Growing up in the city, I learned what it means to be Iñupiaq one hospital visit at a time

My parents met in Wainwright, the North Slope village where they grew up, but they wanted to raise us in a place where they knew we would be healthy and safe. For them, that was the Mat-Su Valley in the '90s.

I didn't visit their village until I was an adult. I came to understand my culture and my village the same way a lot of Native kids do when they grow up in a city: We went visiting every time someone we knew traveled to Anchorage to go to the Alaska Native Medical Center.

My aapa and aaka (grandpa and grandma), Felton and Eva, lived downtown just a few blocks from the old ANMC, which meant that whenever anybody came into town from up north, it would be a cause for loading my sisters and me in the car to see them. Elders from across the North Slope would visit my grandparents before or after their appointments. There was so much of our language in their home, my older sister remembers understanding it and being able to speak it. This is the way I learned how we didn't just speak English.

People always brought food: maktak, caribou, seal meat and oil, fish, berries. Oily fingers, cardboard on the floor, ulus and salt; I had the taste of maktak and seal blubber in my mouth since I was a toddler. It's for that reason, I have a taste for our Iñupiaq food. This is the way I learned how we ate.

When the Alaska Native Medical Center opened, we had a new facility. It was bright and modern, and the circular lobby quickly became the place where everybody gathered. We spent so much time in that hospital growing up — even if we weren't sick — just to go see who was in town. This is the way we learned how to treat elders. We grew experienced with those gentle directives like, "Go get her coffee," or "She needs water," and we were off, running to the cafeteria with the money they gave us and making the trek back to my mother in the hospital.

Mom would introduce us to literally hundreds of family members over the years, detailing to us exactly how we were related, using the extensive genealogical knowledge our people have and we would visit over frybread from the cafeteria. My mom and aaka would laugh with full, bright faces, sometimes until they were in tears, in the way our people do. This is the way I learned what it looked like when we visited one another.

When I was a young child, my aapa fell ill with cancer and I remember people gathering to visit him in the hospital and praying in fervent Iñupiaq:


Qanuq ilivich umialgurutin suaŋŋatiqaqłutin kamanautiqaqłutillu isuitchuamun. Amen.
(How you are rich and have strength and greatness. Through you there is no end. Amen.)

My other aapa passed a few years ago. He lived his life in Wainwright. I remember when I came to the hospital, I found all those who could make it to Anchorage gathered around his bed. My mom, sister, great aunts and aunties, uncles and cousins were singing and praying, sometimes in English but also in Iñupiaq. The songs we sang at bedsides at ANMC were the same that were sung at the funerals in Wainwright. This is the way I learned how we grieved.

When I finally traveled to my village, I was 22. I visited with all of the elders and family members I grew up knowing, in the backdrop of their own home instead of the hallways of the hospital. Everyone in Wainwright knew I was not raised there, but that didn't matter. I am the daughter of Aggie and John, and the granddaughter of Eva, Felton, Gregg and Edith, and the great-granddaughter of Dorcas and Gregg. Everybody in Wainwright knew them and what it meant growing up being with them. Because of this, and knowing me my whole life, when they greeted me, they said, "Welcome home."

Cordelia is a graduate student in the UAF Rural Development program and works with Iḷisaġvik College in Utqiaġvik. She also writes for Nalliq, a repository of stories and poetry about indigenous issues. 

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