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Eye of Awareness- The Inupiaq Symbol of Spirituality Part II

Science and Culture Camp

All too soon, the Sheefish trip was over and I was headed downriver back to the village. The Second part of the residency involved the villagers. Each fall for the past fifteen years, students, elders, teachers, and community members celebrate their interdependence with nature at a Science-Culture Camp. Every morning for two weeks, rain or shine, students from 1-12th grades eagerly climb aboard boats for a fifteen-minute ride to the fish camp. The camp is a hands-on experience where elders pass on generational knowledge to youth.

Left- Second-grade graders Middle- a fish prepared to hang Right- Boat of kids going to camp

The camp was comprised of an old cabin, an outdoor workstation, and a small landing dock on the river. A beginner myself, I was thrown right into the mix of little first graders. I sat next to a beautiful grandmother who demonstrated how to process fish for drying into paniqtuq (a local food staple) and how to use the ulu knife of the Inupiaq. Just like the little kid next to me, I could barely hold an ulu knife. Sitting amongst the elders, the kids and I cleaned fish and ate any eggs that they might hold right on the spot. Raw. I enjoyed it.

Daily, a net set at night was pulled out when the youth arrived, and the process of working with the harvest started again. We ate all the local foods: every fish species and its eggs, seal, walrus, two types of whale, caribou, and seal oil! At lunch, the elders would speak to the youth more formally. I remember a Vietnam war vet named Grant speaking of growing up nomadic, surviving in the harsh climate, and that his clothing was made of animal skins. Daily elders talked about tradition, safety, and survival skills, community ideals, sexual activity, and God.

Elders shared stories and wisdom, youth were taken hunting, and smiles were all around

During the camp, I befriended the arts and culture teacher of the village school Miss Norma Ballot of the black fish clan. She taught the Inupiaq language and focused on bridging their Christian beliefs with traditional spirituality. Norma had a spirit of the highest compassion and was filled with inspiration. She was totally dedicated to teaching the lost language of her people to the youth and she did this in a fun and creative way. The children loved her as did all of the community. Her energy was endless; it was easy to see it flying from her as she sped through the camp bringing life to all she encountered.

“Do you know the Inupiaq symbol for spirituality?” Norma would ask each group of kids at lunch. Most didn’t know. “It’s called the eye of awareness.” She’d say as she drew a circle with a dot in it. “The circle within a circle,” she’d explain. “Everything is there, everything is one, everything is together.” She would then go on to explain the interconnected nature of their culture, how important it was to be united within the family and within the village, and mostly to respect nature as a human being and part of the family.

Being artists, Norma and I really hit it off. After camp, she invited me to her home for a few nights of deep artistic philosophy, storytelling, and creation. Like my time spent on the river with the boys, Norma filled my ears with magical stories of the past. It seemed that Selawik was indeed a place beyond the normal realms of existence. A place where the metaphysical world met with the physical. Norma’s stories also included artifacts of which, he had hundreds.

On our second night together, the fire crackling, she began pulling out interesting items. As an artist, she made ulu knives, traditional masks, and clothing. She brought more and more items out to show me and it became very clear that Norma was a gatherer of the unexplainable, the beautiful, and the rare.

Her home was a simple cabin. In the kitchen, from the ceiling, hung drying caribou meat, of which she grabbed a chunk and offered some to me. Suddenly a baby cried, and she jumped up to tend to the infant. A grandmother many times over, she was raising one of her grandsons who was just seven months old. The matriarch for her family and the entire village, she carried the light for the ancestors with her, and that night she shared it with me.

While gnawing on delicious caribou jerky, Norma started the evening by presenting a rather interesting stone. It was about fist size and had been sliced like bread. She had found it on the tundra, and of course, snatched it right up. The rock was perfectly cut, I am not even sure a laser could do such a fine cut, as there was no space in between the layers. Sliced into four pieces, the artifact looked like something you would find in Egypt. She asked me if I had any idea about how this could be done. I suggested that it was maybe a laser, but that it seemed to be in the same category as artifacts from the sacred places of the world and was perhaps not so easily explained. She agreed and said that the energy contained within it was very strong and its origins must also be of such power.

One of Norma's mystery pieces- a rock sliced perfectly that she found on the tundra

She continued with more items, one particularly interesting one was the rib of a baby mammoth. Yes, Norma had dinosaur bones, lots of them. She was a gatherer of beautiful, curiosities and it was very clear that she was the holder of the undefined and items of the unknown.

Norma with the mammoth rib

Before I left, she gifted me the mammoth rib which measured over one meter in length. As she placed the ancient bone in my hand, some energetic transmission occurred. Suddenly, I had a vision of the sculpture that I would create for the refuge in return for my residency.

Norma then walked me to my cabin as the northern lights danced above us. The energies from the aurora were almost touchable. I had been around the northern lights plenty, yet it was on that night that I truly felt their essence.

Northern lights

Returning back to my home, inspired and filled with the energy of the north, I immediately began creating the sculpture I would donate to the refuge. The vision clear in my mind, I set about to complete the symbol of Inupiaq spirituality: The Eye of Awareness.

Using wood to create the main circle I began to channel the feelings, stories, and joy that I had experienced during my residency into what would be the outer circle of the piece. The inner dot I then made from selenite, one of my favorite crystals. Selenite is soft and shapable, and I work with it often. The white stone is said to be associated with the higher realms of existence, perhaps what some would consider the angelic realms or simply higher levels of consciousness.

I then added a third circle to the symbol, between the dot and the outer perimeter, I carved out the river systems that intertwine throughout the refuge. Within this circle, the circle of the physical realms, I placed the totems of the area: wolf, bear, sheefish, human, eagle, and salmon. Adding a bit of fluff, I put in a tuft of caribou hair in a fourth circle, a single line between the central dot and the physical realm. The hair represents the shift from the energetic to the physical and back from the tangible realm into that of the metaphysical.

The final touch was the mammoth rib. Split in two, the rib was divided into equal halves. As I mounted the ribs to create the circle of the ancients, I once again felt the electrified sensation that I experienced when Norma placed the artifact in my hand. The energies set, I boxed the sculpture to send to Kotzebue where it was hung at the Fish and Wildlife arctic headquarters.

Let me know if you get to see it and send me a picture!

“Eye of Awareness” created by Holly Gittlein in 2015


Wandering waters sculpt the land bringing bones of the ancients to the surface. Migrating caribou, sheefish, and wandering wolf live with Inupiaq, bear, and eagle. Sharing their knowledge and love for the land, all coming from the same “Eye” and its “Awareness” of the ancient connection, the unity of all things, and the selfless recognition that the other is you.

Materials: Mammoth rib, wood, selenite, steel, caribou fur, magic, love.

Dedicated to Norma Ballot of the Black Fish clan of Selawik Village, Alaska. Thank you for the bone, the kinship, and your teachings.

Map of Alaska showing Selawik National Wildlife Refuge in purple

Holly with her first sheefish

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