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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Grandmother Could Fly
Sean Mooney

I take a small propeller plane from Nome, Alaska to the native village of Elim, which appears along the coastline from among the trees and rocky cliffs. There are no roads connecting it to any other place, and my once-daily plane is anticipated on each occasion by a small gathering at the end of the gravel landing strip carved out from a level stretch of ground uphill from the village. It is raining but no one seems to notice, or to mind it. Besides myself, three others get off the little plane, after the pilot, who opens the rear hatches where the locals eagerly help offload a variety of packages, boxes, bags, rifle cases, supermarket shopping bags.

A middle-aged woman with an open 4x4 vehicle and a flat trailer attached to the back of it grabs much of the cargo and two of the passengers and they zip downhill towards the village, overstuffed and precarious. I’m the last person left with the plane, except for the pilot, who is chatting with an elderly man with a jeep that is already full with cardboard boxes, occupying the passenger seat, roof rack and rear compartment. He has met the plane to receive the mail. I start walking down the pathway towards the village in the misty rain, having nothing to carry and knowing nobody, but the old man stops me to offer a ride. It seems impossible that he could fit me in amongst the boxes, but he manages to find space on the seat, strapping a few more boxes onto the roof, and I hold a few on my lap.

We coast down the hill into town, to the only official building, other than the school, which houses the post office, village administration office, a small store and a community center. I am going there to meet someone, and we depart as a couple of younger people help him take boxes inside. The reception of the mail is a community event, and I am a stranger, thus my involvement in such an intimate act ends here. At this point, the village remains itself, as it always has been, a small collection of about a hundred people, each related to one another in some measure, and existing as a family. Except for two or three schoolteachers and a research scientist studying the local ecology and something to do with salmon, everyone is Inupiat.

Despite the gentle rain, standing outside the door to the community center are three young villagers, one of whom is missing an arm and is smoking with the other. He introduces himself as Michael and says that we should go up the hill to the school. He wants to show me something. I hop onto the fender of his 4x4, clinging for dear life as he barrels up the hill with a smile on his face. I think he knows this is not something I do every day, and he relishes the entertainment, perhaps going a little faster than he normally does. But I never ask about his arm.

The Elim High School is indeed high, at the top of a hill overlooking the village, the coastal cliffs and the sea beyond. Basketball is the local passionamong every village I have ever visited, and in front of the school is a drab concrete court with two nets, as one might find in any other American town where there is a playground. I tell Michael that I am from Brooklyn, where kids play basketball everywhere, but this is the most beautiful court I have ever seen. He laughs and says that they played a team from Brooklyn once.

We go inside the school to look at the display cases. There are some windows with paintings and crafts done by the students, and some more serious-looking displays by adults. There is a large bronze eagle in a case by itself, looking very official and generic, as if supplied by the state government. And there is a case full to the gills with basketball trophies, medals, photos, newspaper clippings and other paraphernalia of team spirit. Surrounding the inside of the doorway there is a series of square portraits of village elders, the guiding spirits of the place, looking down.

Michael leads me to another glass case, which is full of a variety of artifacts. There is everything from an elaborate woman’s parka, with fur trimming, carved buttons, and matching boots, to various fishing tools, decorative objects carved from ivory, antler and wood, dolls, bowls and sundry old photos. There are some relics from the native village store, like a package from some canned food labeled 50 cents, and some postcards. These all seem to have equal importance and nothing has a label of any kind. Michael explains to me what each item is, knows who found it or made it, is full of stories. And he is only 24 years old. I can only imagine how much his elders must have in their memories. Michael is particularly proud of a blackened wooden toolbox, which looks to be from the 19th century or so, with hide strips and ivory buttons to clasp it shut, and a lovely handle. A few carved harpoon points and fishing lures are laid next to it, as examples of what else may be inside it. It belonged to Michael’s grandfather, he says.

I meet next an older woman, perhaps in her 50’s, who works in the school. It is August, and so nobody else is around, and she has some time to tell me about the language archive she has been working on. Someone before me, some years ago, came to make recordings. She tells me with urgency how important it is to collect the elders’ stories before they all die, as they are disappearing so quickly, and their culture is already almost lost. Her particular concern is the native language, which everyone understands but few speak, and so she is trying to establish this into the regular school curriculum. She has endless stacks of folders full of lesson plans, articles, notes, photos, which she pulls out to show me. She speaks rapidly while she reads through them all. We turn to talking about the village and the artifacts in the display cases, and she speaks of her grandparents.

I make some remark about the remoteness of the place, but she dismisses this, stating very matter-of-factly that there was never any problem of communications between the villages, “...because my grandmother could fly. Everyone could fly in the old days, before the missionaries came and told us we couldn’t, and so we didn’t anymore. But my grandmother could fly.”

She said this without smiling or with any emphasis or drama, because it was perfectly true. I didn’t doubt her at all. It was true because she believed it was, and the idea confirmed for me the thread of connectedness to shamanism one still feels in the native Inupiat and Yup’ik villages of Alaska.