Experiencing Culture at Cecilia’s

I was one of the first ones up yesterday morning, which almost never happens.

The only others up were those who were assigned to be on the interview team and Nico, who’s a video pro and always a step ahead of everybody else.

Sarah, a volunteer at the Church who was a Jesuit Volunteer last year, suddenly came into our breakfast/break room and told us that Myron, the interviewee that morning, wanted the interview team over as soon as possible. Cecilia, who we interviewed a few days ago, had also called. She was making soup, so if we needed b-roll of that, we needed to go over there immediately.

Talk about a rushed morning.

Nico was ready to go shoot b-roll and grabbed Scott, who’s quickly becoming a video pro, and the interview team started to gather equipment. I quickly felt out of place, since I wasn’t on the interview team and video isn’t my strong suit. I figured I wasn’t going in either group.

Carol, one of our faculty advisors, told me to go with Nico and Scott to see Cecilia and to observe, be present and take down notes about the b-roll the boys were shooting.

So Leah, who had just woken up, Scott, Nico and I piled into Sarah’s truck and drove to Cecilia’s. Her house isn’t big, but it is tall and skinny. When you walk in, you take off your muddy boots. You walk up a flight of stairs to her living room and kitchen.

When we got there, she had reindeer meat boiling in a pot of water. She added onions and later carrots, kale, noodles, parsley and basil. She had run out of tomatoes, so she instead put in a little ketchup. (I tried the soup later that morning, and yes, the reindeer meat was delicious!)

She showed us how she stirs, always in a clockwise motion, following the sun. She “follows the sun whatever [she does],” even when she purifies her house.

Next she showed us a little bowl of burned ayuk, or tundra tea leaves. These are tiny leaves you can pick out of the tundra. They smell fantastic and you can brew them to make tea. Cecilia burns them and and purifies her house from east to west (again, following the sun) once or twice a month.

When explaining why she purifies her house, she says that everybody leaves something behind in her house or wherever they go. It’s either positive or negative energy, like feelings of anxiety or excitement. Purifying her house removes all of that energy.

She must pick an awful lot of ayuk, because she also picks them for the Catholic Church. She has for the past two years. The Church uses the burnt tundra leaves as incense.

As Cecilia cut the different ingredients to put in her soup, she cut them using her ulu, which is a knife that is shaped like a wide “u.” She told us that when a woman gets married, she is given three things: a ulu, a traditional stirring spoon made of wood and a sewing kit complete with scissors, a smaller ulu, a thimble and needles.

While the soup was cooking on the stove, she proceeded to pull out her traditional Yup’ik mukluks (boots made out of seal and otter with waterproof stitching) and parkas. The four of us had lots of fun trying on the parkas. She told us her mother made the mukluks but she made the parkas.

Cecilia let us try on the parkas she made. They are so warm, and I love the pockets! Photo Courtesy of Nico Sandi.
Cecilia let us try on the parkas she made. They are so warm, and I love the pockets! Photo Courtesy of Nico Sandi.

Even though I didn’t really need to go to Cecilia’s because everything that happened was caught on camera, I was happy I got to go and learn a little more about the Yup’ik culture. I felt like I was at my grandma’s house, but instead of hearing about my family, I heard all sorts of traditions and history from another culture.

She told us that every Christmas her and her siblings would receive new mukluks and kuspuks (hooded overshirts with pockets; each group has a different pattern and style of kuspuks).

I hope that moment, when we laughed as we tried on the parkas and examined the mukluks, reminded her of past Christmases.

2 thoughts on “Experiencing Culture at Cecilia’s

  1. Madeline, it’s important to capture the images and story behind the images. I know the saying is a picture is worth a thousand words, but every photo needs a caption. The details you pulled out are wonderful.

  2. She sounds absolutely amazing and full of wisdom! I love her quote about following the sun in everything she does, especially considering that she lives in Alaska, a place often devoid of sunshine.

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