Let me take you on a journey.
Imagine you are sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor of a Native home in rural southwestern Alaska. You have been invited by some locals to have coffee and dried fish while you wait out the weather.
You have been taken in to a circle of Yugtun women of varying ages. You begin to chew on salmon strips dipped in seal oil, drink hot coffee, and watch all of the talent surrounding you as the ladies work on their crafts and projects of grass basket weaving, skin sewing, and beadwork. Aspiaq! Beautiful!
As you watch, you hear hands moving through fabric, beads tapping together, and laughter. This laughter is intriguing to you because you realize that you haven’t heard a word spoken in at least 15 minutes and you begin to wonder what they are laughing about.
You see wise and young faces raising their eyebrows and covering their mouths with their hands as they giggle. You see their shoulders rise up and down as they rock from side to side, seeming to hum in agreement to one another.
Suddenly, you realize that you are witnessing a grand conversation happening all around you and you feel a desire to be a part of it.
And then it happens. The qaspeq-clad elder sitting next to you gently places her hand on your forearm, points to the snow storm outside the window and shakes her head from side to side, smiling, as she hums a song that you vaguely recognize as a gospel hymn.
This spurs a symphony of undulating sounds and head nods from the group, visibly signaling agreement, so you smile and nod to show agreement too. Could you be getting the hang of this live chat room without words? As you chew on another piece of delicious dried salmon dipped in seal oil, you imagine adding “Native live chat room guru” to your resume.
The silence is broken by the CB radio in the kitchen. The village flight agent is notifying everyone that the storm has passed and the ceiling has reached 500 feet. Those wanting to fly out need to get to the airstrip.
You muster up the courage, take a deep breath, and begin searching for the right words to give thanks to your hosts. Sensing your discomfort, the elder again touches your arm, but this time with an understanding series of small pats. You realize that no words are needed. Just a smile, maybe an eyebrow-raise to convey that you understand, and a quiet exit. That would be enough. Tua-i.
Niitanqaa? Do you hear it?
Jacquelyn (Ayagiaq) Crace-Murray is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Wasilla, Alaska with her husband Steve and their children Jakob and Jadelyn. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in applied linguistics from The University of Alaska-Fairbanks, as part of a cohort focusing on native language maintenance and revitalization. Having grown up in villages in southwestern Alaska, Jacquelyn is trilingual, to include Yugtun (an Indigenous language to Alaska). She is also an avid hunter, fisherman, and hiker, traversing Alaska’s landscapes with her family. To reach Jacquelyn, email: firstname.lastname@example.org