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Native Americans Revitalize Ancient Tattoo Traditions

Undated courtesy photo of Jody Potts-Joseph, left, and daughter Quannah Chasinghorse, both of whom wear traditional Han Qwich'in tattoos.
Undated courtesy photo of Jody Potts-Joseph, left, and daughter Quannah Chasinghorse, both of whom wear traditional Han Qwich'in tattoos.

For thousands of years, tattooing was an important form of cultural expression for Indigenous people across the Americas, but missionaries abolished the practice at different points in time as part of efforts to assimilate tribes and convert them to Christianity.

Today, a growing number of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiians are reviving tattooing, using methods their ancestors developed millennia ago.

Jody Potts-Joseph was born and raised in the Yukon River village of Eagle, home of the Athabascan-speaking Han Gwich’in people.

“I was raised pretty old school on the land and learned our traditional way of life, hunting and fishing for subsistence,” she said. “I was 18 when I learned that historically, Gwich’in men and women got tattooed — men on their joints and wrists, and women on their faces — as a rite of passage.”

For years, Potts-Joseph wanted to have her chin marked, but the last Gwich’in tattoo artists had passed away. Her daughter, Quannah Chasinghorse, also wanted a tattoo.

“She was only 12 at the time, and I told her to wait,” Potts-Joseph said. “I wanted to make sure that she was in an emotional space where she could handle any possible criticism or backlash.”

After two years of praying on it, Potts-Joseph relented. Using a large ink-dipped sewing needle, she gave her daughter what are called Yidiiltoolines at her eyes and on her chin. Soon afterward, Potts-Joseph enlisted her then-16-year-old son Izzy to ink her chin.

“For me, it was a reclaiming of my identity and part of my resistance to the shaming of our people after colonization,” she said. “And I saw my daughter change — she came into her power. She found her voice. Tattooing is powerful medicine.”

Markers of identity, spirituality, rank

Cultural anthropologist Lars Krutak, author of “Tattoo Traditions of Native North America,” has studied the traditions in 30 countries.

As a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student, he spent time among Yupik elders living on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. Yupik skin-stitch their tattoos, threading fine strands of reindeer or whale sinew through a bone or steel needle, then passing the thread through pigment and stitching designs into the top layer of skin.

“Typically, they used soot or lampblack from a seal oil lamp or the bottom of a cooking pot, mix it with water or human urine,” he said, explaining that urine’s high ammonia content helped in the healing process. “Sometimes, graphite was mixed into the pigment because it was believed to have spirit-repelling properties.”

A Siberian Yupik woman skin stitching the face of a young woman, c. 1900. Photo by Russian ethnographer Vladimir Bogoras.
A Siberian Yupik woman skin stitching the face of a young woman, c. 1900. Photo by Russian ethnographer Vladimir Bogoras.

Traditional tattooing served many functions.

“For one, marks could identify an individual’s family, clan, tribe or society,” Krutak said.

The Tlingit, Haida and other Northwest coastal peoples, for example, wore hand-poked family crests as a sign of social status, lineage and relationships to natural and supernatural events.

“There were therapeutic tattoos that were applied to primary joints to relieve arthritis,” he said. “I’ve documented tribes from Borneo to Alaska to Papua New Guinea who tattoo joint marks.”

Tattoos often marked milestones and achievements, such as a young hunter’s first kill.

“In some tribes in the Plains, you could read a man’s achievements on the battlefield by the marks he wore,” Krutak said.

This c. 1860 Cabinet card photograph shows Olive Oatman, orphaned and raised by the Mojave, who tattooed her according to tribal custom.
This c. 1860 Cabinet card photograph shows Olive Oatman, orphaned and raised by the Mojave, who tattooed her according to tribal custom.

Smithsonian anthropologists in the late 1880s reported that men of rank in the Omaha Tribe were given “honor marks,” charcoal tattoos applied with flint points bound to rattlesnake rattles.

A blind eye

Artist, writer and educator L. Frank Manriquez is descended from the Tongva and Acjachemen tribes of Southern California, which have seen a rebirth of traditional Indigenous tattooing.

“I’d thought about it for a long time,” Manriquez said. “For me, it was about the connection, a way to hold hands across time with my women ancestors.”

She was 40 years old when she got her first tattoo, from “a racist Chumash biker guy,” she said, laughing. He used a modern tattoo gun to ink parallel lines on her cheekbones.

Later, she had her chin tattooed with a traditional “triple 1” design. Later, Manriquez met Keone Nunes, who had studied traditional Polynesian tattooing in Samoa.

L. Frank Manriquez (L.) with Hawaiian tattoo master Keli'i Makua. Both wear a Makapō eye tattoo. Photo, courtesy L. Frank Manriquez
L. Frank Manriquez (L.) with Hawaiian tattoo master Keli'i Makua. Both wear a Makapō eye tattoo. Photo, courtesy L. Frank Manriquez

Nunes hand tapped Manriquez’s makapō, a black rectangle around her left eye — a design with roots in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia.

“Makapō literally means ‘blind,’” Manriquez said. “And what it means spiritually is that I can see what others cannot.”

Like Potts-Joseph in Alaska, Manriquez said tattoos have changed her life.

“Non-Native Californians started treating me as if I were wearing priest robes,” she said. “All of a sudden, I was something they could not understand. But Native Americans listen to me differently, treat me differently.”

Quannah Chasinghorse at a Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, in New York.
Quannah Chasinghorse at a Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, in New York.

‘Not a trend’

Tattooing, once considered the domain of sailors, inmates and carnival barkers, has gone mainstream in America. In January 2022, Rasmussen Reports found that half of all Americans under age 40 wore at least one tattoo, up from 38% in 2016.

Many non-Natives draw inspiration from — if not outright copy — traditional Indigenous tattoos, a fact that angers Potts-Joseph. Her daughter, Chasinghorse’s, modeling career exploded in 2020 after being featured in a Calvin Klein advertising campaign.

Since then, Chasinghorse has appeared on fashion runways, at galas on and magazine covers internationally. This has given her a platform to advocate for climate justice and Indigenous inclusion. But the exposure has come at a cost.

“I look on social media and I’m seeing non-Native men and women wearing Quannah’s exact markings,” Potts-Joseph said. “We are very much opposed to anyone outside of our culture wearing traditional tattoos.”

“This is our culture, our family, our ceremony,” she added. “This is not a trend.”

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Native American news roundup, July 7-13, 2024

Low water levels at Wahweap Bay at Lake Powell along the Upper Colorado River Basin are shown Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Utah and Arizona border at Wahweap, Ariz. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
Low water levels at Wahweap Bay at Lake Powell along the Upper Colorado River Basin are shown Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Utah and Arizona border at Wahweap, Ariz. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)

Arizona congressional delegation introduces $5 billion tribal water rights legislation

Arizona's congressional delegation Monday introduced a new bill, The Northeastern Arizona Indian Water Rights Settlement Act of 2024, which would ratify a $5 billion water rights settlement with three Native American nations in the southwestern U.S.

This settlement, the largest of its kind proposed by Congress, seeks to resolve a decadeslong dispute involving the Navajo Nation, the Hopi and the San Juan Southern Paiute tribes.

The agreement, approved by the tribes in May, guarantees them over 56,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water and specific groundwater rights. It also establishes a homeland for the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe.

Funds from the legislation will be used to develop and maintain water infrastructure, including a $1.75 billion pipeline.

“Ratifying this settlement honors our commitment to the tribes and helps secure our state’s water future, and we’ll work together as Republicans and Democrats to get it done,” Democratic Senator Mark Kelly said in a statement on his website.

San Juan Southern Paiute tribal President Robbin Preston Jr. said the bill, if passed, would change tribe members’ lives.

“With reliable electricity, water and housing, our people will have opportunities that have never been available to us before,” he said in a statement. “This legislation is more than a settlement of water rights; it is the establishment of an exclusive reservation for a tribe that will no longer be forced to live like strangers in our own land.”

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In this June 22, 2016, file photo, the "House on Fire" ruins are shown in Mule Canyon, near Blanding, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
In this June 22, 2016, file photo, the "House on Fire" ruins are shown in Mule Canyon, near Blanding, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Tribes, feds plan future of Bears Ears National Monument

Five Native American tribes and the federal government are collaboratively reviewing over 20,000 public comments on the future management of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. The public comment period, which ended on June 11, showed wide support for incorporating Traditional Indigenous Knowledge in managing the monument.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, comprising the Zuni Pueblo, Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Tribe and Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray, is working with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to finalize a co-management plan. This plan, the first of its kind, integrates tribal ancestral history, land conservation and traditional education.

Bears Ears is the most significant archaeological area in the U.S., containing more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites.

President Joe Biden restored the Bears Ears monument in October 2021 after the Trump administration significantly reduced its size. In 2023, a federal judge dismissed an attempt by Arizona lawmakers to reverse Biden’s decision. The monument’s designation aims to protect it from future uranium mining and follows the National Park Service's commitment to greater tribal involvement in federal land decisions.

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Tyisha ArrowTop Knot, right, sprays her nieces and nephews with a garden hose while looking after them in the backyard of their home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Mont., Thursday, July 12, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Tyisha ArrowTop Knot, right, sprays her nieces and nephews with a garden hose while looking after them in the backyard of their home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Mont., Thursday, July 12, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Feds expand support for tribal home-visiting programs

The U.S. Administration for Children and Families (ACF), an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has awarded six tribal communities $3 million to expand home-visiting programs for families with young children, part of a larger $30 million investment in the Tribal Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program.

This funding aims to develop and strengthen tribes’ ability to support and promote the health and well-being of expectant families and families with young children, and prevent children’s placement in foster care.

“We are very excited about this new round of grant recipients, who will develop their programs in collaboration with their communities reflecting their cultures and representing the vision, priorities and hopes they have for future generations,” ACF Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jeff Hild said in a statement. “As Tribal home visiting continues to expand, we look forward to engaging with grant recipients and honoring tribal sovereignty as they continue in their journey to provide essential services for young American Indian and Alaska Native children and their families.”

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Detail from ''Abenaki Couple'', an 18th-century watercolor by an unknown artist. Courtesy of the City of Montreal Records Management & Archives, Montreal, Canada.
Detail from ''Abenaki Couple'', an 18th-century watercolor by an unknown artist. Courtesy of the City of Montreal Records Management & Archives, Montreal, Canada.

Abenaki leaders dispute the legitimacy of unrecognized New Hampshire tribe
The Abenaki community in Quebec has long denounced self-styled Abenaki tribes in Vermont and New Hampshire who operate on claims of Abenaki heritage.

Most recently, a nonprofit called the Ko’asek Traditional Band of the Sovereign Abenaki Nation (KTBSAN) announced plans to build a cultural center in the small New Hampshire city of Claremont on land gifted to them in 2020. In 2023, the city granted their zoning request.

But the KTBSAN is not state or federally recognized, and the Odanak (Abenaki) First Nation in Canada says the New Hampshire group is fake and has no right to speak to Abenaki history and culture.

Historically, Western Abenaki homelands stretched from southeastern Quebec into present-day Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and north-central Massachusetts. Missionized by French Jesuits in the 17th century, the Abenaki allied themselves with the French in a series of struggles with England over trade. Later, Many Abenaki withdrew to Canada, eventually settling in Saint-François-du-Lac, Quebec.

KTBSAN chief Paul J. Bunnell, a genealogist originally from Massachusetts, told New Hampshire Public Radio that it wasn’t until late in life that he discovered his Abenaki ancestry, information “which we were never told we even had, because it was a taboo subject in most families because we were driven underground because of persecutions.”

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North Dakota tribe goes back to its roots with a massive greenhouse operation

FILE - This photo shows the interior of the first greenhouse of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation's Native Green Grow complex, taken April 3, 2024, near Parshall, ND.
FILE - This photo shows the interior of the first greenhouse of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation's Native Green Grow complex, taken April 3, 2024, near Parshall, ND.

A Native American tribe in North Dakota will soon grow lettuce in a giant greenhouse complex that when fully completed will be among the country's largest, enabling the tribe to grow much of its own food decades after a federal dam flooded the land where they had cultivated corn, beans and other crops for millennia.

Work is ongoing on the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation's 1.3-hectare greenhouse that will make up most of the Native Green Grow operation's initial phase. However, enough of the structure will be completed this summer to start growing leafy greens and other crops such as tomatoes and strawberries.

"We're the first farmers of this land," Tribal Chairman Mark Fox said. "We once were part of an Aboriginal trade center for thousands and thousands of years because we grew crops — corn, beans, squash, watermelons — all these things at massive levels, so all the tribes depended on us greatly as part of the Aboriginal trade system."

The tribe will spend roughly $76 million on the initial phase, which also will include a warehouse and other facilities near the tiny town of Parshall. It plans to add to the growing space in the coming years, eventually totaling about 5.9 hectares, which officials say would make it one of the world's largest facilities of its type.

The tribe's fertile land along the Missouri River was inundated in the mid-1950s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Garrison Dam, which created Lake Sakakawea.

FILE - This aerial photo shows the first phase of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation's Native Green Grow greenhouse operation on May 15, 2024, near Parshall, ND.
FILE - This aerial photo shows the first phase of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation's Native Green Grow greenhouse operation on May 15, 2024, near Parshall, ND.

Getting fresh produce has long been a challenge in the area of western North Dakota where the tribe is based, on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The rolling, rugged landscape — split by Lake Sakakawea — is a long drive from the state's biggest cities, Bismarck and Fargo.

That isolation makes the greenhouses all the more important, as they will enable the tribe to provide food to the roughly 8,300 people on the Fort Berthold reservation and to reservations elsewhere. The tribe also hopes to stock food banks that serve isolated and impoverished areas in the region, and plans to export its produce.

Initially, the MHA Nation expects to grow nearly 907,000 kilograms of food a year and for that to eventually increase to 5.4 million to 6.4 million kilograms annually. Fox said the operation's first phase will create 30 to 35 jobs.

The effort coincides with a national move to increase food sovereignty among tribes.

Supply chain disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic led tribes nationwide to use federal coronavirus aid to invest in food systems, including underground greenhouses in South Dakota to feed the local community, said Heather Dawn Thompson, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Tribal Relations. In Oklahoma, multiple tribes are running or building their own meat processing plant, she said.

The USDA promotes its Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative, which "really challenges us to think about food and the way we do business at USDA from an Indigenous, tribal lens," Thompson said. Examples include Indigenous seed hubs, foraging videos and guides, cooking videos and a meat processing program for Indigenous animals.

"We have always been a very independent, sovereign people that have been able to hunt, gather, grow and feed ourselves, and forces have intervened over the last century that have disrupted those independent food resources, and it made it very challenging. But the desire and goal has always been there," said Thompson, whose tribal affiliation is Cheyenne River Sioux.

The MHA Nation's greenhouse plans are possible in large part because of access to potable water and natural gas resources.

The natural gas released in North Dakota's Bakken oil field has long been seen by critics as a waste and environmental concern, but Fox said the tribal nation intends to capture and compress that gas to heat and power the greenhouse and process into fertilizer.

Flaring, in which natural gas is burned off from pipes that emerge from the ground, has been a longtime issue in the No. 3 oil-producing state.

North Dakota Pipeline Authority Director Justin Kringstad said that key to capturing the gas is building needed infrastructure, as the MHA Nation intends to do.

"With those operators that are trying to get to that level of zero, it's certainly going to take more infrastructure, more buildout of pipes, processing plants, all of the above to stay on top of this issue," he said.

The Fort Berthold Reservation had nearly 3,000 active wells in April, when oil production totaled 203,000 barrels a day on the reservation. Oil production has helped the MHA Nation build schools, roads, housing and medical facilities, Fox said.

Native American news roundup, June 30-July 6, 2024

FILE - This photo taken March 28, 2009, shows a sign calling for the release of AIM activist Leonard Peltier. He was denied parole for the third time on July 2, 2024.
FILE - This photo taken March 28, 2009, shows a sign calling for the release of AIM activist Leonard Peltier. He was denied parole for the third time on July 2, 2024.

Leonard Peltier to remain in Florida prison

The U.S. Parole Commission this week denied parole for American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier, who has been incarcerated almost 50 years for the killing of two FBI agents.

Peltier was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of federal agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams in a June 26, 1975, shooting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences and has been in prison since 1976.

House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, expressed his disappointment in the commission's ruling, saying, "The commission had the opportunity to take a small step toward rectifying a decadeslong injustice against Mr. Peltier, but incomprehensibly, they have opted against it."

Federal agents, past and present, hold that Peltier is guilty and shows no remorse for his crime. FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement that "justice continues to prevail."

Peltier has an interim hearing about his parole status scheduled for 2026 and a full hearing in 2039.

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FILE - The Colorado River is pictured in Lees Ferry, Arizona, May 29, 2021.
FILE - The Colorado River is pictured in Lees Ferry, Arizona, May 29, 2021.

Tribes want a say in Colorado River system water distribution

After a century of being excluded from the discussion, the 30 tribal nations that depend on the Colorado River system are fighting for a greater voice in determining its future when current operating agreements expire in 2026.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact regulated water distribution among seven southwestern states; tribes were not included in those negotiations. Despite holding senior water rights to about a quarter of the river's water, tribes lack access due to funding and legal issues, and this means their water flows downstream to other users.

In April, the Upper Colorado River Commission and six tribes with land in the Upper Basin signed a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to meet about every two months to discuss issues. Still, it does not give tribes a permanent seat on the commission, nor does it give them any authority to make decisions.

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Franciscan priests assigned to Santa Barbara’s now-closed St. Anthony’s Seminary and Old Mission Santa Barbara have been implicated in the sexual abuse of children over the years.
Franciscan priests assigned to Santa Barbara’s now-closed St. Anthony’s Seminary and Old Mission Santa Barbara have been implicated in the sexual abuse of children over the years.

California Franciscans: Extend deadline for clergy abuse claims for tribes we failed to notify

The Franciscan Province of St. Barbara is asking a bankruptcy court to extend the July 19 deadline for clergy sex abuse claims after a National Catholic Reporter, or NCR, investigation revealed that claim notices had not been sent to seven Native American tribes and communities in Arizona and New Mexico where abusive friars were known to serve.

The St. Barbara Franciscans filed for bankruptcy in late December 2023 in the face of dozens of new allegations of clergy sexual abuse.

A judge on May 22 ordered the St. Barbara Province to mail out "Sexual Abuse Claim Notice Packages" to eight state attorneys general, sheriffs’ offices and other agencies, and 27 newspapers, most of them in California.

The NCR compared the order with a list of "credibly accused" friars the St. Barbara Franciscans maintain on their website, noting that they had failed to send notices to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, Gila River Indian Community, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, San Carlos Apache Tribe, Tohono O'odham Nation and White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona, and the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico.

The Franciscans subsequently asked for the deadline to be extended to August 30 and notified the tribes.

BishopAccountability.org, which tracks clergy abuse cases, reports that 32 U.S. Catholic dioceses and three religious orders have filed for bankruptcy protection in the face of sex abuse accusations.

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This 1585 hand-colored map by Theodore De Bry shows the coast of North Carolina from the modern Virginia border south to Cape Fear and notes Indian towns.
This 1585 hand-colored map by Theodore De Bry shows the coast of North Carolina from the modern Virginia border south to Cape Fear and notes Indian towns.

North Carolina housing development is site of significant Native American village

A political fight is underway in North Carolina over what the state archaeologist has called one of the most significant finds ever uncovered — thousands of artifacts and evidence suggesting the presence of a Native American village occupied for centuries before European contact.

The discovery was made on a building site in Carteret County, where developers have already begun building housing.

The North Carolina Office of State Archaeology recommended exploration due to previous discoveries in the area from the 1970s. Construction halted as they dug 16 trenches across more than an acre, uncovering over 2,000 artifacts, including 11 potential human burial sites, 1,700 building post molds, 206 small pits, 45 large pits, 34 pits containing shells and more.

The developers' design engineer, however, dismissed the findings as a "Native American landfill" containing "nothing significant."

State Senator Michael Lazzara agrees and is pushing a bill that allows development to move forward.

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Detail from mural, "A reconstruction of Cahokia," by Lloyd Townsend. New research refutes that drought caused Mississippians to leave the city.
Detail from mural, "A reconstruction of Cahokia," by Lloyd Townsend. New research refutes that drought caused Mississippians to leave the city.

New theory emerges on Cahokia abandonment

Hundreds of years before Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere, Cahokia was the largest North American city north of Mexico and one of the biggest communities in the world.

Founded around 1050 by the Mississippian culture, Cahokia sat on the banks of the Mississippi River near present-day St. Louis, Missouri. At its height, Cahokia had a population of 50,000 but was deserted by 1400 CE. While scientists traditionally blamed drought and crop failure for its abandonment, a new study suggests otherwise.

Washington University researchers Natalie Mueller and Caitlin Rankin found no radical change in plant types.

"We saw no evidence that prairie grasses were taking over, which we would expect in a scenario where widespread crop failure was occurring," Mueller said.

Mueller believes the abandonment was gradual.

"I don't envision a scene where thousands of people were suddenly streaming out of town," she said. "People probably just spread out to be near kin or to find different opportunities."

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Ship traffic in Bering Strait a threat to Native Alaskan subsistence hunting

A man stands on the shores of the Bering Sea to watch the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity, anchored just outside Nome, Alaska, because it was too big to dock at the Port of Nome, Aug. 21, 2016.
A man stands on the shores of the Bering Sea to watch the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity, anchored just outside Nome, Alaska, because it was too big to dock at the Port of Nome, Aug. 21, 2016.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this article misidentified Andrew Mew. A correction has been made.

Each spring, as the Alaska ice pack begins to loosen, Pacific walruses migrate north through the Bering Strait toward the colder waters of the Arctic Ocean. On their way, they pass Little Diomede Island, home of the federally recognized Native Village of Diomede (Inalik), nestled in the middle of the strait.

This is the time of year Inalik hunters set out in small boats, hoping to hunt and harvest enough walrus and oogruk (seal) to see them through the months ahead.

On June 14, Diomede's environmental coordinator Opik Ahkinga received a distressing Facebook message from an "outsider" asking whether she was aware that a large American cruise ship, Holland America's Westerdam, would be stopping for a "scenic tour" of Diomede in just five days.

"The Inalik Native Corporation and Native Village of Diomede have never given permission to the Holland America line to use Diomede Alaska as a scenic stop," Ahkinga told VOA. "If we're going to have ships come unannounced, there are going to be hunters out there still hunting."

The Westerdam, more than 285 meters (936 feet) long and 32 meters (106 feet) wide, was carrying some 1,700 passengers on a 28-day Arctic Circle cruise timed to coincide with the summer solstice.

It is a ship that would scare off any walruses in the area. Furthermore, where Diomede's hunters once used arrows and harpoons to hunt for food, today they use rifles, posing a danger to passing vessels.

Photo show hunters at work in Bering Sea waters, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Courtesy Frances Ozenna.
Photo show hunters at work in Bering Sea waters, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Courtesy Frances Ozenna.

Directing traffic

A U.N.-designated international strait, Bering is a key passageway for domestic and foreign-flagged vessels sailing from the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic. Increased mining and petroleum activities to the north have led to a dramatic increase in ship traffic through the strait.

In summer 2016, the Crystal Serenity made history with a 32-day cruise from Anchorage through the Northwest Passage to New York, via Greenland.

"That was big news, and there's been an uptick in cruise ships and sightseeing ever since," said Steve White, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Alaska, a Juneau-based nonprofit that works to prevent maritime disasters.

In 2018, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a U.N. Agency, adopted a set of routing measures for large vessels moving "in the region of the Alaska Aleutian Islands." Those included recommended routes, areas of concern and areas to be avoided.

In this July 14, 2017 file photo, The Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica sails past the American island of Little Diomede, Alaska, left, and behind it, the Russian island of Big Diomede, separated by the International Date Line on the Bering Strait.
In this July 14, 2017 file photo, The Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica sails past the American island of Little Diomede, Alaska, left, and behind it, the Russian island of Big Diomede, separated by the International Date Line on the Bering Strait.

But these measures are voluntary, and while numerous groups including the Coast Guard and Marine Exchange monitor vessel traffic, "overall, it's not heavily regulated," White said.

VOA reached out to the Anchorage-based Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska's vice president Andrew Mew, who responded by email about the potential conflicts between ships and Native Alaskans hunting, fishing and conducting other subsistence activities.

"We make a practice of alerting vessels to the presence of subsistence activities when we are advised of them by the Coast Guard or other agency or organization," wrote Mew.

"There are some existent agreements in place regarding subsistence and commercial vessel activity, but … I am not aware of any agreement between a local Arctic organization and the cruise industry relative to subsistence activity."

He added, "When approached by members of the subsistence community, we are happy to pass along courtesy notifications to the vessels."

Recognizing that there is no centralized mechanism for communicating with Indigenous communities, the Marine Exchange has launched the Arctic Watch Operations Center, which White says is still in its "infancy stages."

Once fully up and running, Arctic Watch will monitor marine traffic and weather conditions, identify areas to avoid because of marine presence and share that information with vessel operators, Arctic communities, Alaska Native tribal governments and state and federal agencies.

This June, 2024, photo by filmmaker Bjorn Olson and provided by Opik Ahkinga, shows the town Inalik, located on the west coast of Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait, the most remote community in the U.S.
This June, 2024, photo by filmmaker Bjorn Olson and provided by Opik Ahkinga, shows the town Inalik, located on the west coast of Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait, the most remote community in the U.S.

Effort pays off

Cell phone service on Little Diomede is spotty in the best of times. On June 14, it was down altogether.

But Ahkinga is among the few Diomeders who has access to satellite internet. With time running short, she began sending emails in an attempt to divert the Holland America cruise ship.

VOA has seen copies of that email chain, which shows that her appeals were successful. Within two days, the ship changed course.

"While we are not aware of any notifications required to sail in this area of the Bering Strait, when we received a request from the Inalik Native Corporation to avoid that part of the sea, we agreed to alter the route and informed our guests of the change," a spokesman for Holland America told VOA in an emailed statement.

"As a cruise line that sails across the globe, we are committed to honoring and respecting the marine environment and communities who welcome us in our travel."

Washington folklife festival honors Indigenous culture, communities

Txatxu Pataxo, left, of the Pataxo people of Bahia, Brazil, shows Eva Quiroz, 16, of Takoma Park, Maryland, how to draw a pattern traditional used in body painting, during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, June 26, 2024.
Txatxu Pataxo, left, of the Pataxo people of Bahia, Brazil, shows Eva Quiroz, 16, of Takoma Park, Maryland, how to draw a pattern traditional used in body painting, during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, June 26, 2024.

Washington's National Mall was buzzing with activity Wednesday, despite temperatures surpassing 36 degrees Celsius (96.8 Fahrenheit). Groups of children played lacrosse while the dynamic notes of music and the savory aromas of food wafted along the grassy blocks.

Visitors found themselves immersed in the first day of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, running through July 1. This year, the festival celebrates Indigenous communities.

The festival, which calls itself "an exercise in cultural democracy," began in 1967. Its programming generally focuses on a nation, region, state, or theme, seeing hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. Since its founding, the festival has hosted more than 25,000 guest performers, cooks, artists, and speakers.

The 2024 festival has pivoted its focus, honoring Indigenous communities in alignment with the 20th anniversary of the National Museum of the American Indian, which is adjacent to the Mall. Around 60 countries are being represented throughout the festival.

"Change is very much part of the festival … It's not cookie-cutter. It allows us to be flexible and to lean into moments that really are important," Sabrina Motley, director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, told VOA.

T'ata Begay, of the Choctaw/Taos Pueblo Nations in Oklahoma, prepares her son, Okhish Homma Begay, 2, who is of the Navajo and Chocktaw/Taos Pueblo Nations, ready for a performance at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, June 26, 2024.
T'ata Begay, of the Choctaw/Taos Pueblo Nations in Oklahoma, prepares her son, Okhish Homma Begay, 2, who is of the Navajo and Chocktaw/Taos Pueblo Nations, ready for a performance at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, June 26, 2024.

This year's festival is also on the shorter side, spanning just six days instead of the typical 10.

"We wanted to use the time before the 4th of July. The building itself, the thing we're celebrating, has a different life on the 4th of July," said Motley.

"It is becoming increasingly more difficult to ask people to come to Washington for two weeks … I'd rather have the most wonderful artists and cooks and dancers and musicians that we can find here for six days than to try to squeeze the festival into a longer period, which would be harder on the people that we're really meant to honor," she added.

Celebration strengthens bonds, says official

The 2024 festival began with a welcome ceremony in the museum's Rasmuson Theater, followed by an outdoor presentation of colors with Native American Women Warriors. Simultaneously, events were already happening on the National Mall.

"Every day that we celebrate, every day that we dance and sing and pray, we strengthen the bonds that assimilation policies sought to break among Native people. Thank you for telling our stories and keeping them alive," said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland at the welcome ceremony. Haaland is the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, right, visits a plaster art booth on opening day of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, June 26, 2024.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, right, visits a plaster art booth on opening day of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, June 26, 2024.

Crowds attending the opening ceremonies spilled into the rest of the museum and the National Mall, where tents with music, food, and activities were scattered across the grass.

Each day of the festival has dozens of indoor and outdoor events from late morning to early evening. There are musical performances, cooking demonstrations, and speaker discussions. Several events occur at the same time, and most span less than an hour, allowing visitors to pop between tents and performances.

While scheduled events are occurring, the "Festival Kitchen," a tent pitched outside the museum, sells a variety of food, such as Peruvian chicken, chicken empanadas, and Mexican chocolate gelato.

Music, fritters, lacrosse lessons

Despite the ongoing heat, the first day had a range of events.

In the late morning, the Gaudry Boys, a group specializing in folk music, played upbeat tunes on an outdoor stage as audiences tapped their toes against the lawn and bobbed their heads to the music.

Later in the day, Bradley Dry, a Cherokee chef, prepared corn fritters at the Foodways tent, an enclosure designed for cooking demonstrations. As he mixed a batter fragrant and orangey from smoked paprika and dropped the fitters into crackling oil, he spoke about his history with cooking, family, and culture.

"This [recipe] was something that was brought over with my family during the Trail of Tears. We don't have anything written down, but it's all just passed down through stories," he said. The Trail of Tears was a path taken by the Cherokee people when they were forcefully relocated from their homelands and moved to Oklahoma.

Sprinklers water the National Mall on by a sign announcing the Smithsonian Folklife Festival at the National Mall in Washington, June 26, 2024.
Sprinklers water the National Mall on by a sign announcing the Smithsonian Folklife Festival at the National Mall in Washington, June 26, 2024.

Other events from the first day included lacrosse lessons taught by Haudenosaunee tribal grouping athletes, a skateboarding workshop with Imilla Skate, a women's Indigenous skateboarding group, and evening blues piano.

Artistry, such as Tsimshian woodcarving and adornment and body art from Indigenous Brazil, was showcased throughout the day, while a temporary garden for the festival housed native plants.

The remaining days have a similar lineup, with events happening across the National Mall and museum.

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