Alaskan Adventure Into The Bush: The People
Close your eyes and imagine the sound of snow falling. Think about what you hear. Even in this small exercise you and I would be different from an Alaskan Native.
The Alaskan People
Culture no matter what part of the world you are visiting is complex and fascinating,
Before I went to Alaska I read all sorts of book about the Yupik Natives of Alaska. One, Through the Eyes of a Yupik gave me some valuable information about the culture of adoption that permeates the Yupik culture. The author Colin Chisholm was adopted by an Irish father and Yupik mother. After his mother died he began to investigate his mother's family. His mother, herself had been adopted. Adoption to his mother was nothing, because of the culture she came from. A people who live on the edge because of the weather and wildlife has to have a way to deal with family members suddenly dying. Adoption, whether formally or not is the traditional way of coping with children who are left without parents in Alaska.
I read a another book by a Yupik woman who talked about how as a tiny child, somewhere between two and four years old, she would sit the whole day watching her grandmother sew. She was expected to be learning. Neither said a word the whole time. Gradually her grandmother would let her hand her a needle, then thread a needle, then she was allowed to sew two pieces of cloth together. Her world was very quiet with few words. The whole idea of a small child being quiet for a whole day was preposterous to me. My Speech Pathology education screamed this is terrible for a child. My experience with children says no two year old could sit that long. I hardly understand my own culture, my understanding of the Yupik culture is non existent despite all my reading.
Immediately after the trip to Alaska I thought I understood Natives. I got home and saw a neighbor who is from Alaska. I told her I thought I had a pretty good grasp of the Native culture. She responded, " I am glad you do, I was born and raised there and I am clueless. I don't think anyone understands their culture".
They are a strong people. They eat foods like raw seal and whale that allow them to survive in very cold weather. Yupik Natives are spiritual people, their religion includes shaman or witch doctors who conflict with doctors of modern medicine. The old ways are called barbaric, but they worked for thousands of years. The government tells them what works, yet those thing don't really make much sense to them. They are creative and smart, but what was once valued is now worthless. You fish too much, you aren't humane, you are a threat to the environment. Their culture says do one thing and their government says our way is better for you. Cancer and depression have increased as addiction to drugs have made it nearly impossible for natives to hold jobs that require you to be clean and sober. Technology brings the world to these people, while cost and culture make it difficult to go out. Many who go out eventually come back broken or with skills that are useless in their villages. Depression can be fierce when culture, government rules, and harsh elements collide.
In The Last Part Of This Interview
"Hi, it's me, Judy, again to interview Tirelesstraveler about her Alaskan adventure. In the last part of our interview she had just arrived at the camp where she was going to be working. Then TT raced off without telling us why being a Native was so complex. Now she is back and ready to answer more questions. Let see what was so important that she left so suddenly".
Why Did You Go Running Off During The Last Interview?
J." Why did you run off during the last interview? Are you crazy?"
T: " Oh Gee, I am so sorry about that. I noticed something from where I was sitting that scared the bejeebers out of me. It looked like the oven was on fire. Someone was cooking a pizza when the heating element of the stove caught on fire. I had to take care of the situation. I am sorry. Where were we?"
J: "I had more questions to ask about what you did in Alaska. What happened to the stove? Is everything alright?"
T:" I am so sorry for the interruption. Oh yes, all is well. We have a new range. Now where were we?"
Recap Of Alaskan Bush Adventure With Tirelesstraveler
J: " Let's back up and recap a bit for anyone who didn't read the first part of the interview. You had been undergoing cancer treatments and had complications. Your doctor finally gave permission to go on the trip. You got to Anchorage, met a gal who was going out to Camp and you arrived via a two stop flight in the village of Emmonak. Emmonak is not far from where the Yukon River meets the Barring Sea.
If I remember correctly you got to the village and discovered the box you mailed had not arrived. You had two hats and no gloves. then it started to rain. "
T: "Yes, that about sums it up.
It began to rain as we started up river, The river is the main mode of transportation in western Alaska.
There was a big building project planned at camp after the kids left. Because gas is costly every trip needs to be utilized to maximum capacity. After loading construction materials, the boat was too heavy to come up on plane. We had to turn around and off load some of our materials. This was my introduction to an everyday event in the Alaskan bush. Seldom does anything go according to plan in the bush".
Yukon Delta Emmonak
Besides Reading Before You Went How Did You Learn About The Yupik Culture?
J: Besides the reading you did before you went to Alaska how did you learn about the culture of the kids you would be working with"?
T: "I flew out to camp with a gal named Heidi. Her first trip to camp was 15 years ago. After she graduated from college she began teaching in Alaska. Twelve years of teaching had given her some insight into the Natives.
She told me typical Native children are raised in large extended families. There may be a mother and father or not in the family home. Because of the long nights during the winter and long days during the summer kids sometimes don't have much of a sleep schedule. In the village Heidi teaches in she said kids lay down wherever they are when they get tired. They also eat wherever they are. They are at an Auntie or a Grandma's house. The only thing is that almost everyone in the village is an Auntie or Grandma. They aren't necessarily related.These kids are raised by a village. Not a bad idea, but it drives teachers and outsiders to distraction if they bring their time schedules and cultural norms with them to school.
I also learned from my friend Shannon that physical abuse and suicide are big problems in the villages. She has a lot of experience with this kind of thing.Her education is in social work. She and her husband also adopted eight children, all of who had endured some kind of abuse. During conversations with the campers this was confirmed. Some started drinking when they were eight or ten. I delved deeper and it appears to be true."
These Kids Deal With Hard Things?
J: "These kids deal with hard things; do you have any idea why?"
TT: "I have some ideas. When the nearest road to anyplace is 500 miles away it is easy for natives or anyone on the west coast and I suspect many other parts of Alaska to feel stuck. They live in isolated locations, but they are not isolated. Many of the kids have Face Book accounts, access to computers and cell phones. Amazon Prime does whale of a business all over Alaska. The Natives see the outside from a distance. Unless they are sick and the government flies them out for medical treatment.
On the way out Heidi was sitting next to a lady(about 45 years old) who was going to visit her family. She lived in Canada. Neither of us believed all she told us. She started chugging beer, two at a time, as soon as they started serving. Some of what she said was likely true. She couldn't converse with her parents well. When she was in school they were not allowed to speak their native language. Her parents spoke no English. They tried to learn, but their English was limited. After being out* for several years she returned to her village and found she had forgotten most of her mother tongue. Her parents still had limited English.
Most of the kids in the village don't know much of the Native language, but are eager to learn.".
Going out means going out of the bush. Sometimes it's to a larger village,but usually it would mean going to Anchorage or someplace in the lower forty eight states.
Did You Go Fishing?
T:" I did not go fishing, but I enjoyed reading about it on the flight from Anchorage to Saint Mary's. Apparently fishing is a big deal in Alaska".
J: "You were on the Yukon River, did you eat a lot of fish"?
T: "No. Fishing season was off and on because of bad weather during my visit. Fishing in Native waters is also complicated if you aren't native. I can't even begin to explain fishing laws.
During the summer historically Natives set up fishing camps on the river banks. The men catch the fish and the women and children prepare the fish for winter storage. There is a fish processing plant in Emmonak that provides jobs for many of the villagers.
A few years back the camp was thoroughly inspected by the Department of Fish and Game. DFG was certain it was a fish camp. They went through the freezers and all the camp food supply. The law is one of the things that makes being a Alaskan Native's life complicated. Fishing is a big deal for Natives. It is also a big deal to the United States Department of Fish and Game and the Environmental Protection Agency. They are government restrictions on fishing. Non natives feel the Natives get special protection and are allowed special privileges. Natives still use many of their cultural fishing techniques, but those techniques are illegal for non-natives. Non natives are not allowed to spear seals. Seal meat to many non-native is repulsive . To the native seal meat can mean the difference between life and death. Raw seal meat** causes a chemical reaction in the human body that allows it to endure frigid temperatures. Something in the Natives biology craves seal meat. I have read several places about a Yupik who was dying, asked for seal meat then recovered rapidly after eating it. I believe it has to do with the way seals keep warm and that it is a source of vitamin "C".
One of my campers was cold one night and asked if she could have some seal meat. Her mother always gave her seal meat when she was cold".
Natives eat seal raw as well as cooked and dried. Only raw seal is a source of vitamin "C" .
Kids Love To Ride Bicycles
Summer Transportation Home From Camp
Who Are These Kids And What Were They Like?
J: "Who are these kids and what are they like"?
T: "All the kids I met were Yupik Eskimos from the central western Yukon delta region of Alaska, United States of America. Are they typical American kids? "Yes and No." They are typical in that a lot of them that have cell phones and Facebook accounts, They all speak English, but are gradually learning the native language. They are typical kids in that they like to swim, play basket ball and volleyball. They like to do crafts and spend time with their friends. You almost never find a Yupik kid getting into trouble alone. When a Yupik native gets into trouble alone there is a serious problem. The Native culture functions as a unit. Survival in groups is more likely than as individuals."
I had heard about Yupik kids spitting. Apparently many of the kids chew from a very young age. They chew herbs and spit like they are chewing tobacco. It seems to be a habit so ingrained they spit even when they are not chewing. When a kid is really nervous they will spit at people.
The Kids Love To Play In The River
What Do You Do At Camp?
J: "What did you do at camp?"
T: "Camp is like camp in anyplace U.S.A. with a few differences.
It doesn't get dark at all or until very late so, life begins a little later in Alaska. Bedtime even for the little kids is 11 pm. We wake the kids at 8:30am for breakfast at 9am. There is an activity session, after breakfast, until lunch around noon. After lunch swimming, crafts and all sorts of field activities were available. Around 3 pm, the showers are opened. Water has to be pumped from the river and water heated so, showers are only available for a couple of hours most days. Some campers and their leaders will help with dinner preparation and others just play around on the recreation field. The younger children(ages 9-12) have a more structured camp than the teens the next week.
This is a Christian camp so, bible stories are presented and the students are introduced to the person of Jesus Christ."
Does Christianity Conflict With The Native Culture?
J;"Doesn't Christianity clash with the Yupik culture?"
T: "No, I don't believe so...
Bible stories are presented and the students are introduced to the person of Jesus Christ.
We introduce these kids to the person of Jesus Christ and the bible.
The Yupik culture has a high regard for the animals that have provided warmth, food and clothing for them. They know about a Mighty Creator. . What they are lacking is the name of the son, of the mighty creator, who came to earth to rescue them. When they have that name they have power to get unstuck and go out."
Girls Sleeping Tent With Counselor's Bedding
Going Out And Being Unstuck?
J: "What do you mean by ,"Going out and being unstuck?"
T: "When you know what the bible says about taking care of your body a whole world opens to you. Airlines in Alaska are always looking for pilots, but many natives can't pass drug tests. Intelligence is not a problem.
Going out to Anchorage or someplace else is scary. Imagine leaving your town where the main mode of transportation is four wheel ATVs, snowmobiles and boat. Airplanes are more common on the west coast than cars, so they aren't a problem. When you land at your destination there are more cars than all the people you have ever seen in your life. Talk about being out of your element.
Last summer the speaker at teen camp was a young guy who was starting a program to reach Natives who come out, to the University of Alaska, for college. Programs like this are helpful if there is some connection to the people running them. In this case the speaker was developing relationships he intended to keep. This was his fourth year going to camps in the bush.
Natives are frequently discriminated against. Again it's a culture problem. Communication can be a problem. Outsiders are people not native. Outsiders don't understand nonverbal native communication. At the same time natives are confused because outsiders don't understand them. Doesn't everyone look you dead in the eye when they don't understand what you said, and then look down when they understand? Raising eyebrows instead of saying."Yes", is common in many different cultures, but easily missed. I love how natives strongly state they dislike something non-verbally. They wrinkle their nose.
Heidi was telling me how it is common for her to be hanging out with Natives. She would think they were having a good visit , be chatting and suddenly everyone in the room would leave in unison. The only time she has been in a village when the fishermen have caught a whale she was amazed. Nobody uttered a sound. Everyone seemed to know what they were to do and did it. There wasn't a scrap left and everyone in the village got a share. All was done in complete silence.
Natives tend to congregate in groups. This is their culture. Natives have survived in groups for generations. Going out alone is very difficult for anyone who is used to being in a group".
T: "Well Judy, It's about time for me to leave. I want to thank you for the interview".
J: "You are welcome, but where are you going?
T: " To pack, I leave in five days to go back to Alaska".
J: " I have more questions, don't go yet."
T: " I have more questions about Alaska myself. When I get back I may be able to answer your questions better. Again thanks for your time. Good Bye".
J: "That gal, there she is, off again."
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