There’s an Inupiaq word that describes the moment when you suddenly, for the first time, recognize that you are a part of this world. In English, it’s simply called your earliest memory. But in my language, it’s a monumental experience. It’s a stakeholder in your past. It is an awareness that deserves respect, for it may explain things along your life. It may define value.
For me, I first placed myself in the world during spring time while we were out on the ice during a Kotzebue fishing derby in the 90’s. I will always remember the light color of pink, but I don’t know what it was attached to. It was just there. I was surrounded by adults. Everything was huge. I felt just as important as them, simply because I existed. All the humans around me were much bigger but I had importance too. We were on the ice. I barely held on to this setting. It was too big for me to grasp. I remember my mom’s laugh.
Then, I remember her back.
I remember the ice hole in front of me, thinking it wasn’t a big deal.
Then all of the sudden, I remember the strength of my arms, on each side of the ice fishing hole.
I vividly remember my mother’s back. I think.
I remember screaming.
What kind of trick is this? What kind of manipulation?
Just as I accepted my world view for the first time. Just as I noticed my existence. The energy of the ocean wanted to drag me back down and out of it. Or maybe that was me.
As fast as I was able to know the world, I was about to forget it.
A little over twenty years later, I finally asked my mom what happened next because I don’t remember.
“Someone yelled from the next hole over,” She said. “‘Biggest catch of the day!’” as she pulled me out of the hole.
“And then what?!” I demanded from her.
“Your dad…” She stops to laugh a little at the memory. “He would get so annoyed with me because I over prepared you kids. I spent so much time getting ready for us to go somewhere. Even if it was just to ice fish out front.” We both laugh. I can see my dad’s impatience. “Well. I had a change of dry clothes for you. I got you back to normal and kept on fishing.”
I was twenty seven years old when I finally was able to place the significance of this memory in the storyline of my life.
I am terrified of fishing. I am scared of cutting fish. It’s the most embarrassing and vulnerable fact about who I am as an Inupiaq woman.
But after the intense therapy process where I learned how to recognize the emotional attachments to my physical responses, it all finally made sense. I’ve always remembered this experience and my mom’s brought up the trauma that can come with it. It still took a while to finally pin point the full story. I am scared of fishing and cutting dead fish. At twenty seven, I finally realized it’s because of the way they flop around when they come out of the water, their home environment. It is a trigger and it makes me imagine my body doing the same thing if I were to be under water. Every time I see a dying fish, I imagine the final shaking my body would do under water, had I lost the strength in my arms, holding myself up above the Arctic waters, right after the first time I knew what this world was to me.