When I thought of coming to Alaska the stereotypes came to mind: BIG mountains looming above valleys, bears roaming around catching salmon in rivers, glaciers carving through rock, the hard labor of fishing, and bald eagles soaring just above the tree-tops. Not bad, right? Why not hop on a cruise ship to see the sights?
Mostly, when I came to do JVC in Alaska, I thought adding Sitka to my resume of places I’ve lived would fit in nicely with Grand Teton National Park and a farm in Northeast Georgia; it shows my diverse interests and my ability to adapt. But, as always with each place I go, the land becomes secondary to the people I meet and come to know. Alaska isn’t the mountains, the bears (I haven’t even seen one yet, knock on wood), the powerful glaciers, the fishing, or the eagles, though that is all that many people know of this vast state. Perhaps this is not the most profound thought, but I’ve come to recognize that it is, of course, the people here who have effected me the most and, in getting to know them and their relationship with the land, I have gained insight into the stereotypes of Alaska that I crossed the border with last August. After a year here, with my departure looming at the end of next month, it’s only natural that a Jesuit-educated girl do a little reflecting. In a way, I believe I came to Alaska for all the wrong reasons.
With only 700,000 people living in the largest state in the Union, the social network of Alaska is actually quite small. Southeast (especially among middle and high school students) is often regarded as one giant social web; all the same sports teams play each other year after year as students grow up together, and the faces seen at each ferry dock along the Alaska Marine Highway become predictable for long-time residents. At the beginning of the year, my housemates and I acknowledged that Sitka is the same size as many of our colleges. Gonzaga for instance is roughly 6,500-7000 people, including the graduate programs. Sitka is roughly 7,000-8,500 people, depending on the season. With no car and the basic necessities close by, I often feel like I walk within a ten-block radius around my house in Sitka, much like on a college campus. When I arrived at Gonzaga freshman year, I often referred to living on campus as a freshman as being in the “Gonzaga bubble” having little understanding of the rest of the city of Spokane. This year, on numerous occasions, I have found myself feeling a bit stuck in the “Sitka bubble” getting caught up in small town gossip, thinking of only local news and events with little knowledge of what else is going on in outside realms. Part of me resents being so cut off and, of course, another part loves the ignorance that comes with such isolation.
As a way to close out my time here, I’ve dedicated my literary pursuits to reading only non-fiction books about Alaska this summer. Of course, I had to read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer earlier this year as it is probably one of the most famous contemporary books about going into the Alaskan wild, and I had to be able to answer “yes” to the many inquiries I received of whether or not I had read it. I’ll attempt to refrain from turning my blog into a book review, but the books I have read so far include The Blue Bear by Lynn Schooler (which I cannot recommend highly enough), Travels in Alaska by John Muir, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende, and I am currently reading Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic’s Edge by Jill Fredston. Besides just describing the sheer audacity it takes to row thousands of miles in Arctic waters, Fredston also compellingly reflects on her encounters with not only nature, but the people along her journey.
As I was reading Fredston’s words this morning, I stopped dead in my tracks, dog-earring the page immediately when she described the social ills that plague this large, misunderstood state. Below is a short excerpt from her chapter about rowing down the Yukon river through the Alaska interior. Though the land and people are not exactly the same as what I am experiencing here in Southeast Alaska, the themes of the human struggle in this state are common, and she describes it more accurately and articulately than I believe I am currently capable of. This section of reflection begins after Fredston and her husband arrive at the village of Kaltag, where there has been a death of a young man the day before.
The summer we floated the Yukon, there were ten such alcohol-related deaths in this region. By the time we reached Kaltag, we’d already passed several raw bluffside graves topped by heaps of plastic flowers. Some of these deaths were suicides; others, like the one in Kaltag, were labeled accidents. Studies from this same period, the mid-1980s, showed that ten times as many young Alaska Natives as Caucasians would take their own lives. There was a one-in-ten chance that a fifteen-year-old Native male would commit suicide, or at least try to do so, before he reached twenty-five. Statistics, however, cannot capture the grief and anger and numbness we saw etched into those faces in the dawn at Kaltag. They cannot convey the weariness of a culture being eroded by forces as undeniable as the river itself. Nor do they show the currents of hope that nevertheless persist.
The Native culture that binds individuals to the land and to one another has been beset by Western institutions, disease, and values. Subsistence, the term commonly used to describe Native dependence upon what can be gathered, hunted, and caught for food, shelter, and clothing, was traditionally far more than just a lifestyle. It has long provided an economic and spiritual base for the culture, a life that centered on sharing, humility, and respecting nature. For some villagers, unemployment checks and boredom replaced the subsistence framework. With limited local work opportunities, others sought full-time or seasonal jobs outside the village, on forest-fire crews or in construction.
Drinking is one way of numbing the turmoil of change. With it has come a huge increase in accidental and self-inflicted deaths, along with domestic abuse and other violence. Under the influence of alcohol, many Natives have frozen to death within sight of their villages, drowned by falling overboard, or died in high-speed snowmachine collisions. In the wake of this widespread destruction, there has been a growing sobriety movement in which some communities have attempted to assume more control over their lives through sovereignty. Many have voted themselves “dry.” Native elders like Uncle Al have been a moral compass in trying to rekindle their people’s sense of independence, self-esteem, and purpose, in part through the teaching of traditional skills.
(From Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic’s Edge by Jill Fredston, p.98-99.)
I am grateful for her words that convey profound insight of a place and people few will ever see or understand.