"It’s not that we were asleep...": An Interview with Vivian Faith Prescott

The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker contributor Vivian Faith Prescott chats with Great Weather editor David Lawton.

Vivian Faith Prescott is a fifth generation Alaskan of Sámi, Irish, and Norwegian heritage, among others. She born and raised on a small island in Southeastern Alaska and lives at her fishcamp in Wrangell. She holds an MFA from the University of Alaska and a Ph.D. in Cross Cultural Studies. Her poetry has appeared in The North American Review, Yellow Medicine Review and elsewhere and her work is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Anthology (University of Georgia Press). She’s the founder of Blue Canoe Writers in Sitka and Flying Island Writers in Wrangell, Alaska. She’s a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and received the Jason Wenger Award for Literary Excellence. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Slick (read for free online at White Knuckle Press) and Sludge (Flutter Press), plus a full length collection, The Hide of My Tongue. Her short story collection, The Dead Go to Seattle, is forthcoming from Boreal Books/Red Hen Press in the fall of 2017.

DL:Vivian, we are honored to feature you as our first indigenous writer. Could you please tell us something about the Sami people, and the Sami community in Alaska?

VFP:  The Sámi (sometimes spelled Saami) are the indigenous people of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the nearby Russian Kola region. There are anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 of us Sámi-Americans in the United States. Some, like my family, emigrated to the U.S. and Canada for a variety of reasons. We faced discrimination in the colonized countries we came from; other Sámi families came with the promises of work in the mining industry around the country in places like Michigan and Minnesota. Many of those families remained in the area. Some Sámi in the U.S. are descendants of the reindeer herders who were a part of the Reindeer Project, part of Sheldon Jackson’s vision to colonize Alaska Natives. In the late 1800s, Sámi (also known as Lapp, which is a derogatory term) herding families came from Norway to teach reindeer herding to the Inupiaq and Yup'ik nations. Of those herders, some stayed in Alaska and intermarried among Alaska Natives. After the experiment was over, some went back to their home countries, and others settled in Poulsbo Washington, and elsewhere in the Northwest and Midwest.

Alaska is such a huge state that connecting frequently is problematic. Today, some of us Sámi have connected via the Sámi Cultural Center of North America, and Saami Báiki, the Pacific Sámi Searvi, the North American Sámi Searvi and other such organizations. Instrumental to the Sami-American cultural awakening was Faith Fjeld, who died of cancer in 2014. Faith was a pathfinder and the founder of the Contemporary North American Sámi movement and the editor of Báiki: The International and North American Sámi Journal. Some refer to her as the Grandmother of the Sámi community here in the U.S. Many of us gather at Sámi festivals nationwide in areas like Portland (Oregon), Seattle, San Francisco, and Duluth. Many of these cultural celebrations like Siddastallan, which means a gathering of people and reindeer, coincide with Scandinavian festivals or Finnfests.

DL:Your piece in the anthology, Drawing Blanks, references the spiritual practices of the Sami. Most people in the West feel disengaged from the tribal past of their ancestors, and their mystical practices. How do you feel they could benefit from re-engaging with such practices?

VFP:  One of my mentors in my field of Cross Cultural Studies, Angayuqaq Oscar Kwagley, a Yup’ik elder, talked of inherited trauma and inherited knowledge. My family knew we were Lapps and others in our community referred to us the "Lapp family." We did not know the word "Sámi." Like many Sámi living in this country for generations, we nearly lost that identity. A recent study and subsequent book called We Stopped Forgetting by Ellen Marie Jensen is one example of this reawakening. It's not that we were asleep, but that our educational system and our public institutions continue to teach and preach with colonizing methods.

American mythology says we are homogenized and that we don't have a culture except an "American" one. But I’ve lived with indigenous peoples, including Native Americans, my whole life to know this is false. The "melting pot" is not a true state of being, of identity. We've bought into leaving our Irishness or our Finnish identity behind. We’ve left our ancestral practices and traditions behind. I am many other ethnicities too, not just Sámi and I celebrate those identities as well. Our identity can be multicultural. We can embrace that.

For many Sámi fitting in was a matter of survival. If we could be Norwegian rather than Sámi so as not to be discriminated against, then we became only that. The traditions and practices of our ancestors are still inside us, though. In a world where everything is coming at you so fast, it’s good to reconnect with our spiritual, mystical, or scientific practices—and I don't think these practices are mutually exclusive—if they encourage health and wellbeing and the arts, and of course, the ability to look at the world and peoples with compassion. Basically, re-engaging with our culture’s traditional practices is de-colonizing. It might be something seemingly simple, but yet culturally complex, as thanking an animal or plant for giving its life for your food, especially at the moment that life is taken. I learned from the Tlingit elders I live among that when we take a life, like when I kill a king salmon, I should thank the fish for its life. This is a tradition in many indigenous cultures including the Sámi. I will always be a student of my Sámi-ness and a student of the Alaskan landscape. The scientific (traditional ecological knowledge) and the mystical practices like writing poetry help me be the best practitioner of humanity that I can be.

I connect with my ancestral past through my writing. My poem "Drawing Blanks" plays with blanks, meaning the idea of cultural loss, mentioning noiade (shaman) travel, yoik (song/throat singing tradition) and certain cultural taboos. The past and the present are not resolved in the poem and create emptiness. Blanks. And of course a colonizer loves blanks and wants to fit people into them in a nice and neat manner. The poem was created by using a Sámi storytelling technique: telling several stories at once. I’ve found this method to be intriguing and I’ve been using it quite frequently.

DL:Where you live in Alaska is quite isolated. A very different life than for most of our writers and readers. How is this isolation beneficial to your writing life, and what are the drawbacks?

VFP:  I live in Southeast Alaska, in the Alexander Archipelago, on an island chain that extends south from mainland Alaska toward Washington State, along the coast of Canada. Wrangell, the island I live on, is about 35 miles long and about 15 miles wide at its widest point. The island is set up against the mainland and located at the mouth of the Stikine River, the fastest flowing navigable river in the U.S.

My fishcamp is about five miles out of town; our "town" being the only one on the island and populated with about 2,000 people. Most of the townsfolk are my relatives, so isolation is a matter of perspective. I love the quiet and I love living in nature.  Highways, traffic, tall buildings, stoplights, malls, and lots of people, cause me anxiety. Bears and wolves, on the other hand, I can live with.

The benefit to living in a small rural Alaskan town on an island is that time is more fluid. We are not in a hurry here. And there is silence, or the state of quietness that nature evokes. I love to look up from my writing and see a bald eagle do a flyby near my window. I see the underside of its wings. I also harvest a majority of our food from the land and sea so I’m connected to the landscape here. My writing and my writing schedule is connected to that necessity; connected to seasons, and weather.

The drawback is that on Wrangell Island there are seldom any literary or artistic events to attend; artists or writers from elsewhere rarely visit the island to conduct readings or workshops. We do have a few festivals throughout the year that bring scholars, though. I organized a storytelling event at a bird festival last year. Also, traveling off island for events in the larger towns is difficult: It’s expensive. We don't have roads or bridges. We rely mostly on ferries, which have their own schedules. We can also take a small plane and, in addition, we have one northbound jet and one southbound jet every day. But all those services depend upon the weather. Wrangell Island is located in a temperate rainforest. It rains a lot.  A lot.

I crave being around other writers, so it's lonely in that way. My husband is also a poet. Right now we share a one room cabin: two poets, two desks, and three dogs. There is also a small attached cabin where my elderly father lives. We take care of him; though, I’m sure he thinks he's taking care of us. Lately, I've been incorporating my father's 76 years of traditional knowledge into my writing. He's an expert in all things outdoors and all things "salmon."  It's difficult to live in such a small space, but yet I have the entire outdoors.

I started a writers group on the island because I need that interaction and I love to mentor other writers. But Wrangell doesn't have too many writers so I include artists too; our group is collaborative, a hybrid group. Getting people to meet is hard, though, because others like me gather food according to seasons and salmon fishing season can put a damper on scheduled meetings. But at the same time, living on a small island is beneficial because there are plenty of opportunities to create an event. But then only six of your cousins might show up. As one of my favorite writers, Louise Erdrich, said, "I am surrounded by an abundance of family and friends, and yet I am alone with the writing. And that is perfect."

DL:Tell us about your experiences mentoring Indigenous writers through your Blue Canoe group.

VFP:  Blue Canoe Writers began in Sitka, Alaska, on Baranof Island, an island about 180 miles north of Wrangell, where I lived off-and-on for about 18 years. It began with a handful of writers who wanted to get together and work from weekly prompts and just hang out and eat smoked salmon dip. We are named after the Alaska Marine Highway system—our ferry boats—which are nicknamed "blue canoes." I started the group to get to know other writers in the area. I especially wanted to mentor indigenous writers. Two of my daughters, who are of Tlingit heritage, are members in the group. Our group is open to everyone, but yet by invitation only. Sometimes we have only three writers attend the meetings; and other times there may be eight of us. We also invite visiting writers to Sitka to join us for their duration. So our group can get lively and increase in size.

We've become rather famous (in a five mile radius) and are a dynamic bunch. A local Sitka librarian recently thanked me for being instrumental in bringing writers together; something she said hadn't been done before. Whenever I discover an indigenous writer living on one of the two communities, Sitka and Wrangell, I invite him or her to our group to check it out. Represented in Blue Canoe are: Sámi, Hawaiian, Tlingit, Lakota, and Inupiaq. Plus we have honorary Blue Canoers from the Osage, Dakota, and other nations. We are not exclusively an indigenous group, though. One of our members is a high school English teacher and editor of German heritage; another is a Russian-American who owns an art gallery.

A year ago I moved to Wrangell permanently, so Blue Canoe lives on in Sitka without me. I still visit Sitka because I have family and many friends there. Blue Canoe Writers also thrives on our Facebook page and we have meetings where I join them via Facetime. I'm currently planning to add on to our fishcamp in order to accommodate visiting writings from around the world as well as a place for Blue Canoe Writers to hang out several times a year. The group I recently started in Wrangell is called Flying Island Writers and Artists, named so because if you Google Wrangell, Alaska you’ll see that our island is shaped like a snow goose flying to the Stikine river flats. We are a flying island. I also started an online FB writers group for Sami-American writers like me. We are called Mátki Writers. Mentoring is what I love to do and this world needs to hear from more indigenous writers.

DL:You also write prose as well as poetry, and have a novel due out. Can you tell us something about it?

VFP:  Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, will publish my short story cycle The Dead Go to Seattle in the fall of 2017. I love to write short stories, though I've also written three young adult novels too (only one was published). Some of my short stories grow out of a poem, because the poem can't contain the whole story I want to tell.

The Dead Go to Seattle is a collection of linked stories where each story reads separately, but as you read you'll start seeing a larger picture and by the end of the book the reader is making connections. At least that’s what I hope will happen. The title is based upon a myth I grew up with: Living on an island, dependent upon fishing and hunting for survival, people can go missing, presumed drowned or having died tragically in the woods somewhere. Despite great efforts, we don't always find a body:  It's a big wilderness. Growing up I heard: "Well, maybe he'll just show up in Seattle," or "Go look for her in Seattle." The myth gives people hope, though Seattle is 900 plus miles south of our island.

The book's premise is based upon an actual historical figure, ethnologist John Swanton, who came to Wrangell, Alaska in 1908 to collect Tlingit stories for the Smithsonian Institute. He published them as Tlingit Myths and Texts (which is available for free online). In my imagination Swanton is still alive because he's stuck in time on Wrangell Island, so the only thing he knows how to do is keep collecting stories for the Smithsonian. But the book is not about Swanton; the main character is Tova Agard, a young, gay, Sámi/Tlingit/Scandinavian woman who Swanton enlists to help collect stories. She's the strength of the book. She's the reason for the book's existence. You might say The Dead Go to Seattle is Alaskan LGBTQ literature. You might say its Climate Change literature. Here's the pitch: Tova Agard's world is literally falling apart. Tova has just been disowned by her father in a violent confrontation for being gay and global warming is about to wreak havoc on the world around her. In the midst of catastrophe, Tova meets ethnologist John Swanton who has appeared on her small Southeast Alaskan island to collect stories for the Smithsonian.

Wrangell Island is a peculiar yet beautiful place, filled with its own mythology, and I wanted to portray that in the stories. I wanted to reveal the complexities of a multicultural community, perhaps one that the rest of America has never heard about. And I wanted to show how climate change is a part of our journey on this planet. It certainly is affecting my life in Wrangell right now. The stories in The Dead Go to Seattle are very strange, but they are also humorous and heartbreaking, written in a variety of formats:  In an Alaskan island’s oral traditions, a baby's cry sucks in the northern lights, a man marries a tree, the muskeg swallows a restaurant, and the dead go to Seattle.

DL:Thanks so much for sharing with us, Vivian!


Submissions for great weather for MEDIA’s anthologies are open October 15  to January 15.

The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker is a fearless and dynamic collection of contemporary poetry and short fiction by established and emerging writers from across the world. This is essential reading for everyone looking for the innovative, the reflective, and the fearless.  The anthology also contains an interview with musician Thurston Moore.