Returning to one’s ancestral homeland offers time for reflection, but also reminds us that even these sacred places are often threatened. Read more →
You rise in false triumph to face the unfamiliar church full of people—clusters of Bristol Bay and Tundra families—gathering with a smattering of bible-carrying city congregants who bend toward the shadows of your church on an early Friday afternoon. The folks welcoming me warmly had come in from the sunshine to pay respects to our ilung who hadn’t heeded repeated warnings by ANMC medical teams. It is true: her body couldn’t handle any more booze.
You lead a meandering sitting-down opening prayer, citing verses from Romans and Revolutions from a simple sentence bible you describe only as not King James. You attempt to gather folks to false wings with hot mono-syllabic words sliding from a smarmy mouth. Eventually your talk comes to this. Gesturing to her coffin: for over fifty years—you weren’t sure why, aren’t sure why, but you’ve had a special spot in your heart for drunk little native girls—thirteen of whom asked you please to be their daddy. Through crocodile tears, you do the math, only twelve remain. When you announce, unrequested, that you couldn’t divulge specific details of your various hours-long talks in a church office locked against thievery, you say nothing, and we could only turn to one another in pinched-eye alarm.
You don’t stop there. You go on. You are a white man but you wish you were a native, would be native if you could be, practically are native for your over fifty years of service and your love of berry picking, and—gesturing again to the coffin—drunk little native girls. You breeze through examples of our 54-year-old ilung’s pastimes—her smiling kindness—between songs belted out by an assembled trio who join you at the altar to drone at the pace of a dirge recorded with waning batteries.
You ignore when people glance—now big-eyed—at one another. Kinsmen rise to stand sentinel at the back. Others get up to exit alone and in pairs, heads down, or pausing only to shake hands and hug family and matriarchs scattered among rows of pews. Our men lean against the back wall clearing their throats. Instead, you keep inviting people to seek the Lord, to be anointed like our ilung.
You warn against the escape of booze and playing board games, Sorry. Finally, you invite the clumsy funeral director to dismiss us to make time for our ilung’s casketed body to be wheeled to an awaiting hearse. She would be delivered to a cargo deck for a flight out the next morning. She would be laid to rest in her village where we hope a real memorial service was held, where parents are acknowledged, and her mother and relatives are comforted. And people join together to sing and praise, share memories, and enjoin good spirits with a communal meal.
I was invited to join an assembled feast in the church basement, to shake an imposter’s leading hand. I had already hugged my relatives, took in their tears, expressed my grief, and laughed out loud. I said no thank you and I left out the front door to welcome the sundrenched drive west. I had already said the kind of memorial I wished for.
Alice Rose Crow, whose Yup’ik Eskimo name is Maar’aq, is a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts where she studies creative writing.