An Interview with John Pingayak, Chevak Tanqik Theatre
Interviewed by Craig Mishler, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in Anchorage on February 6, 1996. This transcribed interview accompanies the videotaped performance of John Pingayak's play, The Last Winged Creature.
CM: How did you come up with the title for your play, The Last Winged Creature? I'm curious.
JP: Because a lot of things we're going through right now, we're going through things like pollution, and we're just throwing trash all over, and if you look at the world too and how much trash and sewage and chemical waste that are all over, it's going to affect this environment here in Alaska.
We think it's pretty clean and pure, you know. I've been kind of afraid of the day where we couldn't eat the seal anymore or where we couldn't eat the fish anymore, and that is why I called it The Last Winged Creature. And especially, hey I heard this from one of the scientists, that you can look at the birds that are flying in the sky, but if you no longer see the birds flying any more, that means that there is something wrong with the air, the air we breathe, the air that is good for life. And that's one thing I don't want to see is the last winged creature. That's why I called it that.
CM: Is this like a prophesy maybe?
JP: It was just like something for people to really think about, you know. Maybe we take this life that we're living for granted too much, and sometimes we also oversee tiny things that we really need to focus on. And some things that I try to talk about in that play is for a scientist to talk with the Native people because Native people they're the people of this land. They're the people that's been surviving for generations on this earth, both the land and the sea, and they have observed the wildlife—how they come to be and how they no longer go. And at the same time I talk about the spirituality of the animals as well as how we treat them too, so that their spirits will go back to the spirit world and then come back again. That's what we believe in, the Native people.
CM: Somebody asked me, Last Winged Creature. Is he talking about flies? or bats?
JP: Talking about the birds, the birds in the sky, or the birds that's usually, those birds that migrate back and forth to different parts of the country and then come back to my own home back there in the western Alaska. So those are the birds that are close to us.
CM: Especially the ones you hunt?
JP: Yeah, especially the ones we hunt, and at the same time, you know, whatever we do on each side we have sacrificed on both sides too, and the same thing with the Native community. We have to sacrifice that bird in order for our children to see it so we can have some. At the same time we sacrifice some of the subsistence food so that it will continue to live for our children too, and their children. And one thing I also stress is co-management. That's what we need in dealing with wildlife and game, whatever, we need to start establishing co-management with the Native community. That's one thing we have been overlooking, and we need to start looking at the part of our knowledge too, especially with the elders.
You know their knowledge is very important, and it is good to know for us to make decisions for the future because that's what they like to do, the elders in the communities there. Because they live the life and at the same time they foresee part of that future too for us. And we, the younger generation, tend to take a newspaper and then that's all we do, read it, read about it, and we don't often see 20 years from now, 10 years from now. That's where the elders come in.
CM: I noticed in your play, well I've seen you do several plays over the years here at bilingual [the State Bilingual Education Conference]. You've done some other things, and you always have at least one elder and then a number of young people and yourself, kind of middle aged. Is there a reason why you have elders and young people together in the play? Is there a purpose for that?
JP: There's a purpose for that, and the only purpose that I want the audience to see is that whatever the young people are doing right now, they're also supported by our elders too, you know. I always feel comfortable with the elders' support. That's where I do or try to do the best of my abilities, but if they don't approve of me then I wouldn't want to do it. So that's why the elders always have a place in our plays, and at the same time the young people. And you see the transition from one generation to another too there. So sometimes there's hidden messages too, that when you see an elder there and a middle-aged man and the rest of them young people, you know, there's kind of like a closeness between all three generations. And at the same time there is no reason why we cannot work together too.
CM: That's part of the unity?
JP: Yeah. And at the same time an elder makes a play powerful just by their presence. He just doesn't have to say much; his presence there will do it all. And there is no doubt about it, and so that's why we have to have an elder all the time. I feel comfortable in doing it, but sometimes if we can't find an elder then we can't do it, or I have to just do it myself with the rest of the young people.
CM: In the play The Last Winged Creature you asked for a five-year moratorium [on field research]. Could you explain what you are asking for there?
JP: I asked for a five-year moratorium [on field research] because that is one of the alternative study methods that the federal or state government can have too. Because over the past many years or many generations they have overlooked the advice of the village community people or the elders, whatever. Because Chevak is right in the middle of Clarence Rhodes or that wildlife refuge. It's right in the middle. That wildlife refuge is in the heart of our own subsistence area, our ancestral subsistence area. It's our aboriginal subsistence area, and for that reason, you know, we feel that if the state or federal government provided us with a five-year moratorium then the scientists would maybe start listening.
Because those five years, within the five years we are feeling that what our elders believe and what I believe is that if you go to an area where there is wildlife and birds there, nesting area, pretty soon they will go away to another area. So that is what we know for a fact, and if you have five-year moratorium that will keep those camps out of the sensitive area where the birds nest.
And then I want to see for myself with my own eyes what five years can bring. How much it can bring back the birds or wildlife. I'm very curious to see if a five-year moratorium would work, but we will not completely go throw out the biologists and scientists. We'll probably have one. We bring in one and let him train maybe nine people or eight people or five people, train them and let the biologists go out there. They don't have to have camps out there, but the people can go out there and take field notes, and at the same time when the five-year moratorium is also honored then maybe co-management will actually take place because what the Native community is saying about the wildlife and about the different parts of species of animals is vitally important for the scientists to also know at the same time.
So even what the scientists have been leaving out would be the spiritual part of the land as well as the animals and the people around them too. And that is what I was trying to talk a little bit about and especially with that smudging with a yuk or Labrador tea? When we do the smudging we cleanse the spirit, our spirit. Because we are not just physical right there. At the same time we are spiritual too.
CM: And is this [smudging] good when you go out on the land?
JP: To do that too.
CM: To hunt or just to watch?
JP: Before we hunt we do that in order for the animals to see as a good thing or a good spirit. Otherwise if the animals see you then they run away or splash or go away. That spirit isn't too good. Like because the animals have the fourth or fifth sense, they will know right away. They say, even our ancestors also say that you cannot even talk about the animals too before you even go out to the wilderness because they already heard us too because this land is their land. That's where they live. They will hear you if you say things like, "I am going to go out there and catch ten birds" or "I am going to go out there and catch five seagulls." We can't do that.
CM: Because they hear you?
JP: They hear us. That is part of the spiritual realm of our existence in this world.
CM: Let's see how we are doing here. O.K. You were also concerned about the biologists handling the birds. Is that something that's sort of taboo in your culture?
JP: We cannot handle the birds. Any sort of wild animals, you know, you cannot handle them because they are from the wild, and then they won't be the same again, and especially if you put a band on their necks, or if you put a band on their leg. It is just like you putting an iron chain right on your leg right here or here [pointing to his neck] a big thick choke around yourself and see how much you can live and then how much wear and tear you have right around the edge of your neck, or as you keep walking and then pretty soon it will affect you, and then it will get infected and everything, so it's not too healthy.
CM: So under co-management you would not approve of the banding? I guess they use that to find out where they go when they go south.
JP: Yeah. They should know by now where they go. They should have a good documentation of where the birds go. Well, we would take care of them as wildlife, not as a species that are born behind our barnyard [laughing].
CM: Like chickens, huh? I always tease my daughter. She says "I'm eating free-ranging chicken." It means that they were not raised in a cage. Free-ranging means that they run around the yard and get exercise, and a lot of them, you know, they just feed them in the cage and they never get out to exercise. I said, "Well, bring home some free-ranging carrots to go with that free ranging chicken" [laughing].
JP: That's how we like those birds because they are "free-ranging." But they are very tough; they have tough meat, and we like them.
CM: What do you think Fish and Game and Fish and Wildlife Service can do to improve the communication between the villages? You said a little bit about that already, about the moratorium.
JP: We just need to start listening to the community level of people and actually go out to the communities. And some of the communities they are not going to allow them to go in at all because they [the government agencies] already have established kind of like a bad reputation, but there's got to be a way to open up the communication between the Native community and the Fish and Wildlife or Fish and Game.
CM: So you think if they came and spent more time in the village that . . .
JP: Or what they can also do is train our own people too and enforcement officers. They're more sensitive to our way of need and our way of culture that sometimes some of these things that we eat are mainly cultural. They came from the culture within, and it's not just a violation of something that is allowed, but sometimes if the families are hungry then they . . . if our Native community is from the subsistence way of life then he's got to be a little bit flexible on both ends, you know. Like for example, if I go out there and take advantage of my subsistence right and slaughter a whole bunch of birds, I am not doing anybody any good by doing that, but if somebody went up to get birds or something to eat because they were hungry, I honor that. I wouldn't put them in jail. So that's what I am talking about.
CM: Under co-management do you think that there would be any enforcement at all?
JP: There would be enforcement; yes there would be. Under co-management maybe it would be a lot better and a lot more understanding between the two. Because we can talk to our people. We can talk to our own people, and at the same time we can also talk to the other enforcers from the outside people, and some things that are sensitive, some things that there will be understanding in both ways. I think that can go a long ways.
CM: Sometimes I think that the young people just go out for target practice in certain areas I know, and they need some counseling and more than jail time; they just need to be talked to.
JP: All they need is to be talked to, and then a little bit about our way of life out there, and sometimes they shoot seagulls when they go out there and wing them, and we cannot afford to let other animals suffer. And like they always say that they have consciousness just like you and me. The way we feel about, you know, different things like when they're sad, happy, or suffering. You know, those are the kinds of things they go through just like you and me. All the animals do that, and when we talk about spirituality, spirituality of all these animals and our people, that's what we talk about. And then people learn to respect the animals and what we do when we talk about the spirituality of our Native people, so that's one of the elements that has been overlooked too.
CM: Yeah, and part of what I heard you saying in the play is that it is not just the fishing boats that are littering the ocean and polluting it, but even some people in the villages are careless. Is that right?
JP: That's correct. What we need to start telling our own people too is that carelessness that they are doing also is going to affect our subsistence areas too, you know. They go out and go berry picking, and they leave all their trash right there in the middle of the tundra. That's not a way to go out there and subsist from the land. You know, they can either bury it or burn it, those two things.
CM: Or bring it back?
JP: Or bring it back, yeah, and put it in the village dump or something like that. And we can also get very, very strict on uses of the lands too. We have corporation lands—those lands out there that we use for subsistence in berry picking, and we can get very strict, you know, if that continues. So that would be one means of enforcement too, using our own enforcement people, and then go out there and observe people dumping stuff all over or anywhere and leaving their stuff out there. Make them clean it up.
CM: You did quite a few songs after the play, and I wanted to ask you, are those traditional songs? Were they songs that you created for that performance or where the songs come from? Seems like there was one about a loon.
JP: Yeah. I wanted to do one that is close to nature, and that is an Arctic tern song and loon song too—combination of the two. That the Arctic tern when they go out there and subsist all the time, you know, catch all the fish and everything. They do it for only one thing: for the love of their children. That was the message. Same thing with the loon when it goes out there and dives in the ocean and catch that fish, it only does it for the grandchildren. See, children, grandchildren, whatever we do in this life we do it for either our children or our grandchildren. That's what we do things for. So that was the message of the story behind one of those Eskimo dance songs—the one that goes "Kaw-wik."
CM: I like that. Everybody does a little [fan tall gesture].
JP: But we didn't do things like slurpy dance or 7-11 slurpy dance; we didn't do stuff like that, you know.
CM: Is there such a dance?
JP: No, maybe we should make one up, but those are some of my songs.
CM: That you composed?
JP: Yeah, I compose songs, but I try to do it in the context of our young people. What's meaningful for the young people. Sometimes when I go out there I encounter something, like a walrus, you know. Fall time I'll tell a story about that, singing it, and a drum. And when I go out moose hunting and get rained out and catch nothing, see no moose, I'll sing and drum about it. So those are the stories of what's happening either now or what I encounter. Some are traditional songs that are ancient too as well as contemporary, and when my grandfather talked about the songs [he said] "You are inspired through the sound of nature."
When the songs don't stay in one area they come to you. Those songs come to you, and they'll go out of you, and they will go in different places. That's why once in a while you'll be traveling and somebody's singing your song. "Hey that's my song! I made that song up." So they travel around, and so some dancers adapt. If they like my song they'll adapt it.
CM: So these songs kind of float through the air? Do they?
JP: They float around, they say. That's what they say.
CM: From person to person?
JP: Or in between people?
JP: In space, I guess [laughing].
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