So the spirits won’t escape: An archaeo-fiction narrative

This post is a combined work of diary entries about my personal experience doing archaeology at Ing’yug, a Sugpiaq/Alutiiq village on Sitkalidak Island, and an imagined fictional narrative (italicized paragraphs) about a girl that lived in the village in the early 1800s. This story came out of an assignment for Writing in Archaeology, a class taught by Sara Gonzalez at the University of Washington. Writing this short fictional piece allowed me to think about the archaeological materials in a different way, while also foregrounding my own sensorial and emotional experience at Ing’yug.

We were dropped off on the beach as the sun was starting to go down. All the excitement leading to this moment of arrival fell away as I watched the boat depart. We were alone at Tanginak. It took us the rest of the daylight hours to organize our gear and begin setting up our camp – our home for the next three weeks – a quarter-mile uphill from the beach. I was unsettled that evening in my tent. Everything was new and the sounds were unfamiliar. Had I made a giant mistake in coming here? In following this career path? Wait, is that rustling sound a bear?

She was afraid that night. She could hear her mother, aunties and grandmother whispering amongst themselves by the central stone lamp, discussing the Russian man who had visited their village that day, remembering Awa’uq. She had not yet been born the last time that Russian men came to her island twenty years ago, but she knew the stories well. Her grandmother had gathered her clan and kayaked down the lagoon to their place of refuge after being warned of an impending threat. A threat unlike their usual war partners from the chain or the peninsula. Little did Grandmother know that their place of refuge would be the final resting place for so many of her people. Since the massacre, the men had been taken away and an unknown sickness swept through the islands. What did Mother and Grandmother know about this man who visited today? Were they bracing for another tragedy?

Eventually, I fell asleep and awoke the next morning with a new energy. Seeing our surroundings in the morning light put things in a better perspective. Here we were surrounded by Sugpiaq history and the lives of ancestors. We had slept atop the oldest archaeological site on the archipelago and, from that vantage, could see traces of Sugpiaq life stretching from 7,500 years ago to the present resting among the fireweed, salmonberries, pushki and nettles. I had not expected all this interconnection, although I should have. I had been so focused on a particular time and a single village, Ing’yug, that I had overlooked how Ing’yug was wrapped in a thick cloak of multigenerational, multimillennial lives and activities. Our presence here was merely a drop in the bucket.

The Russian man’s visit ended up being just another oddity and no immediate consequences or changes came to her life. She continued with her early spring routines and duties – gathering shellfish from the beach at low tide, cleaning and preparing the latest batch of fox furs that the boys brought in, and assisting her mother and aunties with preparing, storing and distributing food. On special nights all the families in the village would gather in the qasgi, a large house set behind the beach ridge and invisible from the shore. Of the few adult men who still lived at Ing’yug year-round, the eldest ones resided primarily in the qasgi, and every so often would host a feast and encourage dancing, singing and storytelling. This is where she learned the history of her people. The tales of weavers, warriors, whalers, shamans, healers, and midwives filled her being with a sense of pride. “There are not so many of us now,” the elders would say, “some of the dance masks and songs had to be retired and there are some stories that not even we know anymore. Their owners were lost.” From this, she understood that her knowledge was a valuable gift and a marker of perseverance, of survival.

We slowly became familiar with Ing’yug, our small team uncovering the sedimentary layers of its history in little squares, but the village was not yet ready to share what it had witnessed. We found very few artifacts, or ancestral belongings, but there was an abundance of charcoal-stained soil, fire-cracked rock and animal remains – evidence of a significant residence by Sugpiaq ancestors. It was not until the final day of excavation that we uncovered belongings – a slate ulu and a stone lamp, lying upside down on the floor of a house. Touching and holding artifacts, objects, belongings is powerful as you share a moment with those who made, used and discarded them – uniting those pasts and this present.

Years passed and she became a mother, then a grandmother. Leader of her family. A revered source of knowledge. A skilled seamstress, fish processer, dancer and beader. Life in Ing’yug had become more tenuous. More Russian visitors came and went, more of her people were removed or succumbed to the sickness, the Church came to stop the dances. Yet, here she still was, making do, surviving. One day, word came that everyone in the village would be relocated to Nuniaq on the Sitkalidak Narrows. There was no choice. The Russian company men had already decided. As she left her ciqlluaq in Ing’yug for the final time, she made sure to turn the stone lamp upside down so the spirits wouldn’t escape.

One thought on “So the spirits won’t escape: An archaeo-fiction narrative”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s