Decolonize Your Mind
A Yup’ik philosopher on culture, awareness and identity.
Ellange: to obtain awareness; to have one’s first experience(s) that leave(s) a lasting memory; ellanguq: he obtained awareness / Maaten-gguq ellanguq mat’umun nunakegtaarmun tanqircetqapiarluni camek-llu-gguq cali nalluami yuucini-llu nalluamiu murilkessiyaagpek’nani / It was at that time, it is said, that she became aware of the bright beautiful world. Because she didn’t know anything yet and didn’t even know that she was a human being she did not observe very much. —From the second edition of the Yup’ik Eskimo Dictionary compiled by Steven A. Jacobson
I remember the moment I became aware. I had fallen asleep reading comics at my Grandpa Ben’s cabin at Fort Davis on the outskirts of Nome, Alaska, near the mouth of the river with the same name. Mom said I taught myself how to read with a Santa book. I don’t remember that, but I remember Riverdale. (Grandpa Ben used to call me “comic” because my nose would always be buried in an Archie Comic, a window into an alien world. A world I would come to inhabit.)
The radio was on, and Eurythmics were playing “Here Comes the Rain Again.”
The song had entered into my dream. Everything was shades of red, as though I was looking through a red lens. I was at the edge of a thermokarst, an area that forms from thawing permafrost. The layer at the bottom was peeling away like skin. All the Archie characters were there around the edge with me.
The entire universe started whirling, centered around the thermokarst. The song was playing, and I was spinning, and the Archie characters were spinning, and we whirled, and we whirled, and then I woke up.
I remember the cabin, and I knew where I was and who I was. I didn’t know the song, but I still remember it vividly—I ellanguq. I became aware in a different way, a birthday that no one can place but me. I have memories before that moment, but they are like still shots or frames. I’ve been told many stories about myself, so I can place a lot of them from context, but this is the first memory where I can place who I am, where I was and what I was doing. I obtained awareness.
Awareness is the central tenet of Yup’ik culture. It is not the only tenet, but it is as central to our culture as individuality is to American culture. Just as freedom can be said to be a corollary of individuality, responsibility is to awareness, and that responsibility can carry a heavy weight.
“This part of you is no different than a dog,” my uncle said, gesturing at my body. “Yuuyaraq is about developing the part of yourself that is created in the image of God.” My uncle was lecturing me on our traditional beliefs. He talked about developing your mind and spirit in the same way you would exercise your physical muscles; he warned me to be careful about the kinds of things I let enter my mind.
He would sometimes try to tell me about Native American law, nuggets from the past that I heard about from Elders, aunts, uncles and other relatives. But I was interested in our beliefs and structures more than anything else.
When you are a baby, you aren’t aware yet. My wife, Sacha, and I agree that our child Mayuq, who turned 4 last year, has not yet become aware.
Mayuq speaks well enough to be understood most of the time, pretends to read, draws and paints recognizable representations of the family and their favorite characters. They watch movies over and over and have them memorized and act out detailed sequences and scenarios with their toys, but they are not yet aware. They will become aware soon.
You can communicate differently with someone who has become aware. Once they become aware, we can begin to teach them things in a way we can’t right now, which isn’t to say they aren’t already learning—they are observing and mimicking the things we do. They pay attention to how we act, even if they can’t quite parse what we say or mean.
As far as I can tell, awareness comes at different times for each of us—my eldest son remembers nursing. When he was 3, he talked about what it was like in the womb. Since Mayuq is not aware, they can’t be held accountable for the things they do in the same way you would with someone who has become aware. In the traditional Yup’ik society, you would never raise your voice or become irritated with a child, something I aspire to.
The more I learn about my culture, the more I appreciate it as something more than a primitive worldview. The process of becoming aware happens over the course of a lifetime.
The Yup’ik believe everything has a spirit—iinruq. Human spirits were called anerneq, which refers to the breath. Your name and signifiers place you in the category of named things, and one may have many names and nicknames that are very special as well. Even in the modern age, people from all cultures often carry many names both on and off official certificates. For Yupiit, we are named after those who came before us, and we carry forward the name and often some of the attributes of the ones who came before us. I am Maaruk. Which iteration I do not know, but I am an iteration. I don’t know how old the name is, but it was passed down from before living memory. It’s an old name. The word itself has fallen into disuse, and no one I’ve asked knows what it means. But I know where it came from: Mamie Seton. I know someone will carry the name after I die. I am part of a chain of humans, a chain of lives and relationships forged in life and in death.
The next part is your mind. This is the scheme of information you operate from and your set of assumptions about the world, the rules and patterns you store and use to operate. This also contains the narratives we align with—why are we here? How did we come about? Your mind is an important thing, and the axiomatic assumptions you operate from are important to be aware of. Many of these assumptions are taught rather than experienced.
Your body is the node through which you access the physical world, and it is the vehicle for your spirit and mind. Your body is an amazing tool; but you are not your body. If you were unfortunate enough to lose a finger, what part of you goes with it? Who remains?
You aren’t your thoughts and mind, nor are you your body. This is reflected in the ways we Inuit view ourselves and the way we view others. You and the people you interact with are not their thoughts or actions but the originators of them. This is a crucial distinction because it allows you to separate a person from their words or actions.
Think back as far as you can remember; it doesn’t have to be your first memory, just some early memories. Who was that? Of course it can seem like that is a different person, but it was you. It was always you. Our scheme of information—our experiences and internal paradigms—are what is changing, but the core of who you are remains. Ellanguq is the beginning point in your development, and the awareness you have of yourself and the world around you continues to develop throughout your life. We can all remember things we used to think or things that we have done that are not consistent with who we are or who we want to be. The mind can and does change. The Inuit conception of a person recognizes this and makes room for the growth to happen.
For a long time I misremembered the song from my dream. I was in the shower, and the memory came back so strong I could hear the music playing. I went and sat at my computer and pulled up Eurythmics on YouTube. The first recommendation was “Sweet Dreams” and I played it, but I had just heard the song so clearly in the shower that I knew it wasn’t it. I played the next recommended song instead. I knew it as soon as the instrumental began, “Here comes the rain again, falling on my head like a memory.”
Memories came whirling back, things I hadn’t remembered in a long time. Like most kids of my generation, we roamed freely all over Nome during the long summer days and short winter ones. In the spring, we gathered greens and hunted for wild bird eggs. We set nets for salmon on the beach, and Mom and Dad cut the fish, brined it and hung it to dry. Racks and racks of salmon drying in the cool coastal air. My brothers, my cousins and I would eat everything that we were taught was edible, wild celery that tastes like celery squared. Hidden patches of nagoonberries growing in the tall grass of seldom-used trails. We chased ground squirrels into their holes where they would pop out the other side and scold us.
We went to school like all the other kids, but the activities continued during the winter. We would ice fish for tomcod and set pots for king crab that we would eat with rendered seal oil the same way you would with butter. Nome’s Front Street, lined with stores and bars, sits behind a seawall of rock that overlooks the Bering Sea. If we had money, we would go to the candy store, then we would roam the ice along the seashore, jumping from berg to berg during breakup. Hunters would come home with seals or walrus, and much of this was the normal course of events for most of the people in my immediate life.
I am Gwich’in on my father’s side. Edward Charles Jones’s people hail from Fort Yukon and Nenana. I was born in 1977 to Beatrice O’Brien. My biological dad had instructed Mom to wait to name me, so she waited. He never showed up. She told me I walk like him, talk like him and smile like him, but we’ve never met. Mr. Jones: My aunts and uncles have called me that since I was a baby. Although my Yup’ik name is Maaruk, I was eventually given the English name Warren. Warren Richard Jones. Warren because I was her little warrior; Richard after my paternal uncle who died before I was born; and Jones from a white ancestor named Frank Chester Jones who lived in Fort Yukon and married my great-grandmother Mary Roderick on my paternal side. His brothers were early white settlers of Nenana.
We are Yup’ik on my mother’s side, from Naparyarmiut—a tidal slough spilling into Hooper Bay, the bay from which the village derives its English name. I was raised in Nome with my stepdad’s family, who are Inupiaq. Nome is on the coast of the Bering Sea in an area that has been inhabited for a long time and known as Sitnasuak. It was later the location of a famous gold rush and in a 1900 census had 12,000 residents. Nome is also where many of the people of King Island relocated after the closure of their school, and today, Nome is primarily Native but has a sizable non-Native community.
In the late ’80s, we moved to Palmer, a bustling little colonial community on Dena’ina land in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. There I spent my adolescent years roaming the forests, mountains, glaciers and rivers. My cousins who grew up here taught me where to find tart and delicious currants in the woods, and we would steal carrots and cabbages from gardens at night like rabbits. Even aside from the geography, Palmer was much different than Nome in character, being connected to the road system and a short drive away from Anchorage, the most populated city in Alaska.
Here, I didn’t do so well in other ways. The cultural transition was hard I think for us all, but the valley offered amenities and experiences to make up for it. Still, I ended up expelled from high school for my freshman and sophomore years and was institutionalized periodically at that time. I did well during my junior and senior years but ended up dropping out, getting my GED and going to community college to study math. I worked cannery, dock and fishing jobs in the summers and traveled around as a pitch salesman selling the ShamWow! and Magic Pens in the winter. In the late ’90s, me and a couple of my friends packed up and drove to Seattle. My first job was at Pike Place Fish Market; we had all intended on finishing college there in Washington, but none of that materialized and I ended up being recruited into the Marine Corps by my little sister.
My stepdad, sister and I all served in the marines. I scored very high on the military aptitude test and had my pick of options, but what I wanted was infantry. I was joining for the adventure. I wanted to shoot rocket launchers and throw grenades. I ended up as a scout for the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, where I served from 2002–06. I learned a lot there, and I served with a lot of good men and women from all over the country. I met and served under some genuine warriors who taught me a lot about a real warrior ethos but also taught me not to romanticize wars or the reasons why we fight them.
It was at this time I met my wife. I was at a party in Los Angeles when I saw this beautiful Argentine walk in, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. We continued our relationship long-distance after I left the marines and went to college in Alaska. We ended up deciding to move to Seattle, where we had our first child; I continued my studies here but as fate would have it, her work and our lives took us back to Anchorage, where we now reside with our four children.
I’ve been the primary caregiver for our children for 12 years. My wife had the better job and much better immediate prospects, and I was going to school at the time. I tried to schedule all my classes on two days a week to minimize the days we needed a babysitter. Because of this scheduling, I ended up with a lot more classes on political philosophy than I would have liked but that I ended up enjoying more than I would have imagined.
It was back in Alaska that I began to explore more deeply about who I was and where I came from. Here I learned about the history of colonialism, and I took classes on the nature and scale of the epidemic of violence against Native women and the dark history of the churches in bringing pedophiles into our communities. I heard testimony from my own family on the things that they saw and experienced. The church paid them large settlements, but it did little to alleviate the damage done to them, and our families as a result. The story my aunt told me left me with tears of impotent rage toward the church and the attitudes toward my people that permitted such things.
We studied Plato and Aristotle and dissected the Constitution. We discussed the seeds of many ideas, including what I considered flimsy justifications for concepts like private property (which we just ran with). While I eventually ended up with a great appreciation for Western philosophy and thinkers in general, I also ended up realizing that we had our own ideas about many of these things, and as far as I could tell, our ideas had just as much legitimacy, if not more, in many domains.
Yup’ik governance structures are so unlike Western ones that naive colonists and explorers who came across our peoples thought we did not have any system of governance in place. Our society had a decentralized governance structure. Our settlements and permanent camps were spread out across the land. Our laws were known by all, and every Yuk was responsible for holding themselves and others accountable to yuuyaraq laws and structures. Yuuyaraq is the product of thousands of years of wisdom from people living and learning the lessons of the North—a place of great beauty and deep spiritual connection for all who have spent time here.
We viewed the world as a nested pluralism; the world is inhabited by “spirits” and everything had a “spirit.” The physical world and all its laws existed, but they were part of a larger scheme, a “spiritual universe” that underpinned the physical one. The word spirit might be the closest approximation to what the Yup’ik describe, but that doesn’t encompass it precisely. Every physical thing has a presence and, in ways small and large, extends its will into the universe. A mountain has a will through its sheer presence, and those of us who climb them and those who live on and around them understand the way in which mountains impose their will on the space they occupy. The Yup’ik considered them sentient—they had awareness of how they were treated.
Going to university in Alaska offered views and opportunities not possible elsewhere. We read The Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers. As a Governance Fellow at First Alaskans Institute, I explored the ways in which people structured the world and was able to follow the development of concepts and ideas into structures and institutions. I started to wonder what our governance structures and institutions would look like in the modern world had they been allowed to evolve on their own. My awareness was growing.
I would often hear non-Natives talk about their lack of culture and connection. I found this surprising—by this time, I had spent most of my life learning how to navigate Western culture and almost all my time at university learning about the history and origins of the culture that these individuals were now denying existed. They weren’t just claiming ignorance of it. They were saying it didn’t exist. This all began my journey and exploration of what culture was and what it means, a topic that is important to me since some of the primary issues I work on are preserving and revitalizing culture. While food and art are important parts of culture, it is much more than that. People didn’t fight and die to preserve a style of beadwork or food-preparation techniques; these practices represent something more fundamental.
I had the privilege of growing up in the world I grew up in. I learned the lessons the land had to offer me, and my childhood shaped the way I view the entire universe. I knew I couldn’t quite understand the world of my ancestors because of the histories I read, and the stories of the times of my great-grandfathers made it clear to me that they existed in a world I couldn’t replicate. Now, at 44, I try to understand their lives and the context in which they lived, and I look at the lessons and worldview from that point of view. My aunts and uncles are the only ones left in our family who witnessed the last remnants of a world that exists in pieces now. When they tell stories, I can’t imagine how strange it must be to live in the age of information, in the age of social media, where information travels fast (and bullshit, faster), and there is more to keep up with than any human is even capable of doing. Even I feel like I’m living in the future sometimes.
Who I am is deeply tied to the nuna, the land. Early explorers were surprised to find people here, where my very recent ancestors seemingly emerged from the ground to greet them. Mom and her siblings all grew up in this world. My uncle says, “It does feel like we just emerged from the tundra sometimes.”
Most of my knowledge is inside my head from all kinds of sources. From lived experience, from academic texts and colonial historical accounts, from hitchhikers and drunks, from corporate leaders and my aunts and uncles—and some of those categories overlap. Lots of these people devalue their knowledge because that knowledge isn’t important to the world we find ourselves in.
We understood something of God long before the missionaries came. We had an understanding that came from the environment we lived in, an environment that had lessons that were hard. This is why we are also so joyful and humorous. The world is already hard, and we know it. The crucible in which my culture was formed is changing, maybe for good, but the world is still out there with all the same lessons.
This story was first published in the Patagonia Fall 2021 Journal.