Manuqutarmiunguunga. Mamterillermiungulua-llu. Kassatun ayukengerma. Tuall, Yuguunga-wii. Hello. My name is Ayagiaq. I am from Manokotak and Bethel. I am non-Native on the outside, but I am Yugtun.
When I found out the May issue of the ECHO was focusing on what being Alaskan means to you, I knew immediately that I wanted to write on the topic. However, I wasn’t prepared for the internal struggle I would face as I mulled around how to describe it. Then, I realized that being Alaskan meant not having to define it because it is in everything I do, everything I say, and everything I am.
When I made this realization, it came to me in a dream. It was vague at first, but then became more and more clear as I navigated the different levels of sleep towards morning. As I rolled over to check on my new Labrador puppy who was snuggled up by my feet, I heard it clear as day, “Elpenek qanruteksunaituten ungallerpeni.” [You don’t need to explain who you are when you live it.]
I knew, then, that being Alaskan is more than portraying the iconic images so commonly exploited through reality television shows, or on the plenteous tour brochures that float around our great state from May-September. It was about living it-every single day.
When I tried to figure out why I struggled with this definition, I was reminded of something that a wise elder once told me.
She said, “You have eaten [consumed] the language and it is a part of you now.”
She was talking about how language and identity are inextricably linked, and how knowing the language helped me understand what being Yugtun meant. So, when I thought about trying to explain what being Alaskan meant to me, it was an abstract concept. From an Indigenous worldview, you are who and what you practice to be, and what your ancestors have provided for you. In other words, defining oneself is done through how you interact with one another, what you provide, what you do for elders, and how you live your life.
One of my favorite sayings in Yugtun is “Qanemcikarluni tekitnarqelartuq.” [One must arrive with a story to tell]
I feel that this piece of Native wisdom embodies the Yugtun spirit by expressing that each and every one of us have a story to tell. How we tell it and to whom we decide to share it, is highly subjective. It also conveys that it is our duty to share our stories with one another and to learn from our elders and pass down useful lessons to others.
For me, my story began in Michigan. I travelled the ALCAN highway to Alaska in 1975, and then dove head first into Native cultures in rural Alaska. The experience of growing up in villages continues to influence my worldview, and inform my ever-evolving identity.
It is not a story that is easily compartmentalized or categorized, making it strictly my own, and uniquely Alaskan. That is the beauty of being Alaskan. We are different faces, different languages, different cultures, and different stories. How we choose to share them is up to us.
As difficult as it was to define what being Alaskan means to me, it was easy once I remembered where I come from. Yuguunga.
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