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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 7, 2002 - Issue 69


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Yodelin' Yup'ik

by Alberto Enriquez Anchorage Daily News
credits: Photo by Bradly J. Boner / Anchorage Daily News
Henry ShavingsFollow the twang of a banjo at the Alaska State Fair, and you'll likely fetch up at a small Native crafts booth, face-to-face with the most unlikely of cowboy yodelers.

Meet Henry Shavings, craftsman, folk musician and recording artist. He sings of "My Home By the Bering Sea" with a voice so irrepressibly sunny, one might think he had his own private Arizona tucked somewhere under his left breast pocket. When he launches into "You Are My Sunshine," it's near-impossible not to sing along.

Shavings was born in 1929 in a traditional sod house on Nunivak Island off Alaska's west coast. Ford's Model A was then scarcely a year old. That was also when a radio announcer named Gene Autry was just coming to fame as "Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy."

Shavings carries on the Autry tradition today, singing gospel, country and cowboy tunes and sporting a jaunty blue ball cap that reads "Henry Shavings -- The Singing Fisherman."

A living link to the past, Shavings learned his traditional handicraft skills from his father and grandfather. But the 73-year-old, an active commercial fisherman, is no antiquarian. His crafts run the gamut from laser-scribed audio CDs to stone-scribed baleen storyboards. Everything displayed in his crowded little booth is either made or gathered by Shavings and his wife, Hilma.

"Some people have the wrong idea about the old days," Shavings says. "I tell them, 'Thank God he sent us the white men with the cars that are good for going around Anchorage in and the guns that are good for shooting.' "

He illustrates his commentary with a storyteller's gusto. His hands first steer a weaving path down an imaginary street, then track a phantom game bird down the sights of an invisible long gun. As he speaks, the long folds at the corners of his eyes stretch happily around the polished apple smoothness of full, brown cheeks.

"My father and my grandfather told me that if I wanted to have a good life, I would have to stay away from the bad," he says. "No alcohol, no smoking, and no womens."

The final injunction is followed by a bemused cackle. It clearly didn't stop him and Hilma from marrying and rearing five children, all of whom have performed together at one time or another as the Henry Shavings Family Band or Henry Shavings Crew. Nowadays, the crew is generally composed of Hilma; their son, Arnold Shavings; Archie Swan of Kivalina; and Davis Normand of Anchorage.

His father and grandfather gave him another commandment that Shavings evidently took to heart: "Even when I get hurt, I still work." Setting aside his banjo, he quickly rolls a loose pant leg past the knee, showing off a bruise as big as a man's palm. "And no doctors," he adds with finality.

True to his words, he takes a quick turn about the stand, straightens a few displays, then settles down to resume carving a loon.

Behind Shavings hang a half-dozen finished masks. All are done in the beautiful Cup'ik style of his island. A sort of exploded view, the masks center on a figure combines animal and human features.

A finished puffin mask features a red, white and black puffin as seen from above, with a human face emerging from its back. On concentric rings, partial views of the puffin and its prey radiate from this central figure: a pair or webbed feet, wings, small fish, a beaked head.

Hanging alongside are a pair of fancy mukluks, their borders finely detailed in fur patchwork, made by Hilma Shavings. She also makes the basketry, such as an open mesh women's greens-gathering basket made of plaited tundra grasses.

Henry Shavings holds the basket out proudly. "It's new. Smell it. We just came back from the island." The basket is heady with the warm smell of cut grass.

Propped nearby are the harpoons that Shavings makes with barbs of walrus ivory, foreshafts of reindeer leg bones and wood main shafts. And on flotsam boards, big and small, he translates the scrimshawed stick figures that were the first writing of the Yup'ik and Inupiaq storytellers.

"See? His arms are up. He's happy. No rain. Maybe his fish dry tonight." And on a slick black edge of baleen: "His arms are down. He's tired of the rain."

A traditional curved-blade ulu carries a portion of the Great Neck tools trademark. Shavings hacked it and its fellows from a handsaw in genuine waste-not-want-not fashion.

"Eskimo women love these for skinning fish," he proclaims. "Even some white men buy them for cutting up garlic and onions."

Shavings says he first heard live cowboy yodeling while traveling through the Southwest with a friend.

"I came home and tried to do it. But I couldn't at first. I had to loosen my throat."

The folk roots of cowboy yodeling are obscure but genuine. Some writers say those roots go back as far as the mid-1800s, to contacts between Irish and English settlers, passing through Appalachia, and Pennsylvania Dutch farmers. At any rate, it's certainly not a latter-day Hollywood or commercial radio invention.

But radio did carry that tradition to Hilma Shavings, who says she first heard cowboy yodeling broadcast out of Nome on Armed Forces Radio broadcasting in the 1950s. Back in those days, they used to play a largely country format with artists like Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline.

When Hilma Shavings' work at a tribal self-government conference later took her to Nashville in 2000, the couple's mutual love of country music prompted her husband to tag along. During that week, he fell in love with the banjo and set aside his rhythm guitar to teach himself banjo out of a book.

"In the long house, we had only the Eskimo drum," he says, shaking out his thick-fingered hand and joyously strumming "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers."

Beginning in the 1960s, when the children were young, they sang as a family in churches all over the Alaska Bush -- in Nome, Kivalina, Bethel, Barrow and Fairbanks. Eventually, they moved to Anchorage, the children grew up, and the couple were joined by other "Crew" members.

How to catch the Shavings sound? You don't need to go far. His recordings are on sale at his booth at the state fair. And the crew still performs at 7 p.m. most Tuesdays on the fifth floor of the Alaska Native Medical Center.

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