NORTHERN EXPOSURE: FIRST-YEAR STUDENT BRIDGED CULTURAL GAPS IN HER HOME STATE OF ALASKA
As a high school student, Gloria Vidal '09 was dismayed by the racism she witnessed toward native Alaskans in her hometown of Anchorage.“Many in the city are homeless or alcoholic,” she says,“and it gives urban residents a negative image of them.”
Vidal's desire to combat these prejudices and experience the realities of rural Alaskan lifeâ€”and her eagerness to explore unfamiliar regions of her home stateâ€”led to her involvement in the Rose Urban Rural Exchange Program. Sponsored by Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the program promotes cross-cultural understanding among urban and rural Alaskan teenagers. As a participant, Vidal spent time in two native Alaskan villages during the summer between her freshman and sophomore years.
Her first stop was the village of Sand Point along Alaska's Aleutian Chain, a three-hour plane ride from Anchorage. Upon arriving, she says,“I thought it was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, but I was surprised at the smallness of the inhabited area.” Less than 1,000 people live in Sand Point; there are actually more boats than houses, because fishing and fish processing are the village's main economic resources. What houses exist are mostly one story and built low to the ground because of the high winds and dearth of trees.
Because Sand Point is an Aleutian (or Unangan, as the people prefer to be called) village, many residents are from Russian descent, a result of the Russian fur traders' 18th-century arrival. However, the original Unangan people were believed to have inhabited these islands for more than 70 centuries.
In the village, Vidal attended a week-long“Culture Camp,” living in a tent in the town's recreational center with the other participants. (â€œWe were supposed to camp outside,” she says,“but there was a typhoon alert.”) The campers learned to make small grass baskets, as well as traditional Unangan women's regalia, a long loose dress made of animal skins and fur that is worn during cultural ceremonies. They also crafted headdresses, made from animal skins, sinew, and beads.“The beads are sewn in different patterns,” explains Vidal,“symbolizing things in the surrounding environment such as animals, water, fire, and sun.” The campers were taught words in the Unangan language and instructed in traditional dances such as the halibut dance, which incorporates chanting and different physical movements representing various parts of a story.
“Behind each dance in the Unangan culture there is a story,” says Vidal,“because Alaskan native cultures mainly communicate in ways besides writing.”
Sand Point cuisine gave Vidal her biggest cultural shock. Breakfast, she discovered, was a cross between traditional native fare and Spam, apparently a popular commodity in the village.“The people of Sand Point live off the land,” she says,“but they also have some Western foods imported from Anchorage.” Another unusual but much-loved confection, called“Eskimo ice cream,” combines sugar, berries, and Crisco oil.
In the evenings, the village elders would share tales of their history with the camp. Storytelling remains one of the most vital methods of keeping the Aleutian culture alive in an age when many customs are being lost.
“I feel the influence of Western culture is significantly impacting the native Alaskans,” says Vidal.“The younger people of the communities are straying from the ideals of their parents and embracing the new Western â€˜pop' culture.” She feels such an attitude among the young set was almost inevitable due to the readily available technology that connects cultures around the world:“Everyone in the villages has a television and many DVDs, long-distance plans on their telephones, and Internet connections on their computers.”
When her week at the camp ended, Vidal departed for Nanwalek, an Alutiiq village at the bottom of the Kenai Peninsula. With only 200 residents, Nanwalek is significantly smaller than Sand Point, and brings the best of Alaska's natural resourcesâ€”mountains, trees, ocean, lagoons, and coral reefsâ€”together in one location. Nanwalek was once the site of a Russian trading post, and retains much of that country's influence. Next to the ocean, a Russian Orthodox church and a graveyard, both more than 100 years old, keep silent watch.
Vidal stayed with a family of four in a two-story house that lies at the bottom of a mountain. Although the parents spoke the Alutiiq language of Sugcestun, the children spoke only English.“Again, the culture is dying,” says Vidal,“because the kids are so Westernized.”
Like Sand Point, Nanwalek is a fishing village, so Vidal partook of the regional pastime:“I felt horrible because I had to kill the fish I caught.” Meals were heavy on salmon sticks and seal, which, says Vidal, is a dark meat that“has the texture of steak but tastes like fish.” Her Nanwalek friends also liked to eat the black fish with white shells called“badarkies” that they collected from the ocean reefs.
“They take the fish home, cut it open, and eat the goo that's inside,” says Vidal.“I wouldn't eat that goo, but I did try the meatâ€”it tasted like blood.” For the most part, Vidal ate whatever was offered to her by her host family and their friends.“They really like to feed you, and they get offended if you don't eat everything they give you.”
During the two weeks she spent in Nanwalek, Vidal learned that the people's recreational activities brought new meaning to the term“laid-back.”“Verbal communication is very big in the native villages,” she says,“so we were always going over to someone's house and just talking.” This was also the most prevalent form of entertainment; Nanwalek has no movie theaters or restaurants, just a teen center with a basketball hoop and one K-12 school.
One day, Vidal remembers, her host family wanted to take her“somewhere special,” so they piled into the family's four-wheeler (Nanwalek's transportation of choice; there are maybe 10 cars in the entire village) and drove up the side of a mountain and around a lake to visit friends in a neighboring town. They spent approximately 15 minutes talking with their friends, hopped back into the four-wheeler, did a few spins on the nearby beach, and then headed home.
“They really enjoy the actual process of getting somewhere,” says Vidal.“They do it for the fun of the experience, not the outcome of the trip.”
Ultimately, Vidal learned a great deal from her time in both Sand Point and Nanwalek, not just about indigenous Alaskan culture but about her own perceptions of the people.“I didn't consider myself racist,” she says,“but I had preconceived ideas of what native people were like. I thought that most of them were alcoholics because that's what I'd seen in Anchorage.” She found no alcoholism in the villages, but did find new friends.
“They're such good people,” she enthuses.“I got something totally different from what I expected.”
â€” Brenna McBride