Phillip Kilirnguq Blanchett and Qacung Qacungatarli Blanchett are best known as founders of the Inuit band Pamyua. While they’re lovingly called “Alaska’s most famous Inuit band,” the brothers have made it clear from the beginning that their Blackness is equally as much a part of their art as their Native identity. That clarity comes from their dad who is from Philadelphia.
“He worked really hard at instilling pride in being Black when we were young boys and as we became Black men,” said Qacung. He was that force teaching us what it meant to be Black.”
Growing up in the hub of Bethel could have been isolating. They were some of the few Black people that most in their community knew. They experienced instances of racism like being called the N-word by people in the village, and when people referred to outcrops of tundra as “n****r heads.” But they say it was more complicated than that.
“It was different for us because it was in the village and it wasn’t from a place of white supremacy, it was more a reflection of ignorance, curiosity and teasing.” said Phillip. He said their parents gave them context to understand the origin of the ignorance and treatment.
“It was not the way of our people. These are not their words, these are words that are being echoed from another culture that is not your culture,” Phillip said.
“We were able to have a certain level of understanding when dealing with the diversity of culture. It helped me be a lot more compassionate to understand that racial stuff is complex but we can get through it if we want to,” Qacung said.
While they stood out, the brothers noticed similarities between their cultures including coming from large families where everyone had a role and distinct respect for elders and ancestors. And, they say, they’ve come to see the similarities in the experiences.
“We come from cultures where you can feel like an underdog. We were raised like we had to fight for our identity and that exposed us to humility and what it takes to be a minority and how you’re supposed to respect and honor yourself,” said Phillip. “That gave us a sense of something to fight for but it’s a shame that we had to fight for it.”
“Black people, Indigenous people, we have fully realized the cumulative effects of what has happened with our communities. The banning of our languages, the banning of our songs, our dances, our names, our ceremonies, our religion. It’s the same with Black people that have been brought here. We are all part of this narrative,” said Qacung. “We have these shared histories and shared narratives that we’re trying to change.”
Part of that change is looking forward to the day places like downtown Anchorage and other urban centers respect the diversity of the community and the different cultures that exist there. They hope mixed race children’s realities won’t be as hard because they’ll come to own and be proud of their experiences: past, present and future.
“My hope is that for Black Americans, Alaskans, for us to understand the difference between assimilation, colonization, and real spirituality,” said Phillip. “Our ancestral prayers are alive. We can honor them now, we can honor them forever, and that power — that’s something no one can take away.”