a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
People introduce themselves like this: their name and how long they’ve been here. Like this, I’m Annie. I’ve lived in Alaska for twenty-five years, I’ve spent the last fourteen years in Fairbanks. There. Now you know I belong here, I’m not someone passing through.
Knowing that I’m from here, you’ll know that I’ve been through winter. That, as much as I long for spring, part of me loves winter beyond reason. Know that I’m part of the forty-below club, that I have a picture in front of the University of Alaska Fairbanks temperature and time sign to prove it. Here, we know that the proper name for a snow mobile is either a snow machine or a Ski-Doo; only outsiders call them snow mobiles. There are rules here. Pull over and offer aid to a stranded vehicle, even when it’s your neighbor that you hate. In summer, sing while you walk through the woods. Carry bear spray. Leave the berries closest to the trail for elders and children. Time and rules are how we measure belonging here.
There are other ways of saying I belong here. There’s my tribal enrollment card from Salamatof Native Association. My Certificate of Indian Blood card with a photo of me, a little dated, next to my blood quantum. I have the documentation to say I’m from here. The two cards, uneasily, live next to each other, uneasily. They come in handy. Once, I forgot to bring my driver’s license with me to the airport. Did you know that a CIB card is accepted as a form of identity by the Transportation Security Administration? It was useful, in that moment. But, when I see it in my wallet, listing my blood quantum in fractions, I am left wondering what you think, what the TSA agents think, when they see my picture and my blood quantum. I imagine you dividing me into parts. Face, torso, arms and legs. Sort through them. You name them. Decide which part is Indigenous, which parts are not. Perhaps, you are more enlightened than this. Or perhaps you are one of my former bosses, one of the ones that told me the most beautiful, most exotic people he knew of were the mixed ones, the half-breeds. There are many people here who say that.
Or maybe, like the TSA agent who carefully scanned me, and my belongings, you might ask who I am and who I belong to. Express interest when I share that I’m Dena’ina and white, my maternal family from Kenai and Anchorage, paternal family from Oklahoma. Once you know that about me, I imagine you’ll think of me when you think about being from here. While driving on the Glenn Highway or the Johansen Expressway, you’ll flip through the radio stations—there are 22 registered in Fairbanks proper, 28 in the bourough—and you’ll hear a man’s voice, deep and radio bland. From time immemorial the Alaska Native people have been stewards of this land… they’ve protected the land and the waterways throughout the state… Some version of this environmental campaign is always playing to protect caribou, or salmon.
It’s a true campaign. Indigenous peoples have been stewards of the land and have lived in tandem with the more-than-human world for a very long time. I used to bristle at the campaigns’ phrasing, though. “Time immemorial” suggests the idea of a story without written documentation—a concept that makes the colonized parts of me uncomfortable. Once, I was also concerned about the linking of Indigenous identity with the more-than-human world. Too much of American literature conflates Indigenous identity with the land to justify colonization and domination. But now, I’m starting to embrace the idea of time immemorial. I am rethinking the emphasis that white, academic culture places on written documentation. I am setting aside the belief that land can be possessed. I am coming to understand that if I want to say I am from here I must reframe my relationships with the land and my communities while reframing the chronotope I live in.
How long does it take to belong to a place? In Alaska, some people write of greenhorns and sourdoughs. But, if you’re a from here, you won’t hear people refer to themselves as a greenhorn or sourdough. The only people invoking that nomenclature are trying to sell you something. Politicians, business owners, editors. In Fairbanks, the Princess Lodge provides a handout, Alaska Vocabulary: Learn the Local Lingo. The page promises that if you master Alaskan vocabulary like cheechako, the AlCan, the aurora borealis, you “just might convince the locals you’re a real ‘sourdough.’” The commercialization of authenticity and belonging to a place begins with language.
Each day, the front page of the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer features Sourdough Jack. Jack, a caricature of an old gold miner, dispenses an aphorism a day. His language, artificially colloquial, comments on the weather, politics, and historical events. You are probably familiar with rhetoric like this. Someone will invoke a version of history and then append it to themselves to establish legitimacy. In this way, each entity naming itself “sourdough” attempts to claim kinship with the late 19th century gold miners that settled in Alaska. It’s an attempt to claim kinship, not through familial relationships, but through a romanticization of gold rush days.
Sourdough or not, most Alaskans won’t believe you belong here until you’ve spent at least one winter here, and then stayed for another. The number of winters required to belong increases as you head north. If you boast about leaving the state midwinter for a sunny vacation, that winter won’t count towards belonging here. Until you’re from here, more seasoned Alaskans will tell you what you don’t know yet. It’s cold enough to freeze your tires square. If you toss a cup of hot coffee into the air at forty below, it will freeze before it hits the ground. They’ll tell you, until you’ve stayed through the solstice, you won’t break up, green up, or spring.
When I think about belonging to a place, I think about watching chickadees while pregnant with my son. I’d seen chickadees for my entire life, but I didn’t start to notice them until the fall of 2013. While pregnant, I began to suffer from joint pain. I transformed from a hiker and runner into someone still and quiet because of chronic pain. I didn’t know it at the time, but the ligaments tensioning my joints into place had loosened themselves. In part, it was a normal change triggered by the pregnancy hormone relaxin. But my body’s coding did not respond to the relaxin the way other bodies do. It was not a temporary loosening to prepare for childbirth, instead it was a permanent overstretching of my connective tissue.
Disconnected, I spent more time in my living room. I sat knitting in my rocking chair and I looked out over my yard. If you come to visit, you’d see my snug home is ten miles from downtown Fairbanks, a fifteen-minute drive. The way is mostly paved. The last half mile is a dirt road up a hill and ends in a gravel driveway. The house, a log cabin with electricity and running water (a distinction that’s not a given here) sits in the boreal forest. Spruce, willow, aspens and birch trees screen our lot from the neighbors’ homes to the left and the right. There’s no one behind us. Instead, the yard extends behind us until it abuts a bird preserve. That’s where I looked while I sat and knit. I watched for the black capped chickadees.
You might know that black capped chickadees live here year-round. It’s one reason why I love them. They remain even after the geese, swans, cranes, and ducks have migrated. I am not a chickadee expert. My sphere of acquired knowledge is small and my sense of place is limited. I lack the deep knowledge that comes from living alongside and within a place. I’ve only been here in Fairbanks for fourteen years and I have spent so little of it seeing. I can tell you a true thing though—after watching the chickadees, first while pregnant in the summer and fall, then while rocking my son through the winter and spring, I thought I knew them.
Some things I know from observation. In winter the chickadees feed from my birdfeeder. The larger ones bully the smaller ones. Then they’ll sort through the seed, discarding everything but the black oil sunflower seeds. Sometimes, they accidentally drop a sunflower seed and then in summer it roots. The soil here is heavy, the top layers are full of glacial loess. So the plants struggle to send their taproot down deep, but still, they struggle to grow under the bird feeder. Some of the chickadees are bold. If I sit under my space heater, bundled in a coat while drinking coffee, some will perch on the railing only a foot away. They watch me and then return to the aspen branch. Another chickadee flies forward, replaces it. The black caps look identical, until they don’t. Some wear their caps higher or lower on their brow. Some are smaller than my fist, while others might fill my palms.
For other kinds of knowledge, I rely on the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer. In addition to publishing “Sourdough Jack Sez,” the paper runs a science column. The articles are produced by the cooperative extension and the biology department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This is how I know that black capped chickadees shiver to stay warm at night. In winter, they lose approximately fifteen percent of their body weight each night. Then, they regain it the next day. Their metabolisms are extraordinary. At the end of the day, their body fat composition is seven percent. When they wake, their body fat has dropped to three percent.
This is not something I’ve witnessed. Instead, in the mornings I notice that the chickadees emerge like me, slightly rumpled. The Newsminer assures me this is normal. Says that at night, they wedge themselves into small spaces, ones that will cradle and support them through their shivering while they sleep. While sleeping, they pull their heads into their shoulders because they lose most of their body heat through their beak and eyes. I am reassured knowing these things, as though knowing how a chickadees body composition fluctuates tells me something vital about the chickadees.
No one’s aired a campaign to protect the chickadee yet. Although they face the same environmental threats we all do—accelerating climate change, the proliferation of plastic, apathy—their population isn’t measurably harmed yet. But because the decline of salmon and caribou populations has been documented, we can say with more urgency that they are threatened, endangered. So, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the business end of a tribal entity, reminds us that salmon have existed since time immemorial. The Gwich’in led organization, Defend the Sacred, reminds us the caribou have existed from time immemorial. I’m no longer bothered by the ads’ invocation of time immemorial. Instead, I respect that they’re working to subvert the news cycle’s strange chronotope where stories are disposable. I appreciate that they work within a different time frame, that they reference a different kind of documentation.
One type of documentation tells a story. It can tell me true things about how a chickadee lives through winter or what a politician said yesterday. The chickadee’s winter weights, the biologist’s lab notes, my own written memories live in time memorial. As though time is a map that can be pinned to the wall, documentation says this bird weighed this much and was in this place at this time. As tricky as time is to document, scientists are doing their best. Not just physicists either. Biologists study the blackcap chickadee’s mitochondrial DNA and chart the bird’s dispersal pattern. They’ve mapped it across North America, pinned the timing to soon after the Pleistocene.
Another type of documentation is a haunting. My CIB card contains the specter of the United States’ Government in it. The ghost of colonization that threatens to divide and divide my identity into smaller wedges until something vital about me cannot be discerned. I imagine it like this. Some faceless bureaucrat documented my grandparents, entered their names on a ledger that purported to identify and authenticate them. The bureaucrat who recorded them now lives inside my CIB card, and he imagines my grandparent’s blood as something siphoned into different vehicles until it becomes something he cannot count anymore. And with that diminishing documentation, he says, the United States’ government diminishes its recognition of me, my children, my future grandchildren, as people from here, people who belong here. This ghost that lives inside my CIB card is good at math, but terrible at biology. I know he has never seen a single cell divide itself, practicing the replications that lead to an increase in life.
Immemorial is what was written inside my X chromosomes. Immemorial was written inside my one missing X28 chromosome. My ligaments remained stretched after I gave birth. I am not one of those women whose bodies bounced back after baby. Instead, my limbs continued to sublux. I’d pick up my son and my thumb would rearrange itself. I’d walk and the bones in my feet would shift. As my son became older and my body continued to refuse to bounce back, my doctors looked for reasons why. Eventually they decided to read my DNA. They found that part of me was missing from X28.
There are several genes absent, including FLNA and EMD. Those genes are partially responsible for creating connective tissue, tissues like ligaments, tendons, skin, and blood vessels. As a person with two X chromosomes, I should have two copies of those genes, one on each chromosome. Instead, I have one complete X chromosome and one with a deletion. The complete X chromosome compensates for the loss, but still, the loss affects me. Structurally, I’m off.
Have you ever seen a marionette Christmas ornament? I had one as a child. It was shaped like a ballerina. She was wooden and her limbs were carefully tethered to her body with silk cords that disappeared into her torso. Inside her, the cords were braided together. This larger cord then emerged from her crotch. It looked less strange than it sounds. If you pulled the braid down, her arms would lift above her head and her legs would rotate, then rise, as though she was leaping.
Once I tugged too hard on her cord and gummed up her inner workings. Despite my attempts to even the tension through her tethers, she remained askew. She still moved when pulled, but her once fluid movements were now jerky. After pregnancy, I was like that too. Something about my missing FLNA and EMD genes prevented the connective tissue from rebounding like a rubber band. In the absence, my body missed the instructions for how to return.
This absence that I carry is that past past’s missing text. The genetic mutation only affects people with two X chromosomes, which means I inherited it from my mom. Just as I inherited my tribal membership and CIB status, I also inherited the absence within my body. I do not mean that it is her fault, nor is it the fault of my Indigeneity. No. It is only that I inherited the disruptions my maternal family experienced because of colonization. Epigenetics. Although I cannot prove cause and effect as tidily as a researcher can measure a chickadee, I believe that the absence in my genetics is another haunting caused by colonialism.
When I think about colonialism, I think about the disruption between my familial relationships with the land. First because of settlers, and then because of the relentless resource extraction that capitalism demands. That displacement must live within my body. How could it not when everything that cares for my body, for my mom’s, my grandmother’s, and great grandmother’s bodies, has been violently altered? You are probably already aware of this.
First, the biowarfare that settlers enacted. Then the exploitation of food sources. The forced estrangement from the land. It is ongoing. The mechanisms increasingly sophisticated. Greenhouse gases increase the temperature and acidity of the Pacific Ocean. The salmon runs shrink and subsistence fisheries suffer. Further inland, salmon runs shrink, or disappear altogether. In winter 2021-2022, the interior runs that Alaska Natives depend on for subsistence living were so low, our corporations and tribes flew fish in from coast. When I say it is ongoing what I mean is that was the first time salmon had to be flown in. It will happen again. Meanwhile, commercial and sport fishing continues. Meanwhile, cruise ships continue to foul the waters. Meanwhile, mining contaminates the underground aquifers and the contamination diffuses throughout the state. Meanwhile, oil spills and coats the birds, poisons the marine life, threatens the herring fisheries.
The entire eco-web absorbs the toxins. The more-than-human world suffers, and humans along with it. In winter, there are communities where the air pollution is so great that it increases the residents’ risk of developing lung cancer. Children suffer higher rates of asthma because the air is toxic. The chickadees must breathe it too. Environmental factors like pollution and food insecurity influence genetic expression for people and for the more-than-human world alike.
I imagine my X chromosome as a container. Its absence (the deletion exists the way that space is absentfromthesewords) as a container for where something’s been displaced and violently replaced with historical trauma, large airborne particulates, PFAS and arsenic. I think of my body and its strange laxity as a balloon trying to encompass four-hundred years of colonialism. It is trying to contain the haunting. I am trying to wrap myself around something nearly invisible and give it shape. Or perhaps another way—colonialism and its ghosts are not invisible, but instead so predominant, so mundane, that they surround us unseen. Inside this balloon, I am reconciling myself.
I believe in Land Back and reparations. I believe in tribal sovereignty and food justice. The word believe is inadequate here because it will not encompass the truth that these concepts are not beliefs but ways of being. When I say I believe in them, I mean I want those ways to be enacted whole—for reparations to replace land acknowledgements. For tribal sovereignty to replace the state’s subsistence laws. Those things are true, and the other truth is that there’s no going back to pre-contact, and because I want to live, I would not want to be absent from here.
I am an oil baby. My dad is from Oklahoma. He moved to Alaska to work for an oil company. He met my mom while she worked for the same oil company. And now, here I am. Oil paid for the food I ate and the clothes I wear. Oil is still paying; the State’s dividends from investing in oil development subsidize every Alaskan’s lifestyle.
As much as resource extraction has erased me, it also shapes me. I need you to understand that I am not claiming a hybrid existence, half white, half Native. I am whole. I am whole and my body is a strange meeting place that encompasses all these truths. It’s from these strange meetings that I watch the chickadees and think about how to belong to this place. It is this body that listens to the radio campaigns about time immemorial.
Time immemorial is rhetorical recourse for living in a linear chronotope. In the stories of colonization and conquest, time is a linear line forward, it is a line marching West over a fixed map. In a linear chronotope, authenticity is documented by a mailing address, a lease, agreement, a mortgage contract. The United States Government shows the receipts for the State of Alaska, celebrating them on Seward’s Day, as though its 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia establishes ownership. A linear story speaks of land possession. As if first the Alaska Native peoples held the land, then the Russians held it, then the United States. I wonder at this. My hands can hold a chickadee each, but even if I held them, they would not be mine. At present, the federal government holds and manages 60% of Alaskan land. The 1971 passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, ANCSA, returned 12.5% of the land to Alaskan Natives. That land is held in trust, managed by regional tribal corporations.
Time immemorial disrupts linear movement. It sets aside the legalities of ANCSA, broken treaties, of Seward’s purchase, the arrivals of James Cook and Alexander Baranof. Instead of relitigating history, time immemorial argues that the relationship between self, community and the land needs to be rewritten. It encourages a recursive movement between the now, and the practice of care for the land.
Imagine time as a corkscrew. Imagine you are a child sitting on top of a long, coiled slide. Each rotation carries you further, but still you pass through space you’ve occupied before. The chickadee and I encounter each other in the past. We will see each other today, and again tomorrow. In lower Dena’ina the word for chickadee is ch’ggaggashla, meaning “someone’s little creature.” In the sukdu, or stories, the chickadee is not a possession as the translated name might suggest. Instead, the chickadee is in relationship with the Dena’ina. In the stories, chickadee advises a wife, helps a hunter. At other times the Dena’ina offer the chickadee aid. Food in winter, safety from predators. Written out like this, the dynamic sounds quid pro quo, but when I read about it, the dynamic sounds like friends who refuse to split a dinner bill, knowing one of them will get it the next time. There’s an expectation that something established will continue into the future.
When I hear time immemorial, it reminds me of my responsibilities to the place I inhabit. That it is my responsibility to be present and attentive. For me, to be Indigenous is to witness the chickadees and to act from the knowledge that I am in relationship with them. When I talk about the land I inhabit, I want to honor its deep time. Honor that its chronotope runs differently from my own. The more-than-human world does not need my documentation. And still, I write about it because I want to share it with you.
Until the 18th century, document also meant to be taught, informed or instructed. I would document the lessons my mom has given me, the instructions her grandfather gave her. I want you to learn to live alongside the chickadees, the moose, the devil’s club and the wild roses. I would also tell you, it’s not enough to read the more-than-human-world—as though documentation was external to yourself. When I tell you I’m from here what I mean to say is that the more-than-human-world has written itself into me. The history of salmon, spruce, wild raspberries, caribou and moose are written into me—documented by my presence (and yours). So too are the chickadees. I worry when I say that I’m from here what you hear is that my family has been on this place, moved across it like it’s our stage—or gripped it like a receipt with our hands. What I’m trying to tell you—from time immemorial it’s been written into me, is still writing into me—in the seemingly empty space of my X chromosome, it lives there, where displacement and dispossession are documented but stretched around the absence—I still exist and the land does too.
Annie Wenstrup (Dena’ina) lives in Fairbanks Alaska with her family. She is a Smithsonian Arctic Studies Fellow, an Indigenous Nations Poetry Fellow, and a Storyknife Fireweed Fellow. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Ecotone, Nimrod, POETRY, Palette, Poetry Northwest, and Ran Off with the Star Bassoon.