before.
“So it’s not your real name.”
Clear pain. And I didn’t understand why. I couldn’t verbalize why it hurt. I did not even have the language to materialize this in my own mind. I did not understand why something that felt like a pinprick when it occurred once, compounded until I was crying at night. I racked my brain replaying moments, striving to understand why there would be a quick interaction with someone, and we would part, but it was nothing to them and I was removing a sliver from my heart. Desperate analysis. (In 2013, I read an article in Buzzfeed and learned a new word for the first time: microaggressions, that would be my first exposure to the langauge and concepts of social justice).
These were good people. Respectable people. People I admired, and liked and were raising healthy families and doing good things for our communities (a note that would become important later).
This was my life the years 19-23.
Everything I know, I felt it first.
I did not understand; this happened over and over. And every time, I paid desperately close attention — following the increasing or fading glow of eyes, noting when the hum of energy every person carries in their chest, grew still –sharply analyzing every interaction.
And then one day, a thought:
“He thinks he is what is normal, and I’m the one that’s different.”
This was the realization of one portion of what I was picking up time and time again, and part of what you may hear me saying now: Many Euro-Americans are raised to think they are what is the default, with everyone else being different, instead of knowing we all have our own stuff.
And then another thought: “She’s asking everything about my culture, but doesn’t think she has one of her own.”
And then a final one, for the purposes of this essay topic:
“He doesn’t think, if it’s not in writing, it’s real.”
That was what I was sensing: Doubt. I figured this out through sheer pattern recognition, seeing the same exact traits and behaviors from specifically White people, over and over again.
But where did this come from? That was the day it clicked.
Culture. The companion to this bias, was a cultural element. The White people I was working with within my Native corporation, elevated words over our ways.
This was the beginning.
Aana: Great Aunt (North Slope)
Ataata: Great Uncle (North Slope)
Aapa: Grandfather (North Slope)
Aaka: Grandmother (North Slope)
Niqipiaq: Our food/meat/”real food”
Note: As a child, I consistently noticed different sets of behaviors, rules and protocols between my father’s family from Washington, and my mother’s family from Wainwright; this was the beginning of my modern, adult journey of analysis.
Note: This essay is Part One of a Two-Part Essay examining the cultural element of writing in Euro-American/White/Western culture(s).