When Alicia Garcia signed up to learn how to make a traditional qaspeq, she never expected to discover a connection to her heritage.
First Person is a series that highlights the voices and experiences of Our People. This as-told-to feature is based on an interview with an individual who has achieved success with the support of CITC programs and services.
Alicia: I was raised by my grandmother and mother in Wasilla as a kid, but later I lived with my dad. My dad moved around a lot, so as a teenager, I went to a lot of high schools — four different schools in four different states. We lived in Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, and Missouri, and we moved around mostly because of my dad’s work.
I wasn’t able to graduate with my class because of things that were going on in my life; my mother had passed away in 2014, and my grandmother passed away soon after.
I’ve been trying to get my GED for a while, since I was 17. Now I’m 21. I knew I wanted to further my education, and I had never taken advantage of the resources available to my Native corporation, Bering Strait. My family referred me to CITC, and the first thing I did was enroll in GED prep classes.
Julie: Alicia is very smart and also very no-nonsense. For the GED, she came in and tested at a certain level — then she surprised us all by passing one of her GED exams with little studying and little preparation. She just sat down, took it, and passed it — voila! She has the strength and smarts to do that again and again until she earns her GED.
She’s not shy about asking questions, and she’s very goal-oriented. She’s willing to learn both in her academic life and in her personal life.
Alicia: Then I got connected to Life Skills Workshops, and that’s where I learned to make my own qaspeq — in Inupiaq, we call it atikluk. It was really meaningful for me to learn the traditional way of making a qaspeq, and to choose the material and the pattern to speak to my personality. I ended up making two with the help of Georgianna Moses.
Georgianna: Alicia is the same age as my daughters, so I felt immediately protective of her. When she signed up for her workshop cohort, she was the only one who came, so we would often sit quietly together, and I would assist her when she needed it.
When I was growing up, my grandmother always told stories when she made things. On winter days, when it was cold and snowing, my grandmother would come over and bring a big garbage bag of beach grass, and the women would sit and make grass baskets and tell stories about life in my grandmother’s day and age, when she was young. Now, I always feel like I need to tell stories when I’m creating something.
Alicia: When my grandfather passed away in 2019, it left me without any of my ancestors, and I felt cut off from my Native heritage. My mother had been a member of the Bering Strait Corporation and was adopted into a Tlingit and Haida dance group.
As a kid, I remember eating dried fish and blueberries. My grandmother used to cook silvers, red salmon, or king salmon for me to eat. I missed my childhood, when we would four-wheel through the trails of Wasilla and Palmer or pick berries or flowers with my aunties.
“Each thread felt like another connection to my ancestors.”
Georgianna: Alicia was very enthusiastic about reconnecting with her culture, and making the qaspeq was her first step, to my understanding, in doing that. I was really grateful and happy for her, and I wanted to help as much as I could.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family where I had my mom and dad and grandmother, and they all taught me our way of life. When I teach Life Skills workshops, that’s what I want to give people — a connection to their culture.
Alicia: It meant a lot to sit with Georgianna and talk about my family while I learned to make my qaspeq. I feel like it was a very spiritual experience because a month before taking the class, I found out that I was pregnant. I wanted my family to be here — I couldn’t share my pregnancy with my grandma and my mom, and I didn’t have another female to guide me through my pregnancy.
As I made my qaspeq, I was always thinking of my family and of making them proud. Each thread felt like another connection to my ancestors.
Georgianna: We talked about how different families have certain patterns, like a family crest or a family design, that they make. So, if something should happen and someone found their clothing, they would know which family it belonged to by the design.
Alicia: Georgianna told me stories about her daughters. I admired her stories about her heritage and family. Each lesson I would learn something new about Yup’ik heritage or language. Although I am Inupaiq, Georgianna and my mother share the same last maiden name, Moses. Although we’re not related, learning some of her words made me feel like she was serving as an Elder for me in my journey.
Georgianna: I know there are words that are similar in both languages. But I’m so glad to be able to help someone to reconnect with their culture even in a small way. Nowadays, we see how easy access of technology can separate us, and how we are slowly losing our connections with our culture and our Elders, so I’m really happy to know that Alicia is making an effort to keep her culture alive.
Alicia: I’m still doing GED classes. My goal is to finish and earn my GED before my baby arrives in April 2021.
I plan to keep the experience I’ve had at CITC alive by passing my new knowledge to the next generation. I’m now set to give my son his very own traditional, handmade qaspeq one day. I want to give him a childhood like I once had as a young girl, too, including traditional food I’ve learned about this year, varieties of akutaq and baked halibut. I’m still in the process of inheriting all the things that come from the heart of Alaska.