One bit of biblical wisdom Bible says, “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” (Proverbs 17:27 NASB) To put it another way, it is not necessary to fill volumes with one’s thoughts; better to distill them through the filters of time and experience and dispense them when their potency has achieved its peak. That way even a slim treatise can speak louder than twelve tomes.
If this is true for a single human being, how much is the truth multiplied when the words are those of an entire people? Or even many peoples with shared and linked cultures that have endured the same crucible of experience over centuries?
This is what Alaskan Native author Suuqiina has done in his deeply profound and deceptively simple novel, Okvok (Oo-kee-vok): An Elder’s Story. The deceptively simple part is that there is little action on the surface: an elderly Inupiak man with the extraordinary name of Taupe Duvet (how he got that “Euro” name is an essential part of the story) goes home to the region near Nome to visit his sister, Sylvania. There is an impromptu gathering of Native friends and relations, and the two of them share tales of their lives with the assembled extended family.
But, Oh! what tales they tell! Suuqiina weaves together stories from his own life and the lives of several Alaskan elders to portray a composite picture of the recent history of his people. More than that, he captures the experience of many Native peoples, both North American and from other continents, in a narrative that barely reaches 130 pages. He could have covered more territory, but he did not have to. The stories he shares with us are enough to give us an expansive look into the sorrows, the joys, and the inexplicable resilience of his people.
Their resilience is something we non-Natives should seek to understand. For Americans (and presumably for Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Afrikaaners, and others of European ancestry), the Native story ended when the indigenous peoples were conveniently stowed away on reservations, no more to interfere with the dominant culture. Suuqiina tells us what happened next: how the Natives survived through the continuous (and escalating) efforts to cause them to cease being Native.
In days gone by we might have called this “civilizing.” Rudyard Kipling wrote about it in his 1899 poem, “The White Man’s Burden.” Having conquered the world, the European peoples and their descendants considered themselves the epitome of civilized humanity, and therefore responsible to bring other peoples up to their level – or at least keep them from harming themselves and impeding the progress of civilization. That thought process is what compelled the US government to remove Taupe Duvet’s people from their ancestral home on Ookvok (“a place for winter”) in the Bering Sea. Apparently it was not enough for them to be out of the way already (what else would we call a small outcrop of rock in the cold waters between Alaska and Russia?). Perhaps their very presence, living in the way their people had lived for generations, was threat enough to the progress of civilization. Thus the Inupiak village was abandoned, the people scattered, and the assimilation process advanced.
The worst part of this process may have been the residential schools. Taupe experienced one. There Native children were placed in the care of supposedly good-hearted Christian administrators and instructors whose job was to help the children come out of their backward Indian ways and into the enlightened world of the Ivaksauk (pigmentally challenged people, as Taupe says). What happened in the schools is the kind of thing that fills horrendous tales of concentration camps and gulags.
The residential schools were not polite boarding schools, nor were they orphanages for children whose parents had died or abandoned them. These were instruments of cultural genocide, where Native children (some orphans, but many not) were forcibly removed from their families and people for immersion in the dominant (and, to them, alien) culture. It would seem from the experiences Taupe relates that Native children and their parents were something less than human in the eyes of their benefactors, and no amount of effort to adapt to the white man’s ways could change that. Hence the explanation of the atrocities Taupe and other children endured – not only in the residential school, but afterward. When the school was closed and a missionary family adopted him, and the assimilation process continued throughout his youth and on into his adult years.
This is only too common in Native stories. The massive and persistent trauma inflicted from childhood is why so many Natives suffer from addictions, depression, and all manner of self-destructive behaviors. How they have survived as distinct peoples is astounding, even miraculous. Taupe Duvet helps us understand as he relates his stories. Unlike many less fortunate Natives, he reconnects with his people and regains his Inupiak identity and language. That is the element of redemption in his story and in the larger Native story. Their ways are not demonic, as they have been endlessly told, but are beautiful, distinctive manifestations of Sila, the Creator as the Inupiak call Him.
The beauty of it is more than one man or one woman can contain. That is why Suuqiina sets his novel in a Native gathering at a restaurant. Families assemble to hear Taupe and Syl tell their stories and learn something of themselves in the process. The connectedness of this community is abundantly evident from the beginning; what affects one, affects all, both for good and ill. Interspersed throughout the narrative are bits of wisdom and poetry to hone the stories into piercing instruments that lodge deep in the soul. One moment we are riveted at the account of a plane crash or an earthquake, and the next we have Taupe’s proverbs or a bit of verse to help us place the event in perspective. The wise reader pays close attention. This is where the real impact of Okvok manifests, and those who are open to it will stop frequently to ponder.
There is ample laughter, as well as sorrow, but the most charming aspect Okvok is the multi-generational aspect of the gathering. The little ones pay attention as their elders speak, or so we perceive from the many times they interrupt Taupe to ask the meaning of a word or interject their amazement and amusement (he tells many jokes). Far from interfering with the flow of the story, the numerous interruptions convey the power of it. This is something the entire community experiences, and they are made rich by the sharing.
From the way he writes, Suuqiina is familiar with and greatly enjoys such a setting. The gathering alone is enough to tell us how his people have survived the assimilation process – although not without considerable loss. They are a people, not merely a collection of individuals who speak the same language. That is why our highly individualized American society needs the Natives in our midst. And they are still in our midst. Alaskan Natives like Suuqiina may be far from their heartland, but they are very much connected with it even as they have become integrated into the larger culture. So, too, are the Navajo, Cherokee, Lakota, Muscogee, Crow, Nez Perce, Mohawk, Arawak, Pequot, Catawba, and hundreds of other distinct nations.
Integrated, that is, not assimilated. They have more than survived; they have learned to embrace the best of the dominant culture while retaining (or regaining) the Native identity that makes them who they are. A nation of immigrants needs such a solid anchor. As Suuqiina, through Taupe Duvet, says, “When the Ivaksauk lost their way, the indigenous people lost theirs as well.”
How wondrous that the indigenous people are finding their way again, thanks to resilient cultures built on strong families and communities, and a high regard for honor. Perhaps, as they find their way, they can help us non-Natives find ours.