I was looking out the small, ovular window still seeing nothing but a dismally dark shade of white. I looked forward and saw that the altimeter located on a console about four yards ahead of where I was seated indicated that we were flying only about 150 feet above sea level and were loosing altitude at an uncomfortably high speed. I pondered the point between 150 feet and 0 feet elevation where the airport stood, loosing confidence in my flight crew with ever tick of the altimeter. I once again peered out of the window of the passenger/cargo Beechcraft airplane and was pleased to see that it had descended below the cloud ceiling, that had to have been well under 100 feet. The tundra below was green instead of the stereotypical white that is associated with the Alaskan wild. The landscape was disappointingly dull, with shadows and details being refused by the translucent sky. As these thoughts were occurring, the plane was only about twenty seconds from landing. Before touching ground, I took a look at exactly what I was approaching: there was the small, packed-gravel runway, the airport "terminal" (in fact, just a small enclosed area), the road, and then a vast expanse of tundra. Then I, the one other passenger, and the cargo behind us were all thrust forward gently as the plane was directed to a safe landing. I got out of the plane’s door and stepped on to the dark gravel. The temperature was a cool and humid 48 , and the chill was aided in entering my body with the realization on my part that I had just entered a world so radically different from the one in which I live that my culture was irrelevant as I entered the unknown world of Native Alaska.
I was met at the airport by two Roman Catholic priests, both of whom I would spend much time discussing curiosities of mine and other items relating to my studies in Alaska. Father Peterson, and tall man with all the features Santa Clause, was on his way to spend some time in Nome, the site of our later meeting. Father Mackey was there to receive us and bring us the few miles into the village of St. Marys. Outside the old van in which we were being transported was absolutely vast tundra. There were rolling, lush hills partially covered by an extremely low cloud ceiling. After a few minutes, we went up a small rise and began to descend. It was not long before shanties began to emerge and soon the entire town of St. Marys was clearly visible below us.
Looking down at this town, I realized for certain how far from home I really was. At seventeen years old and having just graduated from high school, I was exceedingly well- traveled, having visited on the order or a dozen foreign countries and have explored my of my own country. Nonetheless, I knew that I was approaching an profoundly different culture. I was, in essence, a boy being immersed into foreign, third world country. Moreover, I was coming alone.
The name of the village is St. Marys. It consists of about 400 residents, and its population comprised almost exclusively of Natives descent. The town has two stores, one restaurant, a post office, a school, a cemetery, some shanties, some government-provided housing, some fishing boats, and little else. It lies on the Andreafski River, a river perhaps the size of the Potomac which is a mere tributary to the mighty Yukon River, located less than a mile down river. The roads in the town, all dirt, are characteristically Native, winding around in circles, curves, loops, and are the opposite of a grid system. Approximately half of the houses were the same and had been provided by the federal government. They were small, but comfortable. The others were little more than sheds that had been built from scraps. Though these houses struggle to serve their fundamental purpose, there was little improvement possible: there was no wood in the surrounding tundra, so everything had to be shipped in and used and reused. The temperature ranges from the 80s in the summer on a very warm day to the -60 in the dead of winter. When I was there, the temperature was in the 60s, for the most part, although one day, it stayed in the 40s. While I was there, the sky was almost exclusively overcast, and it would drizzle for unbearably long stretches. Though there were some scrumptious summer days, drizzle is all to common for the region. Despite the sogginess, though, it rarely rains In fact, most of Alaska is an Arctic desert. A further phenomenon more widely known about the area is that in the weeks surrounding the summer solstice, it is rarely too dark to read outside, and the sun only dips below the horizon briefly. The ground in St. Marys and much of Alaska in the zone where in the permafrost is discontinuous. Permafrost is ground that has been frozen for at least two years. It is a great nuisance to architects and builders. Evident in most houses constructed on permafrost are cracks in the walls ranging from hairline cracks to gaps measured in inches. The purpose of the Alaska Pipeline’s zigzagging construction was to allow for this ever-present phenomenon. Unfortunately for the residents of Alaska, they do not possess the same engineering resources as the constructions workers of the pipeline had at their disposal.
I entered the symmetrical house made of wood painted a dark shade of brown that was supported in all four corners by cinder blocks and wood stilts. I took the stairs up to the front door. (I also had the option of walking up the mysterious inclined handicap ramp). Through the front door was an small room used for storage and as a buffer against the frigid winter air. I passed through the next door into a dark but cozy room. Within were two figures nearly camouflaged by their stillness and lack of enthusiasm. I was first introduced to Rudy who was about five and a half feet tall and naturally well insulated from the winter air. He shook my hand and smiled, but our eyes did not meet. We stood and examined one another. I smiled and pretended as if I were looking around the room, trying to buy time for some kind of a vocal response. As my eyes wondered, I saw an old man sitting in a wheelchair. His had the weathered skin and the wise eyes of an elder in the community. I shook his hand and introduced myself. He looked at me, but did not speak; Father Mackey explained that he was mute. I wondered the words he formed within his mind. It was explained to me that he was called Grampa and that Grandma was to arrive later in the evening: she was out playing bingo with other ladies of the village.
After I got settled in and a few words were exchanged and father Mackey departed, it was agreed that it would be a good idea for me to take a short walk outside. I complied, desiring to map out my surroundings. I walked out of the house. It was still totally overcast and drizzling. The climate was cool and wet. As I walked around, I saw several houses similar to that in which I was to reside. They were houses provided by the government. As the road came closer and approached the river, I saw more of the government houses and even more shanties. As I walked further down the foreboding lane, I noticed my solitude. The first two shadowy figured that I saw sitting in an alcove of their house were not visible in any good detail and were situated about a hundred feet from me. Then one of them spoke: “Hey white boy…look, who’s that white boy?” An uncomfortable chilled permeated my body. Though the men were clearly drunk, I was scared that their internal sentiment was being eased out by their beverages. As the initial feeling of being alone and unwelcomed subsided, I began to consider the men to be unjust and racist, not fully comprehending the history of their situation. As I picked up my pace and went to explore another area of the village, my spirits were low and I, more than any other time in my life, wanted to go home. I retrospect, my trip was worth the initial agony, but this is not to say that my early troubles were negligible.
I stayed in St. Mary’s for just short of a week and learned a great deal about the way of life of natives there. One clear objective of mine was to find the origins of white influence on the Eskimo culture. After leaving St. Mary’s, I found myself interviewing the vacationing Father Peterson on this subject. He described the process to me by outlining five “rushes”(as in ‘gold rush’). After living uninfluenced for between 15,000 to 50,000 years, the first of these was the fur trading rush. This rush occurred when Alaska was Russian territory. It was during this period that Eskimos had their first and least severe contact with white men. Depending on where they lived, this first contact might have occurred as early as 1750 or as late as this century during an entirely different rush. The effect of this contact was quite minor. Some goods were exchanged, but only on a small scale. Some Natives experienced their first taste of liqueur, for instance, but only a few. No trade was established. During this time, whalers also began to pursue their occupation in and around Alaska and came in contact with Natives. Many of these traders were devout to the Russian Orthodox religion and passed their beliefs on to Natives. The Russian Orthodox missionaries were the first to go into Alaska and their success can still be seen today in Alaska in the form or the onion dome churches that still exist there. But the Russian legacy also left behind smallpox, which killed large percentages of some communities. In addition, there was intermarriage. In many small villages including St. Marys, one can find Natives with Russian last names.
In 1867, America bought what the New York Times referred to as a “sucked orange” in a purchase that was dubbed Seward’s Folly. This change of hands had no significant effect on Natives at the time, and few of them knew about it. The same rush was still on, but now Yankee fur and whale traders began to brave Alaska and trade increased marginally. And so was the state of Alaska until the end of the 19th Century.
And then came the boom of the great Alaskan gold rush. Gold would be discovered in a town and prospectors would flock there by the thousands. They would suck a town dry, the excitement would subside, and then gold would be discovered elsewhere. Gold fever would hop from town to town. The highlights of the Alaskan gold rush were its presence beginning in Juneau then Fairbanks, Dawson, and Nome. Though the gold rushes occurred where Natives tended not to be, the influence was still the greatest to date.
Trade became much more extensive with the influx of great numbers of whites. Schools were set up. Natives were allotted the right to property. It was made clear to Natives that the tranquil life of the Native Alaskan, dating back millennia, was over. This fact was becoming clearer with every rush.
The gold rush petered out ten to fifteen years after it started, but towns were established, Alaska was known, and its dynamics had changed permanently. During the 1940s and 50s, war was on the mind of all Americans, including Alaskans, and in Alaska, including Natives. Alaska was both bombed and occupied by the Japanese. Many Eskimos nobly forgot their differences with the Yankees and fought for their country. They formed Eskimo scout battalions and, with their knowledge of the land, bravely fought to maintain the security of America.
With the dawn of the Cold War, Alaska was recognized for the vital strategic interest that she was. In 1958, Alaska became a state. The military also acted accordingly. Large Air Force bases were built. Radar lines were formed. In addition to the large military influence, the realities of the Cold War kept the residents of Little Diamede from seeing their families in Big Diamede because these two islands in the Bering Sea where on different sides of the Iron Curtain.
On the brighter side, just as blacks were given more of the respect that they deserved as a result of their valiant participation in World War II, the Natives were rewarded for their help. Schools and stores were set up, many with the help of the new Bureau of Indian Affairs, which had the money that the state lacked to pursue such ventures. Natives were given claim to their land. Churches and missions were becoming every more common with more white influence. This military rush lasted through the end of the Cold War. Large bases still exist in Fairbanks and Anchorage, primarily because of Alaska’s strategic importance as a major geographic center of world-wide air defense. In 1969, oil was discovered in the Prudoh Bay area. This was a huge find and created a rush which, like all the others, was very relevant to the lives of Native Alaskans but marked the first time that they were truly recognized and dealt with civilly, however selfish the reasons. Oil had been found in Prudoh Bay and a pipeline was the desired way of transporting the oil 800 miles across Alaska. The problem for the developers was that much of this land belonged to the Natives and was used by the animals that they hunted for grazing and was otherwise vital to their well being. On December 18, 1971, President Nixon signed into law the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Natives were given nearly one billion dollars which was distributed to regional and village corporations which they were given stock in. It was a large step forward, considered by both sides to have been a success. The oil rush put to end the most recent rush in Alaska’s grand history. As the flow of the pipeline begins to dwindle after its 1983 peak, a renewed oil rush is needed to sustain Alaska. Currently, there is a debate about opening up a protected area in the Brooks Mountain Range to drilling. The vast majority of Alaska’s economy is based on the oil industry. Not only does this play a large role in subsidizing Natives, but it also makes Alaska’s state taxes negative. While there is still a frontier spirit in Alaska, it must be backed up by industry.
I found it important to visit St. Marys or a similar village within the Yukon-Kuscaquim Delta region because it is this area that was the last to have contact with Westerners. This isolation has preserved the traditions of natives and makes it an authentic village from the standpoint of a place to observe the lives of Eskimos. I was able to observe the Native way of life while in several different ways while in St. Marys. I went fishing with Rudy on his boat a few times and watched as he hoisted 50-pound Alaskan Salmon out of the Yukon River. Rudy would throw a 300-foot drift net into the river. After a few minutes he would pull it back into his boat, having collected enough Salmon to feed a family for months. This aspect of his life was both splendid and simple. Yet Native culture was being abated even as I was there, possibly even through my presence. St. Marys was a town with deeply rooted Native culture embedded in all of her residents. St. Marys and towns like it had remained for many years as they were, yet within the past century, their cultural climate has been profoundly changed. St. Marys got first a Catholic which was replaced by a public school built in town to educate the youth. Along with the Catholic school came a mission, which remains and plays a large role in community affairs. The strong presence of the mission also led to the Christianization of a many villagers. Also chiseling away at tradition are the modern conveniences available to residents. Compare: before residents of St. Marys first made contact with whites, they lived in primitive dwellings, spoke their old language, and made a subsistence living. Younger children were taught by village elders, the furthest distance traveled from the village would be the annual hunting trip made by the strong men, and all travel was conducted via traditional means such as dog teams and home-built boats. Now residents enjoy the convenience of cable TV, out-board motors, and four- wheelers. Dogs remain tied to posts as a reminder of times passed, but they sit idle, confined to a space the determined by the length of their leash. English is spoken. There is a post office and a public school, both containing references to a far-off city called Washington. For better and for worse, the lives of Natives in St. Marys has changed drastically and irreversibly in a matter of decades. Because of a the imposed change, residents of St. Marys have an uneasy relationship with whites. One evening, I watched on as my hosts listened to the CB radio channel used by villagers. A Fish and Games Administration representative who oversaw the area announced that their would be an imposed limit on the amount of fish caught. Rudy’s face turned angry. Speaking to him later about the matter confirmed by suspicion that he resented such an order from the newcomers. Pursuing the subject further, I asked him if he disliked whites. He politely refused to comment. Indeed, my relationship with Rudy was one of unease. He was unopen to my constant barrage of questions. Though I could dismiss this as bitterness, reflection has caused me not to. His feelings are rooted in a history that I have neither experienced not understand. The cultural clash has produced many people with similar attitudes, but they constitute a minority. The vast majority of residents were outgoing and as interested in me as I was in them.
On my second day at St. Marys, I took a stroll through town to familiarize myself with my surroundings. As I was walking on the packed-gravel road on a typically overcast day, I encountered a young girl who smiled looked up at me and laughed as she repeated the word “gussak” a few times. I tried to communicate with the girl. While she appeared friendly, she had the devious look on her face that seemed to indicate that I was the brunt of some kind of joke that I could not comprehend. As it turned out, “gussak” is the equivalent of what Mexicans jokingly refer Americans as when they go south of the border, “gringo”. What she had playfully indicated to me was a confirmation of the fact that I was a rarity in St. Mary. For my own purposes, and for better or worse, I was infringing on them. What I found profound about my trip was that my impression of the way of life of a totally foreign culture for me was altered by that tiny and often neglected dot on the map marking St. Marys. Weighing all their options, I find the case of these people quite tragic. From what I saw, it seemed to me that the Natives in Alaska were at a crossroads. A generation of Eskimos was dying. This was one that could still remember a time when they lived off of the land. They did not grow up learning English. They were ignored by the Western world except when something of theirs could be exploited in some fashion. Now a new generation grows up watching cable television in even the most remote villages. They eat Western food. One out of every nine abuses alcohol or drugs. And while this new generation appreciates the heritage that has existed for millennia, they want to move on. The traditional life of an Eskimo is hard. By Western standards, they live below the poverty line. But this is by standards that are not meant to grasp the true richness of their culture and their happiness. So today’s generation is making a shift from the native live to the bottom of Western society. They have inherited the worst of both worlds. Looking back, they see their decaying native life, while in front of them, there lies the U.S. welfare state. Before their contact with whites, Eskimos survived treturous climatalogical conditions, an uncertain food supply, war with opposing groups and lived on for an inconceivably long length of time. Today they face their toughest oppression so far. What I cannot imagine is that a culture that has lasted so long can be annihilated in so short a span of time, and yet this is what is occurring. One can be comforted by knowing that the same thought is occurring to Natives and that many are working to assure that this will never happen. The people that I visited in the summer of 1994 are proud. The ultimate dilemma is choosing between the hard but proud and tranquil, traditional way of life or the easy but tumultuous way. The latter option has more despite the reality that it takes Natives from a life of peace and equality with their populace and casts them down to the bottom rungs of Western society. This quandary will likely be resolved not long into the next millennium, and assimilation is the more likely choice.
The waning of Native culture is unfortunate. On a boat at the junction of the Andreafski and the Yukon, on a damp, cool, overcast, and dimly lit June day, I watched as a lone fisherman hoisted a King Salmon out of the clean, silver water. Nearly as old as mankind, this simple yet eloquent act embodies the calm, elegant, and vanishing life of Native Alaska.