By Alice Rose Crow Maar’aq
We chugged down the Kusquqvak the summer before I turned five. I didn’t wear bright yellow rain gear, a puffy orange life jacket, or black rubber boots with red bands circling high on my calves. I didn’t wear a qaspeq. I was dressed for the occasion of boarding a hulking white ship with a booming Norwegian at its helm to head downriver to greet our Japanese trading partners.
I went up the rope ladder in a cotton mail order dress Ma chose for me. My raven hair, precision straight, caught the breeze. A length of vibrant red yarn was knotted tight above one hand for protection. The wind blew. I strained to steady my hands and feet on each wooden rung of the slack rope ladder as it banged against the towering white hull. I climbed to Aunty Josy.
On that part of our journey, in wintertime, Aunty Josy wore an elaborate Akulamuit style atkuk made with dozens of arctic ground squirrel skins and other carefully accumulated materials according to precise patterns handed across generations. She wore her atkuk over a flowery qaspeq with an imported milky square scarf knotted under a strong chin.
As kids, it was familiar to eagerly await Akula women, like Aunty Josy, reaching generous strong brown hands into deep qaspeq pockets to bring out gentle, warm hands, a tissue, a piece of gum, a dollar.
I was taught to sew long sleeves narrowing down to our wrists, and roomy hoods to draw tight with a simple bias tape scrap or fancy thumb-braided yarn string cinched with pony bead adornments tied to each end. I was taught to sew qaspiit designed to conveniently protect and pull out what is needed, long enough to cover our bottoms, to keep stinging mosquitos and gnats from vulnerable yet busy necks and arms. The women who taught me sewed and dressed themselves in qaspiit in celebration of who we are, to show where we are from.
Times have changed since I was a little girl learning to make qaspiit. Only a few of us still sew, swim upstream, know by instinct to try to reach home.
These days, on this part of our journey, qaspiit are sold by the thousands to be worn by women and men migrated from the tundra to a life of school, meetings, office work, and welfare. Qaspeqs are bought by politicians, and made for legislative staff to don on “Kuspuk Fridays” televised statewide on 360 North. Qaspeqs are worn by immersion students, school teachers, professors, and corporate leaders who don’t pick berries by the five gallon pail or put up fish by the hundreds to feed their families. Many qaspiit don’t have a drawstring to keep nuisances away, aren’t worn with the hood up anyway. Some kuspuks are loose misinterpretations without hoods, with misshapen pockets. It’s not easy to tell where a person is from by the qaspeq style they wear. Not like the ones Ma taught me to sew and wear while travelling the rivers and sloughs of our world.
On this journey, we are admonished to remember the ones from before, the ancestors who brought us here, what was brought to them, now us. Studied informers are paid a stipend of bagged fruit and pocket money, but how does this help anyone traveling our sloughs and rivers? We name the sequence of sensations: the sting, the heat, the pulse, the itch.
We join in to intone the triple recitations, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
Inside an elongated brown oval box are kaapaat Granny made. Even after all this time I bring up the lid to catch her scent in the heap of perfect black knots she tied. There is the oil of silver hair she braided to the very tips down past her waist before collecting strays between her palms and rolling stray hair into a careful tickly bundle she then stored with the rest. Her Ivory fragrance lingers. A whiff of iqmik brings her full smile close. When I bring up the lid, Granny smiles through warm knowing eyes, tobacco-stained teeth worn down by a lifetime of chewing skins.
Kaapaat are handmade embellished hairnets worn by southwest Alaska women, mostly Russian Orthodox, to signify marriage. It’s been over 30 years since Granny made my first kaapaq. Granny repurposed Popsicle and Creamsicle sticks to act as mesh gauges. She hand-strung red seed beads and blue bugle beads onto thick black thread. She continued to hand-knot the thread to create a vee pattern big enough to contain my long hair. Then she strung the net to black elastic to keep my hair in place.
Granny went ahead on February 11, 1987. When I open the box and bring her kaapaqs to my face, Granny’s scent grounds me. It’s not really her scent. It’s mine from when my hair was long and raven black. It’s mine from when I coiled my hair around and around my hand to fold it into the kaapaq Granny made for me.
Copyright © Alice Rose Crow~Maar’aq. All rights reserved.
Her memoir An Offering of Words is underway. In it, she explores what holds Central Yup’ik Eskimo and Athabascan people of the Kuskokwim steady in these times of rapid change and anomie. Ali is a member of the Orutsararmuit Native Council and is an original ANCSA Calista and Bethel Native Corporation shareholder.