by Patricia Bulitt
Beginning in 1978, my very first visit to Hooper Bay, Alaska, the language and faces passing me by were like music to my ears. I experienced a kind friendliness from the children and residents as I was invited to their village to serve a 2 week residency, teaching and performing creative dance.
Hooper Bay School was the host with Lower Yukon School District.
Because I had toured throughout the state beginning in 1977, sponsored by the Alaska State Council on the Arts, I was invited to return into other regions of the state.
This article is a presentation of words shared with me from elders in Hooper Bay. Included here are excerpts from the exhibition: “Their Eyes Have Seen The Old Dances: Honoring Elder Hooper Bay Dancers and Drummers (1981-2001).”
Words shared here were shared over the course of many years between myself and elders no longer alive, but thrive in memory and are included in the exhibition presented to Hooper Traditional Council, 2000. “A Parka For Memory: Youth Listening To Elders” were public programs during the exhibition’s presentation especially engaging school children with resident elders.
With this sharing of excerpts presented through the Delta Discovery, my hope is the audience is widened and touched because sharing is what keeps us in touch with ourselves. (Please note: All English language spoken by elders as their second language after Yup’ik, were honored and left unchanged as originally spoken.)
While the exhibition includes photographs by James Barker with selected text from recorded conversations noted at the bottom of each excerpt, this article includes only selections of text. It might be noted: All photos were collected at the Eskimo Dance in May 1981 when Kirt Bell and I organized that community dance. It might be of interest to say: When developing this exhibition all residents were invited to vote on which photos they wanted to have compose their exhibition. As Project Director fund-raising for this project would determine the number of photographs and other programs.
When I had the opening reception for the exhibition in the village, I interviewed anyone who wanted to speak their response. I recorded those. Here is one of those voices — with respect to Their Eyes Have Seen the Old Dances: Honoring Elder Hooper Bay Dancers and Drummers:
“This exhibition gives me strength and courage,” said Rebecca Napoleon, the then Director of the village’s Youth Opportunity Program. “I think of my ancestors. If our memory fails, this exhibition will not. It is poetry, like the dance and music. This exhibition portrays beauty. I cried when I saw it,” she said.
Here now are excerpts from the exhibition. Perhaps when you travel to Hooper Bay, you will visit the Youth Elder Building where the exhibition is presented on permanent view.
From taped conversation between Kirt Bell and Patricia Bulitt, September 29, 1987. Translation of Yupik into English by Neva Rivers to Patricia Bulitt, October 9, 1987. Additional translation assistance from Beverly Bell, September 1987.
Kirt Bell: I’m going to tell this story the way I heard it, even if you read it or heard it. I’ll tell it. Patricia asks me to tell her my great grandmother’s song. When she was young, she had a pet. A little sea gull. My great grandmother. My name is Kirt Bell. Born on September 22, 1910.
That man, he went out seal hunting in winter time.
He was out hunting seal
He went all the way down to open water.
When he was returning, it got foggy. Very foggy. Heavy fog.
It was foggy. More foggy on the water than on the land.
No way to tell the distance. He does not know what way to go and gets mixed up.
At that time, only use kayak, paddling. No motor.
When the fog closes in, watch wind and direction of the waves.
So he can know where he is going, when the fog comes in, hunter looks at the wave to tell which way wind is going.
Winds, wave, movement.
Use wind as compass and (he) want to get to the land.
The fog comes like that, he is going back to the land. That hunter.
He was going straight, thinking he was returning to the land.
All day long he has been paddling in the ice.
All day, he was paddling.
He saw a sea gull. The sea gull was on the ice.
The hunter was still paddling. He goes straight to the gull.
When he got there, behind the gull was a little bush smoking.
There was a little pot landing above the fire. It was a clay pot.
When he was looking into the pot, there was one Tom-Cod.
It was steaming.
Sea gull asked the man, “Have you a dipper?”
“Yes,” the man had a dipper.
“Dip your cut in here and have some.”
He was very tired because he’s been paddling all day and could not find his way back.
He had the soup.
After eating, he was very energetic and pepped up.
The gull told him even if you are going back home, you are going the wrong way.
He points the way to the hunter to go.
Because gull is grateful for what the man has done for me
He is going to reveal himself to the hunter.
When I was young
You raised me
You took good care of me and
Never let me go hungry.
You took such good care of me.
Never let me go hungry.
You took such good care of me.
Now I’ll point the way you are going: This direction!
And now, after he pointed the way,
The hunter paddled away.
He remembered the gull as that little gull!
The gull revealed to him his identity to the hunter.
When he got back into his kayak to go the way,
He pushes the kayak and remembered he had a little pet a long time ago.
And when he turned around, the gull was making a sound like
“Goodbye:” A whistle sound.
Hunter is paddling in direction told by gull.
That sea gull pointed the way and its the right place back to where he went.
He remembers his pet from when he was small.
Sea gull was so grateful. He helped the hunter.
From Taped conversation between Natalia Smith and Patricia Bulitt, September 23, 1987, Hooper Bay, Alaska:
Natalia Smith: In Hooper Bay, people kind, help each others.
Patricia Bulitt: In old time when people were unhappy, how did they help them?
Natalia Smith: Try to talk to them. Try to be wise and brave.
Elders would talk to those younger. Talk to them nicely.
When they get quiet, long ago, elder talk to young people.
Some obey, some don’t obey. Like us, in our lives, right now!
We never listen sometimes. We listen good, some days.
They are always wishing for something.
From long ago.
Patricia Bulitt: Natalia remembers a song that her brother, Ted Hunter, remembered the motions and taught her. This is from Ted Hunter, remembering the song from your daddy?
Natalia Smith: Yes, he reached them and we learned them and we try to remember from start. We are very true not to be mistake:
When I go to sea, I use my arms.
When I go to the land, I use my legs.
When I go up to the sky, I use my body.
Wishing for a good weather for everybody.
That’s the meanings of that song from what I remember from long ago.
***Excerpts provided by:
Patricia Bulitt, Dancer/ Interdisciplinary Artist, Project Director for “Their Eyes Have Seen The Old Dances: Honoring Elder Hooper Bay Dancers and Drummers (1981-2001). Currently, she resides in Berkeley, California.