Spring 2016 – Potlatch: Celebrating Hunters, Fishermen and Gatherers

By Sven Paukan

People gather in St. Mary’s for a potlatch to celebrate young hunters, fisherman and gatherers. Photo by Sven Paukan

People gather in St. Mary’s for a potlatch to celebrate young hunters, fisherman and gatherers. Photo by Sven Paukan

My youngest son Svenson who is 12 years old, harvested his first moose last fall. We call him Swenny. My wife Nancy and I decided to have him stand up (presented) at our annual potlatch for St. Mary’s and Pilot Station in February. We potlatch the young peoples’ accomplishments (such as a boy’s first catch, or a girl’s first time cutting fish) when they start helping to provide food for the families. It is different for every family and there is no set age. Some potlatch as young as five if they helped picked berries, others have been potlatched as old as 30, if they were not potlatched when they were young.

Pilot Station hosted St. Mary’s which was held on February 19-20. Following that, St. Mary’s hosted Pilot Station a week later on February 26-27.

Swenny is honored for his first successful moose hunt at a potlatch in St. Mary’s. Pictured left to right: Sven Paukan (Swenny’s dad), Swenny, Amber (his sister), Nancy (his mom). Photo courtesy of Sven Paukan

Swenny is honored for his first successful moose hunt at a potlatch in St. Mary’s. Pictured left to right: Sven Paukan (Swenny’s dad), Swenny, Amber (his sister), Nancy (his mom). Photo courtesy of Sven Paukan

Nancy and I decided to potlatch our son this winter, so we didn’t have as much time to prepare had we waited another year. The majority of preparations normally include sewing the clothing that is worn at the potlatch including the atkuk (parka), malaggaiyaq (fur hat), mittens, mukluks (seal skin boots) and a head dress and belt for the girls. We decided on this timing mainly because he had already been helping with fishing, hunting and gathering for some time now. Because we planned it for this winter, we bought some of his clothing since we did not have the time to make them. We were very fortunate that Nancy’s sister, Carol Sanders, made Swenny an atkuk, and Nancy’s niece, Amy Chikigak, made him a pair of mukluks and also gave him a seal skin to stand on. We were very grateful when we found out they were helping us in this way.

As part of our culture, we give gifts to the families of people the son is named after as well as general gifts that are given to all those in attendance. Usually boys are named after men and girls after women, but not always. Yup’ik names aren’t always gender specific. One of Swenny’s Yup’ik names given to him was from Nancy’s aunt.

There are general gifts given to any person, and there are specific gifts that families make/buy for particular individuals. For instance, for specific gifts I made six ulus, three of which were made for the widows of the men Swenny is named after, and three were made for a family member of the women he was named after. I also made two ice picks to be given away. Nancy and my youngest daughter, Laurel, crocheted some blankets for specific people. We also bought general gifts such as shovels, axes, gas tanks, steel pails, gloves, tools and such for the men, and household items such as towels, washcloths, bars of soap, basins, scarves, socks and bolts of cloth for the women.

This year, there were 11 young people potlatched in St. Mary’s. The potlatch was held at the school gymnasium. On the first night, those being presented are brought to the front of the audience, one-by-one in a certain order, and an Elder presents them and names everyone the child is named after. First a large tarp was spread out, and Swenny stood on the seal skin that Amy Chikigak gave him and my Uncle Moses presented and named him.

Swenny dances with his father, Sven Paukan (at right), and others. Swenny follows the tradition of dancing on a seal skin after several months of practice. Photo by Caroline Sanders

Swenny dances with his father, Sven Paukan (at right), and others. Swenny follows the tradition of dancing on a seal skin after several months of practice. Photo by Caroline Sanders

After Swenny danced his song on the seal skin, it was given away to one of the Pilot Station guests. Nancy and I were present during the naming, along with our oldest daughter Amber. After the naming, Swenny, accompanied by either Nancy or me, gave specific gifts to the family of those he was named after. The general gifts are brought out after this presentation of personal gifts.

First, bolts of cloth tied end-to-end and stretched were brought out in a long line and piled up on the tarp. Next, the general gifts were brought out and piled on the tarp. Once the family’s general gifts are brought out, the community and other family members bring out their gifts and add to the child’s pile. This process happens for all the children being potlatched.

After everyone is presented and all the gifts are brought out, the gifts are removed and the floor is cleared for dancing. The first night is all about those being presented. When dance practice starts in the fall, each participant chooses a song that they want to dance to. For Swenny, we chose one with a spitting theme since he was named after a couple people who chewed snuff. Each family chooses their own song at the beginning of dance practice in the fall. The dancing goes in order of the presentation until all those presented have danced their song.

I was told that for St. Mary’s there is a specific order in who is presented first and who dances first, and it goes by the original patriarchs who started the potlatch in St. Mary’s. In the 1960’s, my grandpa, Jimmy Paukan, was one of several Elders who started the practice of potlatch after it was prohibited by the Catholic Church in the early 19th century. As a result, his family’s descendants are presented first and dance first. I was also told the other Elder patriarchs that helped start the potlach include Andrew Kinzy, Billy Beans and John Thompson, Sr., and their family and descendants are presented first as well. After the families of the patriarchs are presented, those who are potlatched are presented and dance in the order they requested when Yup’ik dance practice started in the fall.

On Saturday morning the men, widows and guests gathered at the city hall and the food that was collected and saved by St. Mary’s is given away. For those Elders who could not make it to St. Mary’s, a box was set aside and the food gathered in the box is sent to them afterwards. Fish, moose, caribou and even seals are given away. Families of those being presented make akutaq (ice cream) and other foods and give them away as well.

Later in the afternoon, all guests gather at the school and the gifts that were brought out the night before are sorted and given away. Because St. Mary’s hosts Pilot Station, residents from Pilot Station are front and center usually with the drummers lined up in front and the rest of Pilot Station in the remaining rows. The children were all together off to one side of the gym, and people from other communities are on the other side.

Saturday night is always a fun night. People from St. Mary’s danced first, and about half way through the night people from Pilot Station took over. At the beginning of the night, Pilot Station requested which dance they wanted to see that was performed from the previous evening. The audience is welcomed and encouraged to dance as well.

Sometime during the evening the host village puts on a silly dance or act for the guests, which usually involves masks, wigs or men dressing and dancing as women. About halfway through the night, the Pilot Station dance group takes over and sings and dances in gratitude for the gifts and to thank St. Mary’s. Again the audience is welcomed and encouraged to dance with them. This is what happens between St. Mary’s and Pilot Station, and other villages have their own ways of celebrating Potlatch.

Usually on the following Monday, as a closing to the Potlatch, St. Mary’s dances one last time together at the city hall. This is done to thank the spirits of those who were named during the Potlatch and to encourage them to continue on their journey in the spirit world. Nancy and I were very happy we had Swenny presented this year. We had already had our older children, Amber and Rory, potlatched in 2005 and now we only have our younger daughter left.

We look forward to carrying on this tradition that pays tribute to those who came before us and to those who have named our children after others, to those who are potlatched and recognized for helping to provide food to the family, to continuing our values of sharing and respecting one another, and to the enjoyment of dancing and each other’s company during this very special time.

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