HOW TO DRESS A FISH
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In 1901, Michael Chabitnoy, age 15, was sent from Woody Island to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and subsequently settled in Pennsylvania, far removed from his Aleut relatives and culture. This practice was common in the early twentieth century but is glossed over in American history, as are its effects on Natives today. Michael died shortly after his sons were born, before he was able to pass on knowledge of his culture or stories of his life at the seams of the world. When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed, my family registered with the Koniag corporation, but because of the circumstances of our family history we remained ignorant of the traditions of our own people. Despite our interest, we remained ignorant of the larger history and trauma the Aleut endured—as well as the story of their resilience and survival. This work attempts to realize the potential of poetry, and more broadly, story, as an act of witness and tool for social change and healing. It attempts to demonstrate how language is capable of shaping one’s experience of the world, and how language can ultimately reshape one’s understanding of that experience. Through a series of interconnected poems and archival documents, it examines the history and culture of the Aleut, as well as the Native American experience at Carlisle and continued complexities of identity. Its interrogation of history and identity emphasizes the complexities of race and the politics behind every telling of history. By incorporating excerpts from my great-grandfather’s boarding school records and language from early Russian ethnologies, and by engaging with Alutiiq language, traditional storytelling motifs, and subsistence practices, this work applies a practice of documentary poetics to give testimony to address and see past the trauma, both personal and communal, Aleut people have endured and overcome, and to meaningfully participate in the traditions of a people that persist today and write a space in which it is possible to return to the water.