Discover more from An Irritable Métis
It softens my heart in relationship with others
Before just a couple days ago I’d never heard of Laureli Ivanoff. On her website, she says, “I am an Inuk writer. A former KNOM Radio reporter and news director in Nome, Alaska, I am now a freelance writer in my hometown of Unalakleet. I cut fish, make seal oil, and after decades of learning in western education systems, I am thirsty for Indigenous knowledge, Inupiaq language, and a deeper understanding of the Inuit mindset.”
That last line, her described thirst for knowledge, language and understanding of her heritage, resonates deeply with me. It has been my life for several years now and I am always overjoyed when I encounter a similar kindred spirit. There are so many of us out here in this laboring world. It has been my good fortune to make acquaintance with several others along the way—language seekers, seed seekers, heart seekers—though most are distant contacts and not people I get to share my day-to-day life with. Whenever I do one of my Little Shell presentations, for example, without fail I am contacted by someone whose story echoes in mine; a shared story of people trying to reconcile who we are against what others thought we should be and, in many cases, had denied to us out of concern from our elders that we should not have to endure what they did. It is a sadness not exclusive to us as Little Shell people, or even as Indigenous people. There are many closets to emerge from; some of our own choosing, and some we were forced into—without our knowledge or consent—that come with boarded up doors and locks-with-thrown-away-keys.
It takes monumental courage to emerge from such and we do it anyway. In many cases, not all of course, we mustn’t forget that we are in this position not because of the failures of those who came before us. Quite the opposite! Their courage and sacrifice gave us the opportunity to take the next step. It comes hard sometimes, but we do well to remember compassion for people who made decisions that seem incomprehensible to us … but those were different times, different circumstances. Nothing important ever comes easy.
There is an unreasonable rabble who smirk at those of us who care to identify our pronouns, or display rainbows with pride, or have the audacity to suggest movements like #landback. Their outrage grows louder and more aggressive but that is a sign they are failing to keep us contained. We merely need to hold the line and keep moving forward, shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-in-arm. I remember an old interview I read with the legendary storyteller Utah Phillips years ago, probably in the nineties. He was asked, even then, how he maintains any hope for the future, or something like that. He checked off all these things that we take for granted—farmers’ markets all across the country; people voting who couldn’t not so long ago; other Big Changes I don’t recall—as successful efforts toward positive change that we’d never had before. We are moving the boundaries, friends; we just have to remain vigilant.
Now I understand that restoring what was lost or taken away not only strengthens my identity — who I am as a Native woman — it softens my heart in relationship with others. It’s nourishing.
— Laureli Ivanoff
High Country News published an essay by Laureli Ivanoff the other day called “Rekindling connections in the small flame of a qulliq.” It is the first in, from what I gather, will be an ongoing series called “The seasons of Uŋalaqłiq.” I am overjoyed at this, not least because I have a lifelong fascination with Alaska.
Here, in an excerpt from that first piece, Ivanoff describes the first time she ever saw a quilliq:
In Anchorage, at the Alaska Federation of Natives Youth and Elders Conference, in a fancy downtown building, I was maybe 50 feet from the stage when the organizers lit a seal oil lamp. Maybe in ceremony. Probably in demonstration. I was annoyed that I couldn’t really see what was happening. But I saw light, and it felt sacred. People next to me were talking, and I wanted to stop them. To shush them. So they could notice. Appreciate. Because for generations, the qulliq had been forgotten.
A quilliq, a lamp that burns, in this case, seal oil, is an ancient example of Arctic technology that carries mythic weight in the stories of Arctic people. This lamp, per Wikipedia, “provided warmth and light in the harsh Arctic environment where there was no wood and where the sparse inhabitants relied almost entirely on seal oil or on whale blubber.”
Two Februaries ago, with a massive snowstorm bearing down on us that would see me white-knuckling the multi-hour drive home from Choteau, I sat in the kitchen of treasured Métis elder Al Wiseman eating Spam sandwiches and potato chips while listening to him tell stories of his life and of his—our— ancestors who made culture tucked away in the Teton Canyon region of the eastern face of the Rocky Mountain Front. The Métis story in this enclave begins at least as early as 1860, if not before that. Ivanoff’s quilliq story reminds me of this encounter.
“Do you know what a bitch light is?” Al asked me.
“A bitch light?”
“As in … b-i-t-c-h?”
I didn’t know.
Métis people were known for “bush dances.” While the idea conjures an image of a bonfire in a clearing with naked shapes cavorting around it, this was not that. Instead, it would be someone’s remote cabin or the like, and folks would venture there to celebrate. Holidays, a marriage, or even just the joy of being alive. Wooden boards or planks might be spread out on the ground outside or, in inclement weather, the furnishings indoors might be pushed to the outer edges of the room to make space for a dance floor. There would be fiddles—there are always fiddles in Métis celebrations—and various other kinds of noise-and-rhythm makers. There would be laughter, singing, and wild, sweaty jig dancing. Certainly there would be flirtations.
“And food,” Al says. “Even at their poorest, there was always food to share.”
When it got dark, the celebrants marked the boundaries of the dancing space with bitch lights.
A bitch light is a coil of something sturdy; a rope, for example, manipulated into a shape akin to a diamondback rattler alerting passers-by from trailside. It is soaked in some kind of oil, often bacon grease. When set alight, it burns with a low flame for a decent span of time. One by itself doesn’t provide much illumination, but a few in a line make for functional stage lights, or low light in a cabin, etc. I was fascinated; Al even produced a length of cord to demonstrate how the light might be shaped; think that loathsome turd pile emoji on the diabolical phone device we all seem to carry. I know that’s a vulgar reference but at least the little guy is smiling, right?
Al doesn’t know why it was called a “bitch” light. No one does, not for sure. It doesn’t have anything to do with the word “bitch” as we know it. He told me that he and Nicholas Vrooman engaged a number of Canadian historians to try and ascertain its origin. The closest they came was a word that, when butchered by time and so many intervening tongues across more than a century, became “bitch.” I don’t recall the specific word they had largely settled on or where it came from, though it’s probably on the recording I made of my conversation with Al. I care less about that minor detail than the story behind it, of joy and music and laughter and probably more Métis babies being made.
You won’t find bitch lights mentioned in Wikipedia either, nor did a cursory search of the internet turn anything up. But I don’t need those resources because I have Al’s story. And now you have it too. So find your origins, friends. Talk to your elders. We have largely forgotten what bounty they provide us. For all our digital convenience, they are the sources that matter.
An Irritable Métis is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.