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An Ainu ‘homecoming’ for journeying Navajo

by Everett Kennedy Brown

When Marcus Mose, a Native American from the Navajo Nation and an assistant language teacher in Gonohe, Aomori Prefecture, visited the popular Ainu musician Kano Oki in Hokkaido this November, it was like a journey home.

Walking with Oki through the sacred Ainu land along the Ishikari River on the outskirts of the city of Asahikawa, Mose felt like he was among family. “Some people need scientific evidence of some connection between our two cultures,” Mose says. “But for me, I feel it in my heart. It is there in the way Oki moves when he walks. I felt it as soon as I stepped into his house. It was like meeting a distant uncle I haven’t seen in a long time.”

Kano Oki, whose innovative blend of Ainu and world music has brought him international recognition, invited the 26-year-old ALT to visit him in Hokkaido upon hearing of Mose’s interest in Ainu culture.

“Meeting Oki helped me pick up an important piece of the puzzle in unraveling the story of my ancestors’ journey,” says Mose. “Over 500 years ago my people migrated down from Alaska to the American southwest. In the more distant past, they’d crossed the Bering Straits from Siberia. For years I’ve had the idea to find some common ground between the Ainu and Navajo peoples.”

Oki, who had spent several months with Navajo friends on a reservation in Arizona while working in the United States during the early 1990s, knew just what Mose was looking for. In his studio he played for Mose a recording of an Ainu elder chanting a sacred prayer. To Mose’s surprise it sounded strikingly familiar.

“It was the same rhythm as those of Navajo medicine men,” says Mose, who, while a student at Weber State University in Utah, apprenticed for two years as a medicine man. “My uncle wanted me to be a medicine man. He taught me in the oral tradition. But memorizing the sacred songs and prayers and the demands of self control on top of my university studies put too much stress on my mind,” says Mose.

Talking with Oki, Mose also learned that the Ainu word for grandfather, eka-shi, sounded similar to shi-che, the word for grandfather in the Navajo language. He also discovered that the Ainu peace pipe ceremony bore similarities to the Navajo ceremony. Their conversation also turned to bears. “The bear is a sacred animal in both our cultures,” explains Mose, “The tradition of smearing bear fat on baby boys to give them strength is something we both share.”

Mose first learned about the Ainu people as a college freshman. During school breaks he escorted foreign exchange students at his college to the Navajo Nation where they experienced home-stays with local families. “I wanted them to look beyond the tourist image of Indians and see how Navajo people really live,” says Mose.

One exchange student was a Japanese woman from Hokkaido. She was the first to tell Mose about the indigenous people of Japan. “When she told me about the Ainu I was surprised,” says Mose. “From that day I wanted to know more about their culture.”

With limited research resources available at his college, Mose’s new Japanese friend recommended that he go to Japan, where he could work teaching English. He discovered the JET program via the Internet, and saw it as an excellent opportunity to pursue his interest.

Now, in his second year in the JET program, Mose spends much of his free time researching Ainu history and studying the Ainu language. He has discovered that many of the local place names around Aomori were originally Ainu. The neighboring town of Noheji is one example. The name comes from the Ainu word nopetji, meaning marsh land.

“I’ve found that even the names of some of my students have Ainu origins,” remarks Mose. “One student’s name is Horonai. This is a very old place name [for an area] near Lake Towada. It means ‘big river’ in Ainu. When I told my student that, most probably, her ancestors were Ainu, a spark of recognition went off in her. She became curious to know more about the Ainu and Jomon [ancient Japanese] culture.”

As part of his work as an assistant language teacher, Mose organized an Internet exchange program between his Japanese students and those at Monument Valley High School, his alma mater, in Monument Valley, Utah. The aim of the program, according to Mose, is not only to provide an opportunity for his students to improve on their English skills, but to broaden their awareness of the cultural diversity in the U.S.

“My students are surprised to know that we have our own nation and the Navajo language is taught in our schools,” says Mose. In his classes he also shows a video he filmed that shows the daily life of people of the Navajo Nation. Scenes shot at his high school, set amid a backdrop of high mesas and the surrounding desert of Monument Valley, inspire awe among his Japanese students.

What are Mose’s plans for the future? “It’s time to get home and help my people,” he says. “I am now a man and it is important for me to make sure that our elders have blankets to keep warm at night and that our babies have full tummies.

“While in Japan I’ve also found another mission,” he adds. “And that is someday to complete the journey overland to my people’s distant homeland in Mongolia.”