Elders & Youth speakers provide from one century to next

  • Elders & Youth keynote speaker Chris Apassingok of Gambell was named the “Youth Provider of the Year” in 2016 by the Bering Straits Native Corp. (Photo/Courtesy/Susan Aakapak-Apatiki)
  • Elders & Youth keynote speaker Clare Swan (at left) and Cook Inlet Tribal Council President and CEO Gloria O’Neill host a ground-blessing ceremony at the new Ernie Turner Center construction site at Eklutna in August. The new center will serve as a hub for CITC’s Recovery Services and is scheduled to open next year. (Photo/Tim Blum/Cook Inlet Tribal Council)

The theme of the 34th First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference — “Part Land, Part Water, Always Native” — speaks to identity as a deep connection with the surroundings.

Clare Swan, 86, and Chris Apassingok, 17, each live immersed in cultural activities at opposite ends of a century. Yet their lives are living examples of culture in motion, say the event’s organizers. As the conference allows elders and youth to engage in critical dialogues on issues through presentations and discussions, they will be inspiring future generations to take active roles.

Apassingok’s talk is 10:15 a.m. Oct. 16, while Swan gives her address at 9:25 a.m. on Oct. 17, both at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage.

Clare Swan, an Athabascan elder of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, grew up at a unique historical point. Her parents were Victor and Madrona Segura, her dad of Filipino descent, her mother Athabascan.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Old Kenai sat on a busy tributary as a fishing hub for Cook Inlet. She recalls going from house to house, visiting the old Norwegian fishermen, whalers, sailors, Native elders and Russians descended from the time when Russia owned Alaska. Even then, the Kenai Peninsula was a world-class destination drawing trophy moose hunters and avid salmon anglers.

“They brought the world in with them,” Swan said.

Another way the world “came in” was through a big short-wave radio kept tuned to news.

“I was a nosey little kid, under feet,” she said. “Always listening and asking questions. The first words in my language I recall anyone saying to me was ‘close your mouth and stop talking right now.’”

As the eldest of nine children, Swan frequently had errands outside the house to run for her parents. She was able to read before she went to school, piecing together words from the funny pages lining the log cabin walls of her home.

“That was our wallpaper,” she said. Her dad put her in school when she was five.

Though bilingualism was a mark of distinction among Kenai’s multi-ethnic inhabitants, Swan and her brothers were told not to speak Dena’ina in school. She recalls walking out with her brothers when a teacher named Mrs. Armstrong reprimanded them for singing a song in Dena’ina about a boat trip to visit their uncle.

“We knew a woman, a friend of my parents, who spoke five languages. My mom spoke Russian, English, Dena’ina, some Japanese, Togalog,” Swan said. “I asked ‘how come if that is so wonderful, why do they make us not speak our language?’ I don’t shush very easily.”

Mrs. Armstrong, on a visit back to the Kenai many years later, apologized to Swan for prohibiting their language in school.

For her junior year of high school in 1946, Swan’s dad thought it would be good for her to attend Anchorage High School to broaden her horizons. She was boarded with a military family, just after World War II, that had three children. They lived on Gambell Street and Anchorage High was located downtown. She walked the distance to and from school each day.

“I ended up being a nanny for the kids,” she said. “I cooked, taught the children, made lunch for her and her girlfriends. They would talk over me like I wasn’t there.”

Behind in her own studies at school, Swan wasn’t going to keep living that way. After Christmas, she walked with her suitcase to Merrill Field and asked a pilot to take her home to Kenai.

“I said my dad would pay him for the ticket."'

Having a strong sense of herself and her own culture remained with her as she married Van Swan in 1950 and raised four children. They were living in Seward when the 1964 earthquake struck and it destroyed their home. So that year, they moved to the southern U.S. to be near Van’s family.

Once her own children were raised, Swan enrolled in Loyola College in Louisiana and earned a degree in business. She went to work as a medical records technician at Tulane Medical School. Then, May 29, 1973, she and her husband moved back to Alaska just as work forming lands and incorporation was occurring for the Kenaitze Tribe.

Back in Alaska, Swan immediately went to work for her tribe under the new organizations brought about in the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act that passed in 1971.

She spent two decades immersed in research and litigation, culminating in the Kenaitze Indian Tribe receiving set net fishing rights through state regulations in June 1989.

“That took us 11 and a half years to get it,” Swan said. “It brought our tribe back together. The first summer though was the Exxon (Valdez) oil spill. So we shared our fish with Nanwalek because they couldn’t eat their fish.”

At work for the Tribe, Swan was involved in gaining the Dena’ina Health Clinic, and education and social services through the 1975 Indian Self Determination Act passed by Congress. The first clinic was located in the old Air Force infirmary at Fort Wildwood (now Wildwood Correctional Center). Later it was moved to Kenai.

She also worked to establish the Cook Inlet Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. From 1980 to 1995, Swan was instrumental in establishing youth and community agricultural programs. She dove into board activities as chair of Cook Inlet Tribal Council (a position she still holds), or CITC, and on the Cook Inlet Region Inc., or CIRI, board of directors from 1991 to 2006.

As a certified substance abuse counselor, a volunteer with the court system and an active participant in the effort to revitalize the Dena’ina language, relearning the language herself, Swan has helped countless Alaska Native people.

In 2009, she was honored with the Alaska Federation of Natives President’s Award for Elder of the Year, and she was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011. CIRI, the Alaska Native regional corporation for Southcentral, presented her with the 2013 Shareholder of the Year Award for more than 40 years of community work. This year, she was honored by CITC with the naming of the Clare Swan Early Head Start Child Care Center.

“When I look back, it was very hard work. I’m proud to say the land the Tribe has now has been purchased, fee simple, by the Tribe; these are our lands. Old Town of Kenai lands are the Tribe’s. No one gave it to us,” she said. “Even though it was so hard, I would do it all over again.”

This close to the age of 90, Swan doesn’t show signs of slowing down. She’s known for her “bundle of energy."

“Being around people and my work gives me my energy,” she said.

Swan freely shares her stories and thoughts with everyone, but has a special place in her heart for young people. One of her favorite Dena’ina words is “tsilqu.” It means the number 1, but also “together.”

“If you are together, you can be as one,” she said. “It’s up to the young people now. I tell them don’t be part of making the world sick. People can do a lot if they stick together.”

Learning to provide

Chris Apassingok lives a traditional Siberian Yupik life that shares a lot in common with his grandparents and their parents. In Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, bearded seal, walrus and bowhead whale are still stable food sources. Winters when the meat isn’t available are hard years.

That’s why people such as young Chris Apassingok shoulder an important role. He is a Neqniighta, or provider.

“Hunting, it’s something I am supposed to do,” Apassingok said in an interview with the Journal. “We’re supposed to do that because it’s hard to buy food at the store. We rarely get money. Store food isn’t as good. The meat we eat lasts longer in our system than the store’s food.”

He’s been on whaling and walrus hunting crews since he was 5 years old. He struck and killed his first whale at the age of 11, and another when he was 16.

“He provides food for his family and his village,” said his mother, Susan Apassingok, who is the mayor of Gambell. “I watch him get ready and risk his life to feed his people. It’s hard to purchase gas and they might get stuck because they can’t pass the ice. I have a lot of white hair because I worry and pray a lot for him.”

In honor of his achievements contributing to the health and well being of his community, the Bering Straits Native Corp., conferred on him the “Young Providers Award” in 2016.

“When I was given that, I felt proud of myself. I was the first one from my village to get the award,” he said.

The most important aspects of hunting are reading the weather correctly and “not being nervous.”

“My father taught me how to watch the waves, the currents. I pretty much know what it does. I can see storms coming,” he said. “Back when I was a kid, I got scared of seeing the game we hunt, then I started to get to used to them. They are super huge. The skills to be a good hunter, you have to have a perfect aim on shooting a rifle. You can’t be nervous. You have to have perfect aim throwing a harpoon and know the dangers. That’s pretty much it.”

Nowadays, Apassingok, his dad and the other hunters have to travel about 130 miles from the island in an open 18-foot Lund boat.

“Climate change makes warmer winters and there is more open water, less ice,” he said.

Not only is he hunting for walrus and seal. He’s hunting for ice.

Next month, in November, whaling begins and will continue through January. Those are some of the harshest months, but the time when the mammals are available.

A few months ago, Apassingok had a bad experience that made him realize people all over the country and the world might have opinions about him and his hunting. Cruel opinions, and they weren’t shy about expressing it in hate messages on social media after a Nome radio station carried an interview with Chris and his dad about the successful bowhead they had just brought in.

“I realize I got the whale and that newspapers all over wrote about it. I was proud, too,” he said.

But environmental groups, which tend to see hunting as a sport and not a necessity for putting food on the table, made comments denouncing whaling. Then cyber bullies joined in.

After more than 400 messages came in saying things like they hoped Chris would get harpooned and die, he was concerned and upset.

“Then, I just forget about it,” he said. “Forgive all the people and just move on. I’m different from other teens. I don’t really use electronics and stuff that other people do.”

But it upset his family. His mother cried at reading comments such as “I hope your whole community dies.”

“We were shocked,” his mother said. “This is our way of life. It’s been around for thousands of years. It hit my heart in a million pieces. I cried, but I didn’t write back.”

Apassingok comes from a busy, engaged family. His grandmother, Debbie Apatiki is Gambell’s village public safety officer, or VPSO. His grandfather, Mike Apatiki, is retired from the Army National Guard.

His dad, Daniel Apassingok, is the school custodian and a whaling captain. On his paternal grandparent side, Anders is a teachers aide and with his wife, the late Luceen Apassingok, were involved in teaching the next generation traditions such as building the angyapiks or walrus hide boats also known as umiaqs. They also were Siberian Yupik language teachers.

Apassingok’s older sister, Danielle, is in her first year of college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks studying to be a teacher. His younger brother Chase is in junior high school.

“I like basketball and sports, and I am athletic, but I’m not that good at it,” Apassingok said.

He also likes to keep fit dancing with the St. Lawrence Island Yupik Dancers, who will be performing at AFN.

According to Apassingok’s family, he doesn’t like to talk much. His siblings often speak for him.

“I do feel nervous about going to AFN, speaking. But I wrote it down already,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

10/12/2017 - 12:11pm