The Pretty and the Ugly Along the Kuskokwim River
Stories from the North
Unfiltered Reflections from Wild Alaska
August 15th, 2017
Chuathbaluk Village, Kuskokwim River, Alaska
The sun was shining through the thick rainclouds every chance it got on that evening in Chuathbaluk on the Kuskokwim River. I was dropped off from a small boat in this upriver village of 100 Yup’ik Eskimos without knowing a single person or what to expect. I met Sophie Sakar, age 75, the last elder in town, on the porch of the Tribal Council and we got to know each other. She said afterward she’d take me out berry picking.
Six o’clock struck and I was on one of the dirt roads playing with kids and a puppy when I saw her ride past on her four wheeler, or “Honda”. I heard the engine slow as she waited for me around the corner. I ran and hopped on the back. We rode together down a couple dirt roads and out towards the tundra. Chuathbaluk means “big blueberry”, and it stands up to its name. We filled our buckets with big berries, even if Sophie claimed it was picked out. She traversed over the tundra using a garden stake as a cane to steady herself, but she was quick and able. I’d rise from my berry picking and she’d have vanished, sucked into the tundra. I snapped a picture of her with her cane and berries, smiling. Tundra woman.
Sophie built this town. When she arrived in 1967 with her husband, it was only a couple houses, a dirt road, and one school house. It had flooded in 1956 and was never rebuilt. She worked tirelessly, volunteering her time to write grant letters to build a health clinic, church, and community center. She then worked as the first health aid to Chuathbaluk, and likely saved many lives. Health aids serve as the go-to people for healthcare and emergencies in these small Kuskokwim villages that do not have the resources for a full hospital and staff. Sophie worked hard despite decades of spousal abuse and lack of freedom. Her legacy lives on, now freed from this bondage. The toil of restless hands builds a village.
The openness and vulnerability I have encountered in the Native women I meet along my travels brings me to tears. Sophie was no exception. I think back to the night of the maquii (sweat house) in Polly and Ossie’s backyard in Anchorage after a traditional potluck and singing and drumming. Polly smiled fondly when telling me that the maquii is where she learns the most from her aunties. I shared a sweat with three women that night. There was much joking and laughter, memories and reminiscing, vulnerability, and stories of moose and bear attacks!
Back to the Kuskokwim, the home river of Polly, a Yup’ik Eskimo now living in the city, I found the land to be shifty. I wound through maze-like tundra and violent unsettling dreams. I slept on the floor of the Tribal Council in Chuathbaluk. At 9am daily, a flock of people enter at once, punching their time cards and dispersing to their tasks for the day. I made sure coffee was on.
Phillip, a Yup’ik artist in Anchorage warned me: this land is full of spirits. The masks of the Yup’ik danced through my mind as I walked the tundra and down the river. I experienced feelings of despair upon arriving in Chuathbaluk. I don’t think visitors come through very often. It is also rather calm here, and I had time to gather my thoughts. In fact, I had all the time in the world to do whatever. Anything. Nothing. So I watched the river. The rivers dominate this area of Alaska. Entire livelihoods, both of people and animals, are built around them. The Yup’ik are river people. I watched David Phillips, my guide, light up when getting his boat ready to take me upriver. A tangible brightness when on the river. The river gives abundance, and it takes all the pain and grief away in its steady current to the ocean for recycling. And there is grief, oh wow, there is pain here. To further its complexity, Chuathbaluk, and the surrounding villages, are not on a road system. The only ways out are boat and plane, and if you have neither, well…shit.
Last night, I walked the dirt roads back to the Tribal Council with a little black puppy at my heals. I learned her name is Bunny, but earlier I had named her Star. Even Star couldn’t keep the tears from welling up. I felt afraid and unsure why I was even there. This is humble work.
I witnessed values forgotten, languages not spoken, elders disappearing, art and dance and song unheard of in these small Native villages. And on the other end, I saw the exuberant expression of culture, values, art and language rekindled in the city as Native people try to claim their heritage and protect it for generations to come. I sensed the pressure and disparity in their hearts. Pulling from both directions.
What are we aiming for? Government subsidized otherwise dirt poor communities with no local job opportunities hanging only partly on to a distant way of life… I don’t think so. What is pretty and what is not. I sat on the porch with Patty and her grandma Sophie as she told of learning how to use every part of the moose, even the hooves and nose. We cook up the hooves in a stew. It’s kind of gristly, but delicious. At Sophie’s house the night prior, I joined the nine other family members currently staying with her for some dryfish from the Yukon, fry bread, and akutaq made from whitefish, high bush cranberries, blueberries and raspberries from down south. Un-supplemented by soda, sugar, alcohol and cigarettes, the Eskimo diet is incredibly healthy and energy packed. And the people strong and tough. Both pretty and not. All of it.
Alaska has a message for the world. It may not always be pretty, in fact it’s downright gnarly at times, but there’s truth here. Truth in that we depend on the land. Truth in that we learn how to be with one another. Truth in that we take too much, respect not enough, and are destroying health, balance and peace for a chance at more. It is more visceral here, as every person, regardless of how comfy cozy or rolling in the dough, is subject to the will of this wild wild place. And there is a movement for free energy, whispered in the ears and exchanged between neighbors and friends, quietly dismantling dependency and enhancing freedom and the potential of a sustainable future.
Tonight I took a walk on the long dirt roads above the river. I followed a four-wheeler path onto the tundra, winding through aspen and willow then white spruce, then black spruce and out onto a wide forested tundra. The path came and went, as did the rain. The thick tundra brush made visibility a dream, and my hair stood on end with thoughts of moose and bear. For the first time ever, I prayed I wouldn’t see any wildlife. Alone on the tundra, no gun, no bear spray, no first aid, and no message of where I’d be to anyone. Just me and a friendly black dog. His company was a reprieve and gave me reason to call out once in a while.
On and on I walked noting special trees and curves in the path. Remembering where the tracks disappeared and tundra became swamp. Even so, my heart raced and my body was tense with adrenaline. No bears. Just a big sky that opened and closed with the rain and the Russian Mountains at a distance slowly uncloaking from the clouds. And the tail, upright, of my friendly companion. I made it back, a newly gained respect for being in wild spaces completely self reliant. I learned if I move to Alaska, I want a dog, and to learn how to shoot a gun.
That night, as I wrote in my journal on the patio of the Tribal Council, Bunny puppy climbed on my lap and all over my book, clambering for another cracker, David, a community member, drove by and waved, checking on me, and the sun broke through dark heavy rainclouds, lighting up the tundra in gold for one sweet blissful moment.