Inspiration from Alaska
On Sunday I had the opportunity to give a tour to nine amazing students from Alaska, with a teacher and cameraman in tow. The Yupik kids are from a small island with a total population of 50 people. This was their third time off the island. After fundraising for three years, they finally had enough money to take their trip to Washington, D.C. The National Museum of the American Indian was at the top of their list of sites to see.
As a Cultural Interpreter, I have given tours to people from all walks of life. This includes kindergarteners and diplomats. I have given thousands of tours, but I will never forget my time with these amazing young people. Their bright, inquisitive eyes darted over exhibits and back to me, soaking up the experience like thirsty, happy sponges. Most young people are not interested in museums, so I have developed a bag of tricks to get their attention. These kids didn’t need any magic tricks; they brought the magic in the door with them.
We played a little game about identity: I showed the students a picture of a Cherokee woman from Oklahoma in her traditional clothing. “Who is more Cherokee,” I asked, “me or the woman in the picture?” The Yupik kids responded the same way most visitors do and pointed to the woman in the picture. “Really?” I asked and looked at the picture. “Do you recognize the woman in the picture?” They looked carefully and a wide-eyed few piped up, “That’s you!” I asked again, “Who is more Cherokee?” They were confused, and again, most of them said the woman in the picture. “If I change my clothes, does that change who I am?” We had a fun discussion about cultural identity. They decided that even if they aren’t wearing traditional clothing, they are still Yupik.
The teacher asked me to talk about leaving home, addressing language loss and lack of traditions. These are concerns for many Native people when we leave home. I shared my experiences as an urban Native in the D.C. area. I miss a lot of cultural events at home. However, it is an honor to teach people about my culture and my history. I have grown as an individual because of the time I have spent in Washington. I have a better understanding of my culture because I have left home. I compare my culture to others around the world. Now I understand why we tell our stories and cook our foods in certain ways. I share these stories and cultures with my family and friends when I return. My nieces and nephews love Alaskan string games! “You can do both. You can leave your community to teach others about Yupik peoples. When you return home, you will have new stories to share with your community.”
The students loved the idea that tradition changes and always has, as expressed through contemporary objects at the museum like the Yupik mask made from kitchen utensils and beaded tennis shoes. We talked about Native artists, Senators, and astronauts. We discussed the importance of elders and traditions. After I had shared objects and stories with them for nearly two hours, they were ready to share with me.
We went to the Yupik exhibit. The Yupik are known for telling stories through dance. Two teenage girls shared a beautiful dance that tells the story of the traditional sweat baths. We shared words in our languages. Then I showed them a dance a Yupik grandmother gave the museum about the drum. It was brilliant to see to see all nine of them making the motions for the large flat Yupik drum.
These students wanted to learn. They wanted to be at my museum. They wanted to hear my stories. This is why I came to work at NMAI—so I could share these stories with the next generation. Most aren’t interested, but these students didn’t waste a single moment of their time. Even the four-year-old asked questions! Their teacher was amazing. She has poured her heart into these young people, and it shows. The cameraman is making a film about their experiences leaving the island. I can’t wait to see it!
I believe these students can do anything. I believe they can be Senators, astronauts, artists, traditionalists, and filmmakers. Wado, (thank you) for helping me remember why I came to NMAI. I am truly blessed to have had you all as my teachers. You are the next generation. You are my inspiration.
~ Rachael Cassidy (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), Cultural Interpreter, NMAI