An Eskimo Family in Nome
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The Indian Historian Press for educational purposes only. Copyright 1971.
As a child, much of my memory of the Wales social structure was limited to the observations of my own eyes. However,as I grew older in Nome, I could observe what happened to the villager when he arrived in that town. The pattern closely followed the experiences of my own family, when relatives and former neighbor villagers offered their help in making our transition as comfortable as possible. I remember that my father was terrified at the thought of meeting with drunks in the streets of Nome, not knowing just exactly how they behaved. In Wales, where there is no alcohol sold or needed, stories of how alcohol affects the Eskimos in Nome had filtered in. These events were discouraging factors during our first few weeks in Nome. Later, when father found out that the drunks did not bother anyone who didn't bother them, he learned to ignore them. However, he mentioned them to his children as bad examples, harmful to those who made close contact with them.
As the family settled down in Nome, Dad showed other newcomers from the villages the hospitality he had himself received. Some, he recommended for work at the public schools, if he knew of an opening. He once loaned a parcel of land near our garage to a family that had just moved from Shishmaref to Nome. The man bought an Army surplus quonset building and moved it there. Finally, Dad sold the land to him for what it had cost, and gave him interest-free monthly payment privileges. This family was no relation to him. They were from a different village, and in fact they made no plea for help from anyone. But they shared a common experience with us.
Like many other older men deciding to move to Nome with his family, this neighbor man probably had an education no higher than the eighth grade. His mastery of the English language was sufficient only to carry on limited conversations with "straw bosses," a term used for the white men directly in contact with the laborers of Nome's former gold dredges. What chance would he have if he were to rely on his education, and ability to speak English? The Nome newspaper's want ad section is never any larger than two columns in a paper about the size of a tabloid. In fact, most of the skilled labor in Nome is imported from the "Lower-Forty-Eight." The labor force in Nome, which makes up the permanent working class, is mostly white. These are the people who have chosen to remain in Nome. Their sons and daughters usually inherit their jobs. A type of feudal succession exists through the continuation of this class system, however small it may be as compared to such systems elsewhere.
During the years of 1952 and '53, when I was in the sixth grade, my father was still trying to make ends meet with his paltry income. My mother was starting work for Polet's Curio Shop after she had tried a couple of months with the Nome Skin Sewers, a native cooperative of women. The cooperative had just gone through its death throes because of a lack of strong organization, and a lack of public support. It had had its best years while the U.S. Army was ordering Arctic military clothing and sleeping bags during the war years. It was during those years that the Nome Skin Sewers, Inc. had orders for such items as 26,000 pairs of Eskimo-type mukluks, thousands of reindeer sleeping bags and parkas. The Polet's Curio Shop had maintained its prosperity through the efforts of Mr. A. Polet, who not only owned the curio shop, but also an extensive part of land in the business district of Nome. His daughter owned the local printing shop, so he had a ready means of printing advertisements and occasional printed matter of Eskimo stories and tourist brochures. He employed five Eskimo women who sewed his slippers and fur parkas. Mom received her small amount of knowledge of how skins and furs are treated so they do not have the offensive odors incurred in Eskimo-type preparation. She learned a little about how profits are made through time saving devices such as the use of different materials for linings.
She also learned how to use a skin sewing machine. Her immediate supervisor was not Mr. Polet, but a part-native who acted as a buffer between himself and the workers. After his death, the shop was sold to a couple from Washington State, and the workers were thinned down to just a couple of sewers. The town newspaper did a great job of welcoming the newcomers as virtual saviors of a nearly traditional Nome establishment. There is no skin sewers' union, and no school for skin sewing in Nome. As young as I was then, I was conscious of the sad fact that each year the quality of Eskimo crafts fell lower and lower. Mr. Polet employed Eskimo women at very low pay. His grandsons were able to attend the University of Alaska, and his family lived very comfortably in one of Nome's few two-story houses. Today the Eskimo craftsmen peddle their wares at the nondescript markets. Mom has the reputation of being a very good sewer, and she keeps busy at her own work.
Besides Nome, Kotzebue is a budding Eskimo town today with an increasing tourist trade, where outsiders come in droves during the summers. I have often wondered where Kotzebue got its name. Now it seems that Kotzebue was an early explorer who must have held his nose while going through Alaska. In Kotzebue, the middle-aged and older folks don their "fancy parkas" and pose for the camera buffs. Out around the countryside those who are less attracted to the tourist dollar wear simple parka covers while fishing or gathering berries. I suppose tourism helps keep the Eskimo traditions alive in an era of technological invasion, by urging the natives to superficial dress and dance. But still I cannot help feeling distressed to know there are some fellow Eskimos who are being exploited because of their innocence in business matters.
As I entered the sixth grade, my brother Skip came home from Mt. Edgecumbe at Sitka, and entered the eighth grade at Nome. Skip came home as a bright young boy, proud of his experience in another world. He was more capable than I was in making new friends, because he had learned through necessity rather than from desire, how to act among strangers. He had many stories to tell of his two years at the Bureau of Indian Affairs regional school.
He talked about the school's dormitory way of life, about his chores such as cleaning hallways and working in the laundry. He was chosen to be a member of the color guard in a school pageant. Indeed he could make friends with grownups as well, and was a favorite of his new Nome teacher, one of only two Negroes in Nome at that time. He and I were about the same height and build by this time, and people would often mistake us for twins. Nevertheless, if we visited his friends' homes, they would know which was which, by his bubbling spirits and my shyness. We were also at an age when we were interested in earning money for ourselves.
Our father was taking on more responsibilities in his work now, to qualify for additional pay. So after school, Skip and I worked and cleaned up a few rooms for him. He paid us five dollars a month. To me, this was much more profitable than a recent try at selling newspapers on the streets. I was so timid that I would sell only about three or four newspapers, with corresponding earnings of fifteen cents or so for an evening's work. I would have to return the unsold newspapers, while other boys were selling their quotas and coming back for more. With the cleaning job for Dad, I was at first so intent at really cleaning them, that Skip would complain I was taking so long that it caused us to lose time for other tasks. He figured out a system in which we both had equal work loads and he insisted that I finish on time. Then we would go our ways to spend time with friends, before returning home to do our schoolwork.
During the summers, Skip started working with the local plumber. He would saunter around in his dirty overalls, sometimes so sooty that it would take a lot of precious water to clean up. At home, we also had the task of washing dishes and keeping up our sleeping quarters. We ironed our own clothes if we wanted them pressed, and we had now grown to like a neat appearance for school, in the whiteman's way. We ordered clothes from Sears with the money we earned. Our father had grown acquainted with the ways of the Eskimo in Nome, and he began to do some hunting and fishing in his spare time. So we had Eskimo-type food, which we ate at the family table to augment the starchy foods bought from the local stores.
One incident which is evidence of our eating habits occurred when I was still in the sixth grade. Sometimes we had dried fish and seal oil for a hurried lunch, and this we did one Friday. In the afternoon, I went back to school and found that I had not washed my hands and lips well enough to remove the fish and seal oil smell. The class was scheduled to go through a new course in dancing, and we were herded to the gymnasium to try the foxtrot and other social wonders. When the instructor found that the boys were too shy to ask the girls, she had the girls choose the partners. Some of the girls whom I had only looked at in admiration before, were now showing eagerness in teaching me the intricacies of the dance. All through that blasted hour, I was more than just shy – I was dreading the consequences, if they completely swore off contact with an Eskimo boy who only wanted to fit into their non-Eskimo world, and who smelled. If there were Eskimo girls alone in my class, I would not have had to worry. But my class consisted of a majority of Eskimo boys, and a small number of mostly white girls.
Most of Nome's vehicles are pickups. There are a few station wagons, jeeps, Scouts, and other smaller cars. The school superintendent had a Plymouth sedan which he used to go out to the country to hunt ptarmigan. Sometimes he asked Dad to come along with him, and they usually came back with their limit in a morning's hunting. At this time Dad began to think about owning a vehicle. Like many Eskimo men who come to Nome and have a steady job, he saw the advantage of owning some means of transportation, even though the dirt roads did not go very far in the early 1950's. In fact, the roads ended at Council, a dead mining village, some 65 miles east of Nome. But the fishing and hunting camps were anywhere from four to forty miles out of town. Each year the closer camps yielded less and less game, due to more and more Eskimos acquiring cars to set up fishing camps. When we first came to Nome, I can remember there were a lot of ptarmigans, squirrels, owls, field mice, and rabbits around. At this time the fish and game laws were concerned with the big State income producers, such as the salmon runs on the Southeastern part of Alaska, the big game animals such as the moose, bear, sheep, goat, and the migratory ducks and birds. In the late '50's there was a cry of "Unfair!" from the Eskimos of the Kotzebue and Pt. Barrow areas, when an Eskimo hunter was charged with shooting ducks out of season. They felt that the fish and game laws catered to the Lower-Forty-Eight duck hunting seasons, without realizing that the same migratory birds did not arrive at their northernmost nesting grounds until the duck hunting season in the southern states was well over with. A small protest occurred when some hunters shot a duck out of season each, and turned themselves in to the local game warden, who had charged the first man with "out of season hunting."
When Dad wanted to keep up his tradition of hunting and fishing, he knew he had to have a car. So after we had been in Nome for three years, he negotiated for the sale of a Dodge 3/4-ton pickup, 1947 model. He bought it with $500 cash. Once the truck was delivered to our non-yard (a bit of mud, gravel, tundra grass, beside the dirt road), he was at a loss as to how to learn to drive it.
He was told by a neighbor how to operate the shift stick and the clutch, and so he began to drive without further instruction. He would take us to Uncle Nick's camp site, going the full speed of 19 miles an hour. Young men whose families had already learned through a generation of car-driving would pass by, yelling insults. Within a few months, he was able to drive at the allowable speed limits. He still drives with the first-learned two hands tightly gripped on the steering wheel. I was always intrigued by his fast movements while executing tight turns. He didn't allow his hands to cross on the wheel even then.
He also paid $400 for a summer cabin on skids, which was then situated on a more exclusive camp site about seven miles northwest, called Dexter. This area was used by white campers who liked rod fishing. There the cabins were often much better equipped than many of the Eskimo homes in Nome. A couple of cabins even had electric plants, fireplaces, and garages. The one Dad bought was owned for a short while by an elderly lady who ran a community center. But like many social organizations in poor areas, her teen-age club, girls' sewing clubs, and rummage sales, only provided a drop in the bucket for the community center, while she lived comfortably without criticism from anyone. Since she had sacrificed her summer cabin to Dad, she felt she was entitled to have him do jobs such as hauling sand for her cat. Dad would ask me to help him take the truck and drive out a couple of miles to the beach with a couple of shovels. Generally, her request came just as the fall freeze began, and it was a bitch to find the loose dry sand. So we filled up the giant cardboard box with sand and lugged it up in smaller boxes to her apartment above the community center.
The cabin was not doing Dad any good at Dexter, so he paid the local trucking company to drag it down with a tractor to its present site at Fort Davis, for about $150.
Unlike the Dexter camping site, Fort Davis is a camp which cries out its lack of material affluence, even in its overall appearance. Most of it is comprised of tent frames, such as the ones we used in Buck Creek at the tin mining camp. Usually a ten by twelve heavy duck canvas tent is used for the wooden platform for the floor and base of the permanent frame. Then there are the five or six wooden and sheet metal cabins, not much larger than the tents. Each camp is equipped with the merest necessities. The wood stove for the cabins suffices, and usually a half oil drum fitted with stove pipes, is used for the tents. To keep the tent from the hot stove pipe, a wire is bent into a "safety," shaped like a daisy, and sewn to the tent cloth. The ubiquitous Standard Oil kerosene container box is used for camp furniture, makeshift cupboards, grub boxes, and work tables.
For all the impoverishment that shows through the people and the buildings of the city of Nome, the poverty as it appears in a fish camp cannot readily be dismissed as a final determination of the state of the Eskimo in Nome. A family that can afford the tent, the fishing seine, the boat, and the camping gear, is in fact a happy family that can make use of the native instincts of living off the land. And so the months of June, July, August, and September are celebrated by men such as Dad, as a time when they can still feel a part of the ages-old traditions from which they came. To catch a sufficient supply of fish at the camps near Nome, is hard work. First of all, one spends a lot of menial labor through low-paying unskilled work, to save enough for the material used. The cheapest seine net runs to about fifty dollars without floats and weights, rope and repair materials. The rowboat amounts to another hundred dollars. Accessories for the boat: oarlocks, oars, motor, gas tanks, costs another two hundred dollars. Hip boots, clothing, and transportation to the camp site are also costly. Once these items are acquired, there is the matter of their upkeep. Indeed, it often becomes questionable as to whether "subsistence fishing" is practical. Usually, those who spend week-ends and summer vacations at Ft. Davis are the older Eskimos and their infant grandchildren who need to be looked after. The young people are in Nome, not really learning anything, except the futility of labor in a ghost town.
In this manner, the typical Nome Eskimo family today is split, not only into a generation gap, but into widely separated age groups. The infant grandchildren, a good number of them illegitimate, are raised from toddlers to school age by their grandparents, in the most Eskimo way possible. Then comes the inevitable tragedy - the schooling which excludes their grandparents' life style, the classmates who are quick to make stabbing judgments, and the general apathy of the whole community. All these factors hit the youngster a blow upon his most sensitive spot, his pride and the good memories of the quiet days at the fish camps. Good days, with fresh, clean air, outdoor games, kindness in relationships, and some degree of security. Thus the youngster is almost doomed to relive the same breaking-away point that his young parents have experienced some fifteen years earlier. There is no explosion of tempers, no irate parents who write to editors or try to let congressmen know of the problem. No newspapers dwell upon the problems of the Eskimo youth. There is only the silent antagonism shown by the campers, who feel that they are themselves doomed to extinction as a hunter-fishing people.
In truth, the Eskimo youth wants the best of both cultures: his ancestral culture, and that of the Western society. On one hand, he feels cheated because both cultures are tearing at him and he has no standards on the basis of which he can made good choices. And on the other hand, he sees mainly the negative side of the Eskimo culture, and cannot fail to see the negative side of the European-based culture. His best instincts tell him that it must be possible to blend the two. Young, impatient, lacking in education and opportunities, who can blame him if he finds himself in a corner and cannot choose wisely!
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