Way up in the Northern regions of Alaska is a small Inupiaq and Yu’pik community of Unalakleet. Growing up I was told the meaning of our town is “where the east wind blows.” Our community has been a hub for surrounding villages for a long time. A major trading village in the days of old. The old town site is historical and my mom took me there once, fascinating to imagine old sod houses where the ditches in the earth are now covered with tundra. We did not disturb the old home sites just carefully picking cranberries around the area. The village can be a good thing or a bad thing and I’m hoping to shed light on some of the dangers of living in such a small, isolated community. Most of all to portray the goodness.
The village of Unalakleet is nestled in a valley at the drainage of the Unalakleet River where it meets the Bering Sea. Growing up the road to the hillside was along the airport road which aligns with the beach. This was after the old bridge was gone and before the new bridge was built on the Gwethluq slough. The dike separating the slough from the two lakes in the village was man made but built to help with flooding. This is a sand spit and eventually the village will have to relocate, something those who are capable are already doing by building homes up on the hillside. There used to be the old army hill where there were run down buildings from an old army base. A road travels 11 miles parallel on the left side of the river and ends at the old White Alice site. There used to be three towers there and the view from our cabin growing up allowed us to watch first hand the explosions that tore the towers down. The land used to be riddled and may still be today with PCBs. Our land will heal as our people are continually healing as we strive for a better future for our children.
Our Native Corporation store was once a larger scale operation than what it is today. The Post Office is now located in the old store building. The post office used to be near the Alaska Commercial Company store that is located “downtown” or at the point of town where the mouth of the river is located. Along with the fish plant and Brown’s lodge. Once in it’s hay day of civilizing our culture there was a boarding school for students called Covenant High. In the middle area of town there is “the Igloo” a snack shop and hangout for locals.
Growing up we had Bill’s video, that was a VHS rental in Bill’s home then was moved to the back of the Igloo. There used to be Maggie’s shop next door to the old house, she also rented out VHS tapes and had snacks and soft serve ice cream. Before there was peace on earth pizza there was a man who made pizzas out of his home, if I recall correctly his name was Dan Masters.
Near the airport side of town there is Happy Valley, a subsection of homes that are similar to hud housing. I liked to think of it as the suburbs but that was far from the truth. A lot of my cousins and friends grew up in that part of town. The Tiqasuk library used to be close to the Unalakleet Schools. There was a headstart program in the building that is now a coffee shop. My first teachers were Millie, Margie and Kermit. I would ask my mom for “potato soup” because that’s what I loved to eat at headstart. It took my mom awhile to figure out that I was actually referring to tomato soup. I had to go to school with a pair of dark blue Velcro shoes and I was not happy with that. Some of the activities I loved were building with brick looking cardboard blocks, the reading nook not to read but to look at pictures in the children’s books and going outside to do the dome game where we worked together to fill a dome parachute looking contraption with air and going under to create a dome. My teacher Millie always had beautiful marks on her face like my mom, beauty marks. My teacher Margie was a delightful soul always so happy. My teacher Kermit had one finger missing but I was never scared of him because he wore the same white tee shirts my Grandpa Johnson wore. There were substitutes here and there but I remember these three teachers very well. I thought of Headstart as a play program where I got to do cool projects, learn how to brush my teeth properly and actually not get my way.
The classmates you grow up with are almost an every day part of your life. We had a pretty chill class. In Kindergarten I would pluck out one of my classmates hair to tease him and say “I’ve got your hair.” I did not like nap time but I loved anything having to do with “it’s time to line up” I remember Mrs. Brown and Ms. Haugen and mainly being interested in arts and crafts or play time. I do remember a puppet in a tool box that I loved when Ms. Haugen would teach us lessons through him. The bilingual teachers would stroll a cart to our classroom for our heritage learning. Mrs. Mary Ann Haugen and Mrs. Charles. They both wore glasses so I tried to always be in the front so they could see me better, silly for thinking they couldn’t because that is what glasses are for. There was a day our class invited our siblings for part of our day and I was taken back at one of the girls making rough movements on the corner of her chair. I asked the teacher to help her thinking she had an itch or something. She was more than likely one of so many little girls who were molested. Something prevalent today in the rural villages. This will no longer be swept under the rug. Part of my testimony is that I am a survivor of sexual assault, sexual molestation and later in life rape. It’s a harsh reality to come to terms with, let alone to heal from. It literally has lifelong effects but there is always hope for a better future. To create change we must identify or expose the problem, then it no longer becomes acceptable or hushed behavior.
In such small communities I do not know how our women can sit idle. It happened to them and they don’t care if it happens to their daughters? That is the worst mentality to be occurring. We can create change and hope. Most adult problems and depression stem from early childhood trauma. This trauma can be overcome.
School was mandatory and so was summers spent at our cabin but that was the best part of my childhood. There is such a deep love for nature in my heart because my summers were spent in nature. We were poor, so we had to work very hard to gather enough food to last us through the winter. Five children is no easy task when it comes to keeping our bellies full for the majority of the year. One of our main staples was fish, every sort, caught during it’s run and cut and hanged to dry on our fish rack. Berries in the order of salmon or cloud berries first, then blueberries, raspberries, crow berries, cranberries and currants. With each coming in to season after the other. We put away masu in the spring and that is a root from the tundra, reminiscent to me of carrots but sweeter and of white flesh. Our greens gathered included Elephant ears we dipped in milk and vinegar sauce was always a special treat around the time we would gather sourdock leaves, something sour that my mom magically turned into something sweet called achathluk. Sura was a willow leaf collected right after bloomage and it was sour but nutritious. We stored the picked leaves in seal oil. Beach greens were so easy to gather and fun because we could look for sea shells at the same time. My mom would have us pick rosehip petals sometimes for jellies or to mix in with our ayuu tea. Our meats consisted of Moose, Caribou, Beaver, Porcupine, Seal, Ducks, Geese, Swan, Crane and Muktuk (whale). All these riches gathered by our hands from the land to help sustain us through the winter months. It was the good life.
There is an awakening occurring in the rural villages of Alaska where the sin of man will no longer be swept under the rug, and that is hurting little children and those who cannot fend for themselves. It is going to stop. We are the generation of healing and forgiveness, both go hand in hand. But the wounds must be ripped open as to no longer fester but to be cleaned through Jesus and to heal through Him. I am on a mission of Love and it is so very simple, all I am required to do is smile each day and all else will follow. We work with what we have and what all of us have that are saved is love and a smile. Please pray for the Rural Villages of Alaska. There is such goodness in the people but we are healing from the loss of our cultural identity and that identity will be restored. A learned behavior is hard to break, a lot of hurt and suffering comes hand in hand with colonization and our blood is not used to the effects of alcohol. Our bodies are allergic to it in a sense that we are basically infants trying to consume alcohol. All this is relatively new. Retaining our knowledge of the land and the subsistence lifestyle will go hand in hand with healing of not only the people but the land as well.