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Drone shot of children and adults on and around an outdoor, wooden basketball court, raised like a stage above the snow-covered ground. In the background, storage containers, a few single-story buildings, and glow from the sun low on the horizon.

Shishmaref, Alaska

Photo by Dennis Davis

  • Shishmaref: A Short Film and Field Notes from a Native Alaskan Village

    Editor’s note: As a musician and filmmaker, Julian Saporiti explores themes of misunderstood heritage and complex identities, combining anthropological research with original songwriting and storytelling. His debut Smithsonian Folkways album, 1975, was released this year. Update (December 1, 2021): The article and film use the term “Inupiaq Eskimo,” which the residents of Shishmaref use to describe themselves. We acknowledge that in other places and contexts, Eskimo is used as a derogatory term.

    A funny thing happened on the last morning of a small academic conference in Southern California. Twenty or thirty of us were seated around a long wooden table. Two-thirds of the way through the sluggish, obligatory introductions, an attendee stood up with great conviction and exclaimed, “I just have to say, no one has acknowledged that we are on stolen Indigenous land! I just think it’s important to acknowledge that the land we are on today belongs to…”

    They paused.

    “Well, um… well, I’m from out of town…”

    They looked around the room.

    “Does anyone know which Tribe this land belongs to?”

    Land acknowledgements are important because, if done well, they remind us not only of difficult pasts we still need to reckon with but force us to look in the mirror to see how we might still be perpetuating the marginalization of the Unites States’ diverse Native population today. This attendee’s dead-duck attempt did not have that effect. Still, I am grateful for it. (For the record, I also had no clue whose land we were on at the time: Chumash. I looked it up later that day.)

    I’m grateful because it not only summed up so much of the recent performative social justice-as-fashion statement/oppression-as-cultural capital I myself have participated in, but also because it made me think. First, it made me think of the Bob Dylan lyric, “I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” Then, it made me reconsider my own work as a songwriter and scholar, how I use terms like “refugees” or “immigrants,” “Asian American” (or in the case of this documentary, “Indigenous” or “Native”), and how those words flatten people out, sacrificing cultural and historical nuance for political utility.

    My short film Shishmaref takes an on-the-ground look at a community in northern Alaska. It was produced in collaboration with the Bering Strait School District, Shishmaref School, and local community members. The village of Shishmaref, also known as Kigiqtaq, is situated on a tiny barrier island on the Chukchi Sea, only a hundred miles east of Russia. This quarter-mile-wide strip of land is home to about 600 Inupiaq Eskimo folks and a handful of mostly white teachers. To be clear, this film in no way speaks for the people of Shishmaref. They have their own artists and storytellers. These are just a few slices of life, some field notes meant to give the viewer a window into a place that means a lot to me and which might not exist by the mid-century.

    Written and directed by Julian Saporiti

    In January 2020, my partner Emilia Halvorsen and I went to Shish to serve as artists in residence at the invitation of the school’s art teacher, George Guyver, and English teacher Shaun Milligan. We worked with students from kindergarten through high school with one main goal: to interview Elders and turn their stories into art and media projects, mirroring the method I use for my musical/scholarly project, No-No Boy.

    I taught a few history classes and wrote some songs with the kids, but mostly I played Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” at the behest of the students. Emilia did more of the heavy lifting, guiding younger students through art projects and working with a group of freshmen who turned family stories into embroidery. We also put on a concert for the community in the Lutheran Church, sharing our own stories through song.

    All I knew heading to Alaska was that it was going to be cold, there wasn’t going to be much daylight, and I would be eating walrus, caribou, seal, and cafeteria food because there’s no restaurant or tourist amenities on the island. (Regional culinary tip: the sushi and pizza in Nome, where we transferred to our third and final plane to get to Shishmaref, was not bad.)

    Most of the recent literature about Shish concerns climate change and how this small island (like many coastal areas around the world) is already bearing the burden of rising sea levels, as chunks of coastline fall into the sea after every major storm. But many of these articles and documentaries don’t reveal much about the spirit of the people who make it their home. Rather, they tend to use Indigeneity as a journalistic hook—“Look at these sad Eskimos once again suffering the follies of the colonizers,” etc. It’s not untrue, but it certainly was not my main takeaway after two weeks living in a classroom, teaching, ice fishing, snow machining, and hanging out.

    Shishmaref has its fair share of issues: a scarcity of jobs, poverty, a lack of plumbing, loss of culture and language, and, yes, the overhanging threat of relocation due to climate change. But mostly, along with minor frostbite, I felt joy and kindness and hospitality. For the students we worked with, sports, art, malaise, friendship, humor, depression, pop music, Eskimo dancing (aġġi), and tracking Flamin’ Hot Cheetos shipments at the Native Store occupied their days. Swap Eskimo dancing for line dancing, and their school days were not too dissimilar from mine in Tennessee.

    A group of kids, including a shirtless toddler, dance on an indoor  basketball court, as men seated on the sidelines beat large, round, flat drums.
    Eskimo dancing at Shishmaref School
    Photo courtesy of Julian Saporiti

    The adults I came to know offered many diverse cultural and political perspectives. And although everyone acknowledged climate change (to varying degrees) and shared stories of its devastation to the island, folks weren’t consumed by dread. In a way, it reminded me of how my Southeast Asian family talks about living through the Vietnam War. For most, daily life goes on even in the face of looming large-scale disaster. In Shish, there is rec ball to play and caribou to hunt.

    My experience in Alaska complicated the single narrative of the gloom-and-doom journalism I ingested prior to my arrival. I was reminded that no community is a monolith, nor should we define anyone primarily by their trauma or tragedy. We would be well served to look at any place we want to know more about as a tapestry of small moments—not unlike a good collection of folk songs.

    Embroidery on white cloth, still in the hoop, depicting a scene of a person hunting a caribou.
    Photo courtesy of Julian Saporiti

    I didn’t intend to make a movie about Shish, but the otherworldly frozen landscape was new and exhilarating to me, so I started filming things on my phone. Then, a few days into the trip, Emilia and I were invited to attend a choir practice where a woman named Suzzuk was using old, translated church hymns to help preserve the Inupiaq language. With her blessing, and the school district’s permission, I started recording wherever we went.

    I think of this film and the accompanying song, “Shishmaref,” as a collection of small moments—home movies, really—to help flesh out the actual people glossed over in many of those news articles. Some of these folks I now consider friends. All of them have interesting stories to tell.

    The film and music video were made primarily to serve as a model for students engaged in similar work of transforming history into art. The goal is to make something which, unlike an essay, you actually want to share with people. We wanted to provide examples of projects any student can make with a decent phone and a laptop (plus a lot of YouTube tutorials and good mentorship)—you just need to open your eyes and ears.

    I dedicate this film to the students back in Shish and the incredible promise they hold. I also want to dedicate it to folks doing important preservation work, like Suzzuk Huntington, who ended up helping me tremendously as a producer on this film. Musician to musician, I deeply connected with her way of investigating the past through song.

    Acknowledge the land, yes. This is important. But don’t do so out of academic obligation. To that irate professor at the conference, thank you so much for your instruction by example, for pushing me to understand the rich culture, daily life, and history behind every Tribe name, and for revealing the power land acknowledgements hold when you really know where you’re standing.

    A collage with a Polaroid photo in the center of a group of children and two adults holding up pieces of paper with photos. The date is written on the side: 1-29-20. A dark blue piece of paper around the photo reads ART CLUB, handwritten. A yellow border around the whole piece reads QIGIQTAQ! SHISHMAREF! The sides have line and dot patterns, and in each corner are the letters AK.
    Souvenir from the Shishmaref Art Club
    Photo courtesy of Julian Saporiti

    Julian Saporiti is a Vietnamese American musician and scholar who was born and raised in Nashville. As No-No Boy, his latest album, 1975, which comprises part of his dissertation, is available on Smithsonian Folkways.


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