April’s Guest Blogger Robert Davis Hoffmann: Longing and Belonging

It was a summer
morning. I took the jeans from my drawer, lifting them to my face, breathing
the aroma of strawberries and hay that still clung to the knees. I pictured
myself kneeling in the strawberry fields, earning money for our move to Alaska
in 1964. I was in 4
th grade when my family moved to the small
Tlingit village of Kake in southeast Alaska. I grew homesick for our Michigan
Later that year
on examining me, a doctor from the Indian Health Services hospital thought he
detected an arrhythmic heartbeat. I was sent to the children’s ward at Mt.
Edgecumbe Hospital in December. Back in the 60’s children were sent to the
hospital by themselves, but I was lucky; my father accompanied me. Still, I
cried every day. With Christmas approaching I just wanted to go home. I
remember not wanting to wash my hands, afraid I’d wash away molecules that I’d
brought with me from Kake, from having contact with objects back home. I didn’t
want to surrender my clothes either, in exchange for the pinstriped jumpsuits
issued to children on the ward. I wasn’t ready to trade the familiar for the
Coming from a
small Native village everything is more intimate: people are more than
acquaintances, we are related by blood or by clan. Social gatherings are more
than events, they are meaningful in a cultural context such as Indian dances,
the post-funerary ‘Koo.éex’, or potlucks with our Native foods. Places are more
than geographical areas, even the rocks and cliffs have names and are spoken to
on passing them. Time is not simply about calendar dates or appointments, it’s
about being connected by seasonal activities we are accustomed to, such as harvesting
herring eggs in March or picking seaweed in April.
Our stories
originate from personal memory which, when told, become collective memory. They
all get woven together. We ourselves are woven into the story, so that when we
move away and experience homesickness, we are missing our own lives.
Even in
adulthood, I encountered homesickness. Going to art school in San Francisco
straight from “the village” was culture shock indeed! I found a piece of dried
halibut in my pocket a friend gave me for my trip, and a lump formed in my
Sights, smells
and sounds easily trigger homesickness. The smell of fish reminds me of jigging
humpies (pink salmon) in Gunnock Creek as a child. The smell of smoke conjures
smokehouses with racks of salmon or seal meat. The ocean evokes images of the
low tide clam bed in front of Kake. Certain songs on the radio are like
soundtracks to particular memories of long ago (Johnny Rivers’ album “Realization” has strong association to
working at the Keku Canning Co. in the summer of ’68), and the sound of waves
takes me back to my bedroom when the waves would put me to sleep as a child.
Is homesickness
a curse or a blessing? While homesickness can be experienced as extreme
discomfort and can be as disabling as actual sickness, it can also be an
opportunity to transport us back home. We are so connected to home, I don’t think
it’s possible to completely extricate ourselves, to sever those intimate ties. Homesickness
is the experience of intense longing,
but it is also the experience of intense belonging;
the assurance of our human connection to our place in this world.
I should end
with that. But suddenly I’m remembering an Athabascan elder describing being taken
from his family and village to the boarding school at Wrangell. There, he had
his precious parka burned, had his mouth washed with soap for speaking his
Native language, had his hair chopped off, and at nights he would crawl beneath
the blankets in the dark to cry for being homesick.

Nowadays when
I’m homesick, unwittingly what I am doing is missing myself – the role that I
play in the circumstance I call ‘home’, and in the back of my mind the haunting
sounds of children sobbing beneath blankets.

Robert Davis Hoffmann is a Tlingit poet originally from the village of Kake, fully engaged in his heritage and culture. He describes the creative impulse for his poetry and carving this way: “My desire to create comes from a drive to connect my past to the present, to redefine the traditional as present day cultural practices.”

3 thoughts on “April’s Guest Blogger Robert Davis Hoffmann: Longing and Belonging”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Your post brought back memories of homesickness, and reminded me how grateful I am to be home in Alaska. I used to dream of "my" Chugach mountains when I was away from them.

  2. This was magnificent and explained why my spirit children have such a hard time leaving their reservation here in Western North Carolina. That identity, the self is inextricably part of the fabric of the mountains and of the family and greater tribe itself. Culture is precious. Being tied in and a part of the fabric can be blessing and curse. The struggle to redefine yourself or "recover" from negative histories or patterns such as addiction or domestic abuse is made harder in this region, I will include the non-Indian communities of the Southern Appalachian highlands, because it seems to be fairly consistent. People from this region seem to have more in common with each other, Native and white, than they do with the general population of the country. Our communities are all clannish and closed. The down side seems to be that it reinforces negative as well as positive templates for life, this proprietary closed loop. Attaining escape velocity from your past, the prescribed roles, the community perception of who you are or who you can be is made more difficult by this deep and glorious attachment. Thank you for making it a palpable force, something I understand now a little better because of your gift.

  3. Very well said, brother. Even though I have lived here in Kake all these years, I look out on 'da islands' and get homesick for places like Home League Pass, Lord's Pocket, Halleck Harbor, High Island…all the places of our memories. I truly believe it's in our DNA, just like salmon DNA is found in the trees. We are all connected. Love, ELJ

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