Seeing the great state of Alaska, one village at a time

Come celebrate 30 years!

Several weeks ago, on a whim I went to Nome, AK to see firsthand what life was like in the Bush. I spent my three days with a family I’d only met once a year and a half prior. Mike, a National Guard Black Hawk mechanic and his wife, Gale were my enthusiastic tour guides. Every waking minute was to be an adventure.

Initially, I feared three days would be too long, that I would be restless and uncomfortable, since I hardly knew my hosts. Furthermore, they had two young boys, 3 and 6; I’ve had little to no experience with children. I thought I might be entering a lair of mayhem and disorderly conduct, when in fact we all instantly became a mutual adoration clan. Just add Nome.

Every day began with the five of us piling into the SUV with our packed lunches and sodas, and driving short distances at low speeds to find adventure. By the end of each day we were tuckered out, Mike and Gale from driving, and me from hours of playing pirates and ninjas with the boys.

The following is an abbreviated version of my second day in the Bush.

Day 2: Culture

In the morning, after several cups of highly sugared coffee, Mike and I four-wheeled out to the largest gold dredge in Nome, abandoned many years prior.

He told me stories of how he and his high school friends used to go out there in the middle of winter to drink cheap beer. I shuddered at the though of being drunk in this monstrous metal trap.

- Advertisement -

The enormous steel and iron dinosaur loomed high into the sky. We walked the decrepit plank and crawled over the railing into the spooky interior. The air was filled with the smell of stagnant water.

We wandered around for an hour or two, losing ourselves in the labyrinth of gold buckets, winches, grates and wheels. We imagined aloud the harsh conditions that the gold miners must have worked in.

The abandoned dredge was the epitome of all that is eerie in Nome. Every dark hole led to monsters and demons, every failed floorboard, hundreds of feet above metal, debris and water led to goblins and ghosts.

When we were finally done scaring the dickens out of ourselves, Mike and I made our way back to the house to pick up Gale and their two kids. It was time for another road trip: The Village of Teller.

We headed 72 miles down the unpaved highway. It was riddled with rocks and potholes, which limited our speed to 55 mph. There aren’t as many shacks and cabins alongside the Teller Highway like there are going toward Pioneer. The tundra sweeps in every direction, up the slopes of distant mountains to the northeast, and cascading southwest down into the Bering Sea.

There are no shops, no gas stations and no people. Teller is beyond rural. A Kawerak Eskimo village located along the west coast of the Seward Peninsula, Teller once boasted 5,000 residents during the Gold Rush, and now has a population of only 250.

We arrived at 6 pm, just in time for the music portion of the fourth annual Cultural Festival to begin. The music was represented by three Native villages: Teller, the Mission Brevig (a smaller village across the bay from Teller), and The King Island Group from Nome. Not only people from the three villages, but people from all over the state came together in the Teller School gymnasium to share their culture through two days of food, music and dance.

Almost all of the Native women and some of the men were dressed in traditional kuspuks. These are hooded dresses, made of light material (usually floral for the women and solids for the men), that hang about mid-thigh, worn over pants that are often tucked into mukluks; boots made out of musk ox and grizzly bear fur and skin, ornate with beads and colored threads.

Several elders sat in a row in front of a couple hundred people gathered on bleachers, on bright plastic chairs or splayed across the gymnasium floor. The elders somberly beat on their drums, called chduyak, as the women lined up in front of them; they sang and danced in unison – their heads bobbed side to side like curious swans, their arms stretched out and their hands wove stories in the air. Occasionally a young man would jump up and dance with them, his own dance different than theirs. He would bark and shout, throwing the imitated voices of walruses and seals into the air – a magical blanket toss of sounds.

Each village performed. There was no set begin or end time. They played until they ran out of momentum.

“Oh no!” a young Native man said to me. “That is no good! If they don’t have to stop, they never will!”

Eventually, the performers of each village did stop: three villages, five hours later. The show was not over though. Pamyua, a Native music group from Anchorage that had come up to participate, were the much anticipated guests of honor.

The group was comprised of four lead singers: two African-American Inupiat brothers from Bethel, a Greenlandic Inupiat woman, and a Tlkingit man from Southeast Alaska. Pamyua charmed and awed the 200 people in attendance.

Pamyua has made quite a name for themselves on the international music circuit. They have combined the vocal sounds from the Native cultures of Africa, Australia, the Lower 48, Eskimo and Athabaskan, as well as a little bit of rap and poetry slam to create a rich sound of tones, harmony and humor.

The audience was enamored. They laughed, they clapped, they even joined in on the dancing. Even after spending seven hours in the small muggy gymnasium, we wanted more.

I left that evening, my arms doing phantom dances, my head filled with song. Teller made me fall in love with Nome.

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of three. To read Day 1, go to www.northernlight.org.