When Julie Knagin spoke, she had everyone’s attention.
Young and old affirmed the importance of Julie’s stories with their attentive faces, breaking into smiles during light-hearted moments and turning sober in parts that were serious, sad and dramatic.
Today youngsters, some of whom have families of their own, fondly recall the stories and elderly advice shared by Julie and her husband, Dennis Knagin. The Knagins and other elders were teachers at Dig Afognak, and they never were ignored because of their age.
Their willingness to teach lessons they had gleaned from a long life, inspired the kids to want to learn. After all, isn’t that what a teacher should do? Inspire?
I also was an attentive listener when I interviewed the Knagins about their lives in Afognak, Karluk and Kodiak. I was anxious to hear about their courting days, the differences between their communities and their life together as a fishing family. They gave bits of information that I was able to stretch into an article. The stories I jotted down would be about all I would get from the Knagins. They were modest people who didn’t seek out publicity. But if you got them in a yurt with a group of attentive youngsters, they were in their element.
After listening to the elders, such as the Knagins, the younger generations wanted to learn more, to somehow create their own stories in a modern world where seal skin baidarkas are displayed in museum exhibit cases; oar-driven wooden dories are overrun by smothering beach grass; and stories of shamans and spirit masks are talked about in hushed voices around beach fires.
The Knagins’ voices have been silenced by Death, which snatches young and old in their stories.
Iver Malutin’s voice, too, has been taken from us.
His voice, along with the Knagins’ and a host of others too numerous to count, have been preserved in video and audio recordings (yes, there is something to be said about modern technology) and the remembrance of the stories he told and lived.
I had the pleasure of working as a cook at Dig Afognak and I can still hear Iver’s voice – often a few decibels higher than his colleagues – in the cook shack. He liked to talk about local and state politics, his work with the commission on aging and growing up on Kodiak Island. But what was really dear to his heart was the importance of teaching the youth Alutiiq ways. He took young people aside and told stories as he taught them survival skills. When the session was over, he’d give them a Russian or an Alutiiq nickname.
Iver Malutin (as well as the Knagins) was all about community. When the St. Innocent Academy singers brought the decorated Christmas star to the home of Meta Carlson on Russian Christmas, and vigorously sang songs from the Orthodox East and Protestant West, Iver got up to speak, which he was often inclined to do when he felt something had to be said. With tears in his eyes, and quivering voice, he heaped words of gratitude on the singers for singing the old church songs that he grew up with. Then he thanked them for bringing back the “old Kodiak” in their singing, ministry and friendships.
I detected a note of “joyful sorrow” (or was it “sorrowful joy”) in Iver’s voice. He was sad, because he longed for a time that had disappeared along with the skin-boat baidarkas and oar-driven dories; yet, he was hopeful that the spirit of community might come back.
Iver rarely gave an off-the cuff talk without paying homage to “common sense.” “It all goes back to that,” he’d say.
Common sense comes through paying attention to the world around you. The Alutiiq people looked closely for signs that warned or encouraged them to go hunting in their baidarkas and showed them where to set their nets for fish that would keep them through the winter.
On the day of Julie Knagin’s funeral, a family member told me that, “Now it’s up to us” to carry the torch of culture preservation. “It’s kind of scary,” he said. I can just hear Julie say, in a voice that is intentional and clear, “You can do it. You have no choice but to do it.” And Iver would be quick to add, “All you need is common sense.”
There is a post script to this column. Recently Trisha (Hochmuth) Eldridge passed away after a long, hard battle with cancer. At 49 years old, she was too young to be called “elder,” but her passion for her culture and her devotion to family and community certainly qualifies her for that respected status. Trisha wanted to keep on living so that she could protect her sons – grown men who are on their own— and 12-year-old daughter. Her son, Caleb, affectionately called her “Mother Bear.” She was known as a warrior who fought for those who needed an advocate. “Mother Bear raised the bar,” said Caleb.
Trisha, Julie and Iver have all “raised the bar.” Will the younger generation follow their example?