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.

Why Can’t I Write?

This post is slightly modified from my response to a prompt in Writing and Archaeology, a class taught by Sara Gonzalez at the University of Washington. We were asked to examine our various forms of resistance to academic writing. As part of my new project to be less risk-averse with my writing, I decided to make this response public. I invite other folks to engage with this post and share their own experiences with resistance to writing and strategies for overcoming resistance.

I experience a lot of resistance to writing, especially writing connected to my dissertation proposal and research. In watching a webinar from the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity called “Moving from Resistance to Writing”, I could see myself and my behavior in discussions of perfectionism, avoidance and vulnerability. That helped me understand that I tend to view writing as a “risky” endeavor, which is the root of my resistance.

Until now, I have not given a lot of thought as to what my resistance is. Instead, I have just felt shame about not working hard enough and not getting enough done in a given period of time. I find it hard not to compare myself to others and become jealous of my colleagues’ progress when I should be celebrating them. While I know that I have come a long way since entering graduate school, often times I feel like I’m still a tiny fry, fresh out of college, and thrashing around in a big pond of academia – just trying to absorb everything while giving a deferent berth to the bigger fishes. Why do I feel unable to engage with other researchers through academic writing?

I worry that I am not qualified to have an opinion or do research, especially not research with Indigenous peoples. This fear slows down my writing as I second-guess everything I put down on the paper – not wanting to say something potentially hurtful or wrong but also wanting to signal my engagement with the appropriate theoretical literature. I worry that I am not aware enough of my privilege as a white woman and other times that I am being hyper-aware of it and sinking into apologies or guilt rather than action. These feelings have paralyzed me time and again over the past couple years. Only recently have I started to understand the significance of my journey, which has eased the paralysis somewhat. I don’t need to be fully formed and the most woke in every piece of writing or expression. There is value in the process of learning and slipping up and making mistakes. My writing should (and will) ultimately reflect that.

Blogging has been one area of writing that has allowed me to experiment a bit more, even if I don’t end up posting everything that I draft. Free writing and blogging allow me to feel less constrained by the real and imagined rigors of academia, although I know that I do not make enough time for them. As much as writing for thinking is touted, I still can’t seem to give it the same weight in my mind. It can still feel like I’m wasting my time when I’m not working on “serious” writing projects.

So why can’t I write? Because I suffer from imposter syndrome, anxiety and perfectionism, all of which invoke personal shame over a sense that I am not writing or doing enough. I don’t want others to figure out that I’m not as good a writer or researcher or person as they thought, so I don’t give them opportunities to scrutinize my work. I don’t often face criticisms and have little experience with academic failure, so I fear those things most of all. In reading that last sentence over, I again consider my privilege, and perhaps the insulation that others have given me throughout my career. Maybe this writing resistance is caught up in something much larger – my struggle, through my research with the Sugpiaq community of Old Harbor, to reckon with my history and my identity and come out on the “good” side of things. Writing about research is as much a personal exercise as it is a professional one.

No wonder writing feels risky.

Briefly Noted: Teaching Writing in Anthropology

As part of my grad school experience, I teach 5-credit writing seminars to undergraduate students. My students are all concurrently enrolled in anthropology courses, thus the purpose of my seminars is to help students write in the discipline. Although I have been “writing in the discipline” for the better part of a decade, prior to teaching, I never had to think about what it means to write in anthropology.

Now that I look back on three terms of instructing students, I still don’t think I have a distinct answer – anthropology writing is personal, scientific, ethnographic, (auto)biographic, global, local, theoretical, storytelling, public, scholarly, poetic, verbose, prosaic, mundane, significant, situated, etc. In short, anthropology writing is a lot of things, and I think that benefits our discipline by allowing for many kinds of expression and exploration.*

When it comes to introducing such a vast library to my students in anthropology writing seminars, I choose to build from the personal. I ask students to begin by considering their own identities and positionalities within the university and other spaces they inhabit, then build their awareness out from there to the experiences of their classmates and then out to other communities. By situating themselves first, students start to better understand themselves as knowers and as creators of knowledge, which gives them the tools and the confidence to make arguments, evaluate the arguments of others and get a sense of how arguments are built from both evidence and experience. Thus the sequence of assignments moves from a positionality statement to a student-designed ethnographic project to a more ‘traditional’ argumentative research paper and, finally, a reflective piece looking back at the journey.

Along the way, we cover other ‘writing’ topics like citations, paper organization, intros and conclusions, transitions, editing and revising, etc., but I hope that the biggest takeaway for my students is the confidence to join the conversation (of the academy, their professional careers, their communities) thoughtfully, respectfully and from a place of self-awareness.

 

*That being said, I recognize that not all forms of expression nor all forms of scholarship are equally valued in the academy, and it saddens me to see amazing public scholarship, community-building and creativity often go unremarked in academic circles.