From Tautirut to Ch’dudnałyun

By Ruth Łchav’aya K’isen Miller and Elissa Opfer
Photographs by Jessica Hays

Growing a new instrument of healing

Carved Instrument Portrait

Click here to hear the Ch’dudnałyun

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“One thing I want to say about research is that there is a motive. I believe the reason is emotional because we feel. We feel because we are hungry, cold, afraid, brave, loving, or hateful. We do what we do for reasons, emotional reasons. That is the engine that drives us. That is the gift of the Creator of Life. Life feels... Feeling is connected to our intellect and we ignore, hide from, disguise, and suppress that feeling at our peril and at the peril of those around us. Emotionless, passion-less, abstract, intellectual research is a goddamn lie, it does not exist. It is a lie to ourselves and a lie to other people. Humans-feeling, living, breathing, thinking humans- do research. When we try to cut ourselves off at the neck and pretend an objectivity that does not exist in the human world, we become dangerous, to ourselves first, and then to the people around us.”

- Hampton (Chickasaw Tribe of Oklahoma) (1995)

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In the summer of 2023, we–Ruth Łchav’aya K’isen Miller and Elissa Opfer– were each awarded an Artist Fellowship through the Creative Residency Program at Chulitna Lodge on the shores of Qizjeh Vena, or Lake Clark. Ruth is a Dena’ina activist, educator and artist whose ancestors are buried at Qizhjeh, or Kijik, about two miles along the shoreline from Chulitna Lodge, and she was the first Alaska Native artist to be awarded this Fellowship. Elissa is of German and English descent, a professional luthier with an archaeology background based in New Orleans, specializing in the repair and restoration of non-Western cultural instruments.

We co-wrote this narrative to introduce a new artifact to the world–the ch’dudnałyun, the first string instrument to be made of fish skin– which grew from an initial clash of ideologies, a deep and vulnerable learning experience, and ultimately a beautiful friendship. This is the commentary of this instrument, the story through which the ch’dudnałyun has been brought to life. It exists within the emergent culture of our collaboration, between our two backgrounds, and in a culmination of our shared knowledge as luthier and Indigenous artist. This essay is not a trial for Elissa, but rather a vulnerable insight into the learning journey through which we accompanied one another, and the beautiful healing and creation that emerged from it, in hopes that it will embolden other brave conversations between readers around cultural appropriation, research practices, harvesting protocol, cross-cultural collaboration, and healing.

Elissa:

Ever since I began working with musical instruments, I have felt pulled towards the traditional side of the luthier craft: taking an old unplayable instrument and giving it the love it needs to make the sound it once sang years ago in its prime, or tending to an instrument of a musician who keeps the sounds of their ancestors alive. Traditional instruments and the music that they have made are the lifeblood of cultural expression. It is the voices of those who came before us, passed down through generations, singing the stories, the history, and feelings of love, pain, the purest joy, and the deepest sorrows. We can feel what our ancestors felt through the melodies and the unique sounds of the musical instruments that they created and cherished.

Unfortunately, I have come to realize how rare are the luthiers who can care for these kinds of music-makers. As these instruments are important to our world, so too are those who make and preserve them for us. If traditional luthiers die out, the unfortunate reality is that the instruments will then also be lost. I have focused my own luthier practice around tending to these instruments, but at the same time, I have been working on formulating ways to help advocate for the preservation of the knowledge of the makers of these instruments. In this though, I have found that the instruments most in danger of being lost are those beyond mainstream music, and beyond classical and Western traditions. This is where this story of growth and understanding truly begins for me.

In preparation for the Chulitna fellowship, I wanted to work with an instrument that was personal to Alaska, so that I might connect to it through being present on the land. In my search for such an instrument, I first read the word ‘tautirut,’ also known as the lost Inuit violin. The instrument is thought to be already lost, and I was seduced by this challenge to reconstruct it and offer it to its cultural community. But then, a month into my research I came to a crumbling realization that the tautirut wasn’t even from Alaska at all, but of the Inuit peoples of Baffin Island, and Northern Quebec–the complete opposite side of the continent from Alaska! After time in contemplation of how to move forward with this new information, I decided that, though it was not of the land I would be on, the tautirut was still deserving of my efforts and I would continue my work.

Ruth:

“Can you help her buy caribou sinew?” I was flooded with concern–Who is this white woman who wants sinew and what for? Does she know what she’s dealing with? Can you even buy that? I don’t think anyone should be able to. I was instantly protective of our vejex (caribou), the Indigenous knowledge that was attempting to be accessed, and the spiritual protocol that is necessary to respect throughout working with traditional materials. But I bit back my instant reluctance and considered the social ramifications my anger might have on my own opportunities as an artist in this community we were about to share. “I am happy to be in touch with them via cellphone but I won't be able to give contacts or resources that violate my cultural principles…But always room for kindness and exploration!” I opted to reply, only grating slightly against the need to police my tone. I was indeed triggered by the long history of outsiders coming into our communities, extracting knowledge and materials, and abusing them without ever engaging in Indigenous collaboration, protocols, or relationships.

Elissa soon reached out with a respectful and self-aware message sharing about her vision to reconstruct the tautirut, an instrument tied to the Canadian Inuit community of Iqaluit and made of traditional Inuit materials. She proposed building the Canadian Inuit instrument on Dena’ina land while in Alaska. Through her words, I could feel her genuine eagerness to approach this work with respect and sensitivity, and she invited my guidance. And yet, the more I read the more uncomfortable I became with her approach.

This conversation on artifacts engaged a complex history of theft, misconstruction, appropriation, and violence. Indigenous peoples across the North suffered the destruction and attempted annihilation of our cultures and our peoples—only for our languages, cultural objects, practices, and regalia to be taken from us, exoticized in museums, and continually appropriated for profit. That violence is still very real today and both myself along with other community members are active in conversations about repatriation, cultural knowledge, and curatorial practices that are necessary for healing.

In my lengthy reply, we touched on many aspects: the requisite for permission from the community and what true consent means, the obligation for the inclusion of cultural context and commentary, and the cultural genealogy and spirit of such an instrument. It was important to me to emphasize that the idea that an object–that is somehow void of culture, singular, and only physical–is a Western ideology that excludes the basis of Indigenous being—relationship and reciprocity. Within our Indigenous cultures, our objects each are imbued with story and spirit, carrying the energy and thoughts of those who made it, the animals that gave materials, the ways it was used, and who has touched it. They have a life of their own that is spiritual, energetic, and can both be impacted and impactful— our cultures teach us approaches that align with this relationship, for instance only thinking good thoughts when you are beading or tanning hides because those energies will go into the “object” you are making. Cultural objects have a life force that must be taken care of and respected. There is no cultural object that can be removed from the cultural context.

However, the crux of my discomfort was the place where she proposed to create the tautirut—my Dena’ina homelands. This site is not just a lodge and an artist retreat, but a living land with 30,000 years of Dena’ina history and culture, so any materials sourced from there and from Alaska would be part of the story and part of the relationship with Iqaluit. A traditional teaching that I needed to voice was that the creation of any cultural object begins with the land that grew them with the animals and plants that trade their lives, it begins with prayer and permission from the non-human kin themselves and is reinforced with each step of the process. It is important to bring awareness to the intense and extremely laborious work that goes into making traditional materials such as hides, skins, and sinew. As a hunter, fisher, gatherer, and traditional hide-tanner myself, I can attest to how much time, energy, and labor goes into our traditional practices. For instance, faced with a simple question about sourcing caribou sinew— the creation of sinew is intense and I have not encountered anyone in the many communities here that I am a part of that continues to make it in a traditional way. You first hunt the animal and receive permission to take its life, then the sinew that is used is ligaments and tissue which you harvest and split, you then dry the sinew, and then split the fibers, and roll them together on your thighs until a thin rope is made, which takes quite some time. Elissa could not have made the tautirut technically the way it would have been made, and to build an instrument of foreign materials with some sort of scientific objectivity would have been facsimile, and would have ignored the subjective cultural implications of those choices.

I wanted to challenge her to reflect and comment on what it means to be a non-Native person doing this work and what that journey is for her personally, as that will be the story of any cultural object she engages with. I posed to her these questions: “In all, the core question for YOU to answer is “Am I the right person to be making this object? Is this work that is mine to do?” and along with that you must bring a willingness to potentially find a “no.” Some other questions that are crucial are “What more can I do to contribute to a healing path for this object and the community I want to be in a relationship with?” “What does this community mean to me?”

I concluded with sympathy that this is not easy, but the point is to create pause and reflect because the alternative is that this Indigenous knowledge continues being taken and exploited by non-Native people. There is an important role for Western researchers and outsiders as they step up as allies to our communities; collaboration is an infinite invitation for reflection, questioning, doubt, and trust-building. Growing and decolonizing means developing a tolerance for discomfort and questions that may not have easy answers. Lastly, I reminded her that this exchange was now part of the history of any instrument she chose to make for this fellowship and that if she moved forward with the tautirut, it would carry our words with it.

Elissa:

I felt immediately defensive. I didn't know her, nor her me, yet her feelings were strong and powerful. Within me arose a mixture of pride, shame, disappointment, embarrassment, and yet, determination to understand. It took me days in deep contemplation to reflect, digest, and come to acknowledge her serious and valid concerns. I knew it was time to listen; I needed to grow in my understanding of what my role was and could be, to become an ally in the healing of the loss of this instrument’s tradition.

I had been trying to recreate something that was already made, but without the ancestral knowledge, the cultural connection, or an understanding of the materials. I was prepared in a technical sense, but not in a relational sense. I realized that objectivity in cultural artifact work is false, and would have been ultimately unhelpful to the community of the tautirut because it would have lacked the cultural aspect which is the whole point. It would have been empty, missing its heart, missing the people and their voice. So when I came to the conclusion that the research of the tautirut was not to be done on this land I realized that the work had found me after all: with my time at Chulitna, I would dedicate myself to reading, learning, and listening about Indigenous research methodologies and how I could be a stronger and more active ally and traditional instrument luthier.

I learned that when it comes to being an outsider researching an Indigenous cultural item, there is so much to consider to ensure that what you are working toward will be genuinely helpful. It is crucial to acknowledge the difference in epistemologies between Indigenous and Western communities. I learned that if you are an outsider with hopes of helping another’s culture, the most important part is to build a relationship with that culture and the land and also be mindful of yourself and your own biases and how that might affect your service. Western researchers believe that the researcher can be completely objective, a feat no person can achieve, less in a political, historical, and cultural craft. Indigenous research is approached through relationality.

One day at Chulitna, I went to help fell dead trees to help provide firewood for the lodge, and I was taught how to harvest a tree. I took into consideration how connected Ruth’s people are to the land and the resources that the land provides–that to use them was not just a matter of need, but there was a deep respect for the trees, the fish, and the animals. I realized that by choosing a tree that spoke to me, cutting it down myself, and processing it by hand, I was building a connection to the woods in a whole new way. I spent time with this tree, as I slowly stripped its bark and came to realize all the different ways this one tree in its entirety could give. All of its parts were useful, gifts to be cherished. I did not yet know the use of this tree, but I knew it was not meant to be firewood. I was waiting for it to speak to me to tell me what it wanted to become.

Soon, I was preparing my notes for my artist’s talk, at which I would present this journey thus far and describe my arc of learning—how the tautirut, Ruth’s instruction, and my research had led me to a beautiful deepening and budding relationship with place that I had not previously imagined. I was thinking of some of Ruth's first words to me: she asked me to consider what it would mean for me to be on her ancestral homelands, and to use the resources that it blesses us with. Then the thought came to mind that maybe, just maybe, she would be interested in collaborating with me. Maybe together we could create a new instrument, one that was inspired by the land, by our individual relationships to the land, and our relationship to each other. I remember rushing immediately down the hill to the feeble wifi to send her a message asking if she would be interested in just that. And to my great joy, she was thrilled about the idea.

I didn't know what we would make together, but now my head was filled with ideas. I began my search for inspiration, by reading books I had brought on the sacred geometry of well-known instruments like the violin, as well as a book that is basically a dictionary of world instruments. I was contemplating how those who had come before us had ever invented a new instrument, what was important for it to function, and how instruments that had come before us, helped to inspire what we would make.

Ruth:

When I arrived back at Chulitna Lodge at Qizhjeh Vena, it was time for fishing. Electricity hummed in the air and we rushed to mend nets and sharpen knives–it is the most exciting time of the year, and as a Dena’ina woman, I prepared to welcome our salmon relatives home. I had started my time at Chulitna in early June and offered our traditional ceremony for a safe and healthy salmon migration back to their natal streams. And now towards the end of the summer, I knew that I wanted to teach the family of Chulitna how reciprocity and prayer must be centered in fishing time. By this point, Elissa and I had grown to know one another as women and had become dear friends. In long conversations, I shared with her about how my people were related to the salmon, and how the art that I had brought to Chulitna for my residency was creating regalia for Salmon Woman who had come to me in dream world. As we fished, I introduced Elissa to our cultural protocol and we discussed the visions that we had of our new instrument.

Elissa:

Watching Ruth in her element, pulling the fish from the lake, and treating them with respect, is when the vision of the instrument's shape came to me. I asked her if she thought that there was any way that we could use a salmon skin to stretch over wood, something akin to how goat and sheep hide is used in banjos and ngonis. She thought for a moment and looked at me and said, we would have to skin it backward to keep the strongest part centered. I was amazed by her immediate insight and instincts. She asked me to go to the crate where the fish that had yet to be processed lay and asked me to pick a fish for our instrument. I brought it to her and watched her calculate in her head how to gut a fish backward to best preserve the skin. It came to her so naturally.

That night she showed me how to scrape the skin and explained the process. I started the process that night for us and she took charge of the skin from there. Leaving me to be able to focus on the design and wooden elements of our instrument. Ruth has a natural connection to the salmon, and through carving this tree I honored my natural connection to wood, one that has been there as long as I can remember. Over days I slowly carved piece by piece of this wood letting the form appear, feeling with my hands and knowing when things felt right, and listened to that instinct.

Ruth:

Witnessing Elissa’s dedication to the ch’bala, or spruce tree, was a healing experience for me and allowed me to fall deeper into trust in our work. I shared with her how every part of the spruce and the salmon should be valued, treated with respect, and used or returned lovingly to the land–Elissa immediately began exploring the use of the sap for resin, the bones of the fish and the fins soon became gifts, we shared the meat of the fish as a meal.

Additionally, we discussed how our thoughts and conversations would go into this instrument–a very important Dena’ina cultural teaching. As we worked we had to understand that every feeling and thought was like whispering a secret and that this instrument would carry those stories forward. We were careful and protective of our work so that it would be clear and personal to our intentional story.

I was amazed at the dedication Elissa showed to the carving of the wood, how each curve and shape was meticulous and planned, based on both the needs of the wood and her vast knowledge of existing string instruments. In conversation, we agreed that it should be shaped similarly to our baqay, or Dena’ina canoe, as we were paddling forwards on a new journey together. As Elissa carved, I worked the skin, using traditional methods that were taught to me by my elder June Pardue, and considering and testing different tanning solutions. I knew that the skin needed to have certain durable qualities that would preserve it, but also allow it to maintain tautness and resonate with vibration.

The magic happened when the two were finally united. The salmon and spruce. If you look at the instrument now it's truly amazing how perfectly the skin fits to the wooden body, any longer the salmon would not have been covered wholly, any shorter, and we would have had to cut down the salmon. It was a combination of our crafts, and a pairing of our different expertise that allowed this instrument to play. We braided the artificial sinew together, adjusted the bridge and pegbox, and decided on two strings: one for each of us, a lower and a higher. We soon heard the first notes, plucked with eager curiosity. The instrument sings beautifully, in haunting deep tones almost like a cello. Finally, with this instrument coming to life, we understood that our journey was a story that must be told, and protected. We have named this moment, this story, this instrument “qeghdninłyun,” a Dena’ina phrase that translates to “it grew through it;” and we say nułyah (“it is growing”) for all that is yet to come.

We have created agreements about the use and role of the instrument; that it will never be played for an audience without context and explanation, that none other than us two will play it without mutual consent, and that we will continue to tend to the nułyah and deepen our relationship with this new songmaker. We hope to compose a Dena’ina song that shares this story and can be played on the nułyah, as songs are our oldest form of storytelling. Its use will be to carry on the story of this healing journey– a story of deepening allyship to Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and traditional ecological knowledge, a story of the Dena’ina land that shaped this instrument. It will sing a song of the healing necessary to move through trauma, towards learning, and to brighter and more beautiful collaboration yet to come.  ■

Construction of the Instrument:

The neck is made of ch’vala- spruce tree- that was felled on Dena’ina lands by Elissa’s hands which then designed and carved the body shape based on her knowledge and expertise with Western string instruments, but inspired by the shape of a Dena’ina baqay, or canoe. The skin that covers the spruce is a sockeye salmon, caught by Elissa and Ruth and prepared according to Ruth’s traditional Dena’ina teachings. The stitching and strings were braided using artificial sinew and as this instrument continues to evolve, they will be replaced by a caribou sinew string and a deer sinew string, to be prepared in the homes of Elissa and Ruth who grew up in a relationship to these animals. We have decided to shield the specifications of the instrument until a time when we may consider reproducing it– not all knowledge is for public consumption.

Acknowledgements:

We extend our deepest gratitude to the family at Chulitna Lodge (chulitnalodge.com) who gave us invaluable support for our process of creation– Mara Bartlett Asenjo, Teon Reid, and Coco Lloyd, with a special big chin’an to Justin Richards for letting us tromp around his woodshop, and Em Black for her pure love of the fish.

We thank Jessica Hays for her beautiful photography and documentation of our process. And ultimately, we thank the Dena’ina stewards of Qizhjeh Vena, both ancestral and contemporary who have allowed us to love and grow on their lands.

Elissa and Ruth’s Recommended Reading List:

  • Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

  • Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods, Shawn Wilson

  • Decolonizing Methodologies, Linda Tuhiwai Smith

  • Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag

  • Cross-Cultural Research Methods in Psychology, Fons J. R, Van de Vijver, edited by David Matsumoto

  • Memory Comes Before Knowledge: Research May Improve if Researchers Remember their Motives, Eber Hampton

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