DG NANOUK OKPIK
“I’ll be the only Inuit in the building,” dg nanouk okpik says in an email, setting up an interview. “I have squinty eyes and dimples.”
When one meets dg (which is pronounced just like it’s spelled: Say the letters d and g), the young poet is quick to smile, revealing those strong dimples. She carries a notebook full of writing (she says she fills a composition book approximately once a month) and launches easily into talks about the nature of writing. She is less quick to talk about her upbringing.
Until 1984, the sixth and each subsequent child of every Inuit family in Alaska was taken from them and put up for adoption. okpik was the sixth child to her Inuit parents in Point Barrow (a traditional whaling village at the northernmost tip of Alaska), so she was placed with an Anglo family in Anchorage.
hough she was not raised with a traditional Inuit lifestyle, she feels her heritage strongly: “It’s almost like a genetic memory,” she says. She is writing back to a culture in which she was born but not raised, and which she is finding again in her adult life (only in the past seven or eight years has she grown to know her blood family closely). She uses her traditional English-language-based education at the Institute of American Indian Arts and now her graduate study at the University of Maine as a subversive attack on the dominant paradigm. “Now I can go back in and create that friction [within English] and create a stopping point where someone can pick up the writing and think, ‘Maybe English is not the only tool, maybe there’s other ways of thinking, maybe there’s an Inuit sensibility that readers know nothing about.’”
okpik describes herself as a hollow bone through which the stories come. Though her language in conversation—and on the page—is full of beauty, she realizes the world is not all beautiful; it is a common misconception of the Native worldview that since it is so tied to nature, it must be beautiful. She references the Glyptapanteles wasp, which lays eggs inside a caterpillar. As the eggs mature, the larvae feed on the bodily fluids of the caterpillar until the caterpillar is finally consumed from the inside and the baby wasps emerge.
“By talking about beautiful things, indigenous people play into a stereotype,” okpik says. “We also don’t have to be an oppressed, post-colonial ‘poor me’—we don’t have to define ourselves; we don’t have to fight that fight.” okpik instead focuses on language and connection with the reader.
“It’s a misnomer that we rub noses,” she says of her people. “We touch our foreheads and noses and breathe the other’s spirit. That’s what I want the reader to come away with.”