Finding Our Way Again A Review of Okvok (Oo-Kee-Vok): An Elder’s Story by Suuqiina

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.”

Dr. Suuqiina and Qaumaniq, Indigenous Messengers International

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.

Okvok: An Elder’s Tale is available through Indigenous Messengers International at http://www.indigenousmessengers.com/QSstore.htm.  

When Is A Person Not A Person? A Review of Loved. I. Am! One Woman’s Journey of Shattering Shame Through Experiencing PAPA’S Great Love! by MelanEE Lisa Davidson

Is every single human being who has ever existed created in the image of God?

Assuming they are, then is every single human being who has ever existed precious in the esteem of our Creator?

Again assuming they are, is every person who has ever existed equally as precious and loved in the esteem of our Creator?

Yes again? Ah, then that must include people who define gender differently than humanity has commonly defined it – as in girls who think they are boys and boys who think they are girls even though their biological identity indicates otherwise.

And there we have a whole new level of complication. Because if such people are just as precious in the esteem of the Creator as the “nice” people whom society finds easy to accept, then we have to find some way to understand and deal with them. That, after all, is what our Creator would likely have us do.

Does that mean we must endorse without question gender definitions and sexual preferences other than what we find articulated in the Bible? Not necessarily, but it does mean that LGBTQ people are first and foremost people, and as people they are entitled to the same respect as all human beings made in the image of the Creator.

That is one important message from the memoir of MelanEE Lisa Davidson. She tells her story in a fast-moving volume she calls Loved. I. Am! One Woman’s Journey of Shattering Shame Through Experiencing PAPA’S Great Love!

Of course, MelanEE doesn’t leave us there; if she did, there would be no reason for her to tell her remarkable story. It’s only the starting point of a journey that so far has spanned almost six decades. It has been a very hard journey. As she explains up front, her childhood in California and Florida was anything but ideal. Tragedies and injustices all too common in dysfunctional families afflicted her at an age far too young and tender to deal with any tragedy. No child should ever have to suffer sexual assault, abuse, and neglect. Children are supposed to grow up in stable homes, with loving, affirmative parents who help them mature into responsible adults. When that does not happen, as MelanEE’s story demonstrates, the wounded children become wounded adults, manifesting their inner dysfunctions in a number of ways in their search for security, acceptance, identity, and above all, peace.

That is what made MelanEE a “Proud Dyke Athelete” in her college years, and a militant lesbian thereafter. One might think that such a bold, unapologetic attitude would render such a person beyond redemption. After all, MelanEE practiced what she preached, moving through several intimate relationships with like-minded women over the years. And yet, her testimony proves that she was not beyond redemption – that her Papa, as she fondly calls our Heavenly Father, loved her and still considered her a precious jewel, even with all her damage and dirt and baggage.

Which is why her life is not only a miracle, but a testimony that such transformation is possible for anyone.

Not without struggle, of course. Growth and change is hard, which is why we too often opt to hold on to unpleasant situations and relationships, deeming them to be less threatening and difficult than change. MelanEE’s memoir makes that abundantly clear. First of all, it took decades before she came to the realization that her lifestyle was not only contrary to the Creator’s design for humanity, but destructive to her personally. The irony in which this happened is one of the remarkable points of her book. But even then, it was another quarter century before she could consider herself truly delivered. She tells us some of the many victories, both small and large, along the way, and she tells us as well of the considerable setbacks – some of which came close to ending her life. The gift of hindsight has allowed her to put each experience in context, weaving them into a seamless whole that presents the tapestry of a victorious life well lived (so far!).

The journey has been extraordinarily difficult, and it has required help. This, too, is one of the high points of MelanEE’s story. Help came in unexpected places and at unexpected times. Sometimes the help appeared in the form of trusted friends and counselors who stayed with her for years, enduring all the unpleasantness she could throw at them simply because they believed in her as a valuable person, and believed as well in what she would become. At other times, help did not seem like help at first, especially when it brought immediate conflict and negative situations which, as MelanEE explains, infringed on her desires to remain in a familiar place she could control (or at least have the illusion of control). Yet even in those situations, miracles occurred. (I choose to see them as miracles; when a lesbian friend walks into a gay bar and explains how she has found Jesus, then a miracle has occurred!) That string of miracles is what gives MelanEE’s story the surprising element of hope even in the midst of hopeless dysfunction.

One other aspect of Loved. I. Am! that I personally appreciate is the window MelanEE opens for us into the LGBTQ world. It is a world that Christians all too often shun, and with reason. Yet in doing so, we miss so much of the real story: the genuine humanity of the people. These are people who endure larger-than-life struggles – struggles not so different from those common to all people, but magnified and multiplied through the prism of questions about self-identity at the most fundamental level.

How is a follower of Yeshua (Jesus) to deal with such people? MelanEE addresses that question through her story. Genuine Christians made the greatest difference in her life because they first accepted her as a person with intrinsic value simply because God made her. They did not agree with her lifestyle, but they accepted her where she was and lovingly, patiently, helped her realize that her Papa had something much better for her. Then they stayed with her through the years of turning her life around, proving that people are the indispensable element in making miracles happen.

This is a book about hope turned into reality by action – both MelanEE’s and those in her circle of friends, counselors, prayer warriors, and guardians of her peace. It is not just a “how to” book on how to have a better life; it’s an essential manual for every person who suffers from trauma, addiction, dysfunction, broken relationships, dashed hopes, and quiet tears in the dark when nobody is looking. Which pretty much describes all of us at some point. If you need help, and if you want to give help even in your own hurting place, Loved. I. Am! is the book for you. Let MelanEE Lisa Davidson – Beautiful Brave Beloved Warrior Princess Kingdom Daughter CowGirl – give you encouragement in her unique, genuine way. Then go make a difference in someone’s life – especially your own.

Loved. I. Am!: One Woman’s Journey of Shattering Shame Through Experiencing PAPA’S Great Love!  is available on Amazon in paperback. Additional resources are available at MelanEE’s website, https://hisgreatlove1.org/.

Ordinary Legends: A Review of T.S. 44 – The Button Tree Prophet, by William Spires

One of those unfortunate traits of any generation is the tendency to ignore our elders. Those who take time to talk with and listen to parents, grandparents, and other older people often come away with unexpected blessings. After all, they have lived through experiences that everyone must encounter at some point, and thus have acquired valuable lessons to share with younger people who have yet to go through those experiences. Of course, that is what we expect. What surprises us is that the ordinary life experience of our elders frequently turns out to be the stuff of legends. Will Spires discovered this in conversation with his father. What he learned about his father’s childhood in Columbia, South Carolina, during World War II inspired him to build a coming-of-age story that resonates with readers on many levels.

Spires’ first novel, T.S. 44: The Button Tree Prophet, investigates the world of an ordinary boy from a working-class family. But then, what is ordinary about a boy losing his father on the eve of his tenth birthday? Perhaps that is what makes this novel so compelling from the first page. Travis Shipley’s life is already what contemporary readers would describe as underprivileged. His family is poor, his parents are uneducated, the Great Depression has drained his country of much of its vitality, and global war is redefining every facet of human interaction. In a world where everything that once was normal is now in transition, the merciless scythe of cancer snatches away the greatest source of stability in his young life. All that he has to help him find the right direction is a button his father gives him just before his death, charging him with the task of finding out what it means to be a button.

How Travis adjusts to this new reality is the vehicle by which Spires conducts us on a captivating journey through the convulsions impacting the urban, industrial, segregated American South of the mid-twentieth century. The fact that this Southern society is decidedly Christian – at least culturally – explains why this is a story of faith. Few stories of the South in that era could be otherwise. Christianity defines the culture for all the characters, regardless of their color, economic status, education, or even religion. That is where we find the first unique point of Spires’ novel. As Travis moves through the fog of grief and the daily reality of grinding poverty, he encounters help from unexpected sources. Chief among them is Jacob Meadows, a disabled World War I veteran who serves as the local truant officer. We quickly learn that Meadows, an observant Jew, is somehow able to move comfortably between the Jewish and Christian communities. This is surprising on several counts. First, the average reader likely is not aware that the Jewish community of South Carolina has ancient roots, going back to the earliest colonial days. Spires provides the historical background, establishing credible reason for Meadows to be simultaneously Jewish and Southern. That helps explain the next unusual point: how Jews interact with Christians in the American South. It is actually not so unusual. As a minority in every place where they have lived through the ages, Jews have learned to interact with the larger community, and simultaneously find space to be Jewish. Jacob Meadows helps us understand how that worked out in South Carolina. But then there is the strangest point of all: how this Jewish man can interact with Christians on their own terms. Spires provides not only a plausible explanation, but a very strong one. The answer comes from Meadows’ experience on the battlefields of France in the First World War, where differences of belief and practice fade in the presence of a brotherhood born of sacrificial love extending beyond the grave.

That is what makes Jacob Meadows the perfect mentor for young Travis. As unlikely as it may seem, it is he who is best equipped to help the lad through the inevitable questioning of and anger at God for the hard trials he endures. Meadows comes in at precisely the right moment, helping not only Travis, but his mother. Sarah Shipley is a woman already worn down by the ordeal of caring for her dying husband. Her new role as single parent of a precocious and willful son is all the more difficult because of her long hours at work earning just enough to pay the bills. The Shipley family needs stability and normalcy, which Meadows is willing and able to provide it in good measure. Others assist him, although not always by design. One is Alfred Patterson, a hard-nosed journalist who learns of Travis’ story, and another is Annie Wright, Travis’ classmate and neighbor, who is dealing with her own father issues. Then there is the Ragman, a black shoeshine artist whose long career as a railroad porter and as a pastor give him just the right words to speak into Travis’ life at the moment he needs them.

The encounter with the Ragman stands as one of the most poignant episodes of T.S. 44. This is where Spires deals with one of the ugliest features of the American South: segregation. Spires does not hit it head on. In fact, he does not hit any issue head on. Many aspects of life in that era are uncomfortable and even reprehensible by contemporary standards. The secondary status of African-Americans is but one. So also are the divisions between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, the powerful and the weak, men and women, and Christian and Jew. Moreover, the ubiquitous presence of cigarettes is something contemporary readers will find uncomfortable and even disgusting. Yet all these are part of the reality of mid-twentieth century America. Spires incorporates all of that reality into his story without judgment. That is one of the strengths of his work; had he engaged in judgement, his novel would be nothing more than a shrill cry for social justice that would bypass the deeper human truths he conveys. Thus we see the poignancy of the Ragman’s meeting with Travis: an old black man and a young white boy connecting on very human terms, even in defiance of the color barrier and other realities that otherwise would keep them apart.

In time, Travis finds an answer to the question of what it means to be a button. The Ragman is one of those who help him find that answer. Along the way, Travis not only receives help from unexpected sources, but finds himself helping others in unexpected ways. In the end, a tragedy that should never befall one so young imparts a life lesson that few learn even in old age: every one of us impacts multitudes of others in ways we usually do not realize. What Travis Shipley learns is that it is better to make that impact a good one by easing the burdens of others whenever possible. This opens him to what may only be described as a miraculous encounter with his Creator. Is that miracle believable? By the time Travis is ready to walk it out, the question is turned on its head. He has already come through improbable circumstances just by making himself available for God to use as He pleases. In a sense, his very survival to the age of ten is miraculous. Why, then, should he question Divine intervention at all? If it comes in small things like responding with compassion to the presence of a mouse in his room, then surely it is there in moments of great need. And that is how Travis Shipley, the unlikely Button Tree Prophet of Columbia, South Carolina, teaches us what it means to be human.

T.S. 44: The Button Tree Prophet is available at Key of David Publishing (https://www.keyofdavidpublishing.com/).


© Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog, 2018.  Permission to use and/or duplicate original material on The Barking Fox Blog is granted, provided that full and clear credit is given to Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Understanding the Seed of Abraham: A Review of Redeemed Israel – Reunited and Restored By Batya Ruth Wootten

One of these days, the people of God will be amazed to learn that any power Satan retains is only that which God allows him to have, or that God’s people themselves give to him. That is the testimony of Scripture (Job 1:6-12, 2:1-10; Isaiah 14:12-20, Colossians 2:8-15; Ephesians 4:7-10; Psalm 68:18-19). It is a testimony lived out in recent centuries as Christians and Jews of all denominations and sects cling tightly to their own unique perspective of the Creator’s work, while questioning the inclusion of others with them in that work. The result is a terminal fragmentation, evident in the declining effectiveness of the church (at least in the West), and a Judaism split between an assimilated Diaspora and an internally focused observant segment largely concentrated in Israel.

The stumbling block, of course, is the Messiah – the one Christians call Jesus Christ, but whom Jews for the most part disregard. Even those who fall in between these two major elements of God’s people have their issues. Although Messianic Jews and non-Jewish Hebrew Roots adherents agree that Jesus (whom they call by his Hebrew name, Yeshua) is the Messiah, and that the Torah (teaching, instruction, direction, law) of God are still applicable to Yeshua’s followers, the agreement tends to stop at that point. Thus the terminal fragmentation persists even in this expanding space that is filling the gap between Judaism and Christianity.

Where is the remedy for this sad state of affairs? Batya Ruth Wootten offers an answer in Redeemed Israel – Reunited and Restored. Her answer rests squarely on the question of identity, a question that leads her to ask, “If our God is the God of Israel, and the Jewish people are Israel, then who is the Church?

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Embracing Identity: A Review of American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang

I remember fondly the last Chinese American colleague of my military career. She was my supervisor: a very kind, patient, conscientious, hardworking, and highly competent person. It was she who explained to me the difference between American Born Chinese (ABC), and Chinese who had just immigrated and were, therefore, Fresh Off the Boat (FOB).

The memory of my first Chinese American colleague is less pleasant. Not that it was his fault; the blame was entirely mine. He, too, was conscientious, hardworking, and highly competent. Perhaps because we were officers of the same rank, I did not consider him as Chinese, but as a fellow soldier. That, of course, is how the Army expected us to think of one another. However, our shared identity caused me to forget the identity he had carried since before his birth. Then one day I told a tasteless joke which had as its object a Chinese stereotype, and my colleague heard it. He was angry, I was embarrassed, and our relationship was never the same. That was one of a lengthy series of lessons that taught me not only to guard my tongue, but to adjust the heart attitudes that shape what comes from my tongue.

Gene Luen Yang has carried that life lesson even further with his graphic novel, American Born Chinese, a masterful insider view of what it means to be part of an ancient culture transplanted to an alien setting.

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