Struggle for Survival
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The Indian Historian Press for educational purposes only. Copyright 1971.
Survival is a major problem for the Eskimo family in Nome. In the course of the past 17 years, my father has indeed managed to survive. He is certainly not a man of means with prospects of ease and comfort in his later years. Still, he has been able to accumulate all that he feels is good for the "complete hunter-fisherman." Two camps, a skinboat, a gill net, a shotgun, three rifles, a new pickup truck, accessories and tools required for upkeep. These are the worldly goods of a man who has spent half a century in sheer struggle for existence. For a Nome Eskimo, however, this is the inventory of a successful man, one who has been able to hold both sides of his culture. As to Dad's camps, the amount of time spent is so short, it would seem that all that effort was at least partially wasted, since the equipment sits through November, until the spring months of April and May.
Willie uses his equipment not only for himself, but for the other people who come to him for help. Some have spent their last dollar for a bottle of cheap rot-gut. Some are not complete families, those in which the widows and divorcees often cannot make ends meet with the welfare checks. Others have not understood the usefulness of encouraging their children to further education. He sees them all as people who need help, and when they receive help from him, he cannot expect to be repaid except in friendship. He has also recently learned that it is questionable as to whether he has legal ownership of his campsites. The Bureau of Land Management gives permission only to remain on the site temporarily, to hunt and fish in those areas which are not used for commercial purposes and not claimed by whites. This means he can be kicked out if anyone bothers to look under his camp sites, finds minerals, and decides to develop the site for commercial purposes.
With so much of Alaska now viewed as a haven of natural resources, this is not impossible. It would be the ultimate in the process of breaking down men like Dad, who have managed to stay within the orbit of merely satisfactory conditions. To me, it would look much like the genocide that describes America's historic treatment of natives, since my father would probably just succumb to the law, because of his age and lack of opportunity to go on to other things.
I look back at my experiences at the Fort Davis camp with a sense of both sadness and fulfillment, as part of a time when I also had to fill in application blanks for college and federal employment. (What is your hobby (ies)? - "hunting and fishing.") I have mused that this would have been a loaded question for Willie to answer, since his main occupation was in fact, "hunting and fishing," which he had to relinquish for the opportunity to push the broom so that he could hunt and fish "in spare time." The sadness, if not the complete despair of the situation rests with his inability to look at hunting and fishing as a sport, knowing that his people are tied to it like a mistreated dog on a leash. On the other hand, affluence and vacation spots flourish in other areas of the United States, including Alaska. People can buy fresh air and relaxation by the day, week, or month.
Many of the hunting and fishing implements used by the Northwest Alaskan Eskimos for winter, early spring and late fall are not much changed. Since there are not many salmon runs beyond Nome, the seine net is not an old fishing device. Neither are the rowboats and related equipment. The gill net is neither old nor new, since the trading of twine allowed its introduction to villages above Nome at an earlier date than that of the seine. Uncle Nick already had his camp when we moved to Nome, and his wife was the one who taught Mom and Dad the fine art of seine fishing. Uncle Nick is a teetotaler while Aunt Catherine likes to enjoy a senseless binge every once in awhile. However, when the fish start their run in the summer, she is certainly a match for any fisherman in Fort Davis. Catherine is very much admired for her fishing skills, when she is not "uptowk"-ing, as my parents say, or "uptowning." She and Uncle Nick had an old panel truck which she learned to drive after tearing up its transmission by suddenly shifting it in reverse, a fatal mistake for the fourth gear position. She would pile her children on the panel truck and drive down to Fort Davis, sometimes to handle the heavy seine and flatbottom all by herself while Nick was working.
He was a carpenter for the mining company. When it closed down, he did odd jobs for awhile before becoming a truck driver for the local water delivery companies. There are usually two or three such companies offering work during the winter, when the summer water pipes for the city are drained. He has probably worked for all of them, since they change hands frequently when the owners decide to sell out and move to warmer climates, or expand to more profitable business ventures. I don't know how much younger Nick is than Willie, but he looks older, with his short-cropped pepper and salt hair, his usually toothless mouth, and his wrinkled face. He hates to wear his dentures because "they are more trouble than their worth."
I spent many afternoons, many week-ends at Fort Davis, time spent away from the usual pursuits of a young man in the city. I really did not fit into either scene, anyhow. But while I was at Fort Davis, and later at the next camp that Dad built further down the coast, I always looked forward to being with Nick. Whenever I arrived, my uncle would look up from what he was doing playing solitaire, readying for a rowboat ride up the river, filling up a fuel tank, working on a motor, or some such task - and give me that greeting which no one can ever do better to make me feel so welcome. The most genuine smile even without teeth, without a neat haircut, without neat anything - just a neat smile. "Ohhh, HeL000 YOOOsef! HOW's the BOY?" Then he would go on, without my asking, to tell me the prospects of the day. "Yesterday, I went up to the third bend and there was a lot of . . . " Or, "fishing is not too hot around here this morning; maybe if I go on up the river, I can find out if they are going up or sticking around further on down . . . " He was always ready to give me pointers as to where the game might be, and when it would be the best time to hunt. He always accompanied Dad on the skinboat hunting trips; at least when he was not working.
There were many times when I went with him to hunt ptarmigan, duck, and seal. Most of these hunts were unfruitful, although they were certainly good lessons for me. At that time, I thought that hunting and fishing involved nothing more than getting up early and being at the right spot at the right time. There was the time when he walked nearly thirty miles in knee deep fresh fallen snow for ptarmigan. He was to show me the places where they usually roosted on low bushes during late fall, but most of the time I was seeing his tracks in front of me and trying to step into them. They were too far apart for my slower snow-walking pace. Going uphill, I found myself wishing he would soon tire and take a rest, but he kept going. Yet, he was the one who would ask me, out on the seal hunts, if I was warm enough, or hungry, or if I wanted a grown man's permission to do the next shooting.
There were a few other boys whose parents camped at Fort Davis, who enjoyed the company, and the freedom from Nome city life. I met them whenever they themselves were not busy helping their parents, and we would talk of the experiences of the previous catch. We were also rod and reel enthusiasts; or more so than our parents. There is always a lot to learn about this type of fishing, in which the fish do not always gather at the same places every year. When I first started to fish with a rod and reel, much of it was just trying to snag the salmon and trout, which had other things in mind than nibbling on a fish egg. This was at a time when the mouth of the Nome River was very deep and narrow, and the fish were easily seen. Since then, the annual change of the river mouth has made it a wider, shallower one, in which more enticing bait is needed. Much of the gravel and sand near the mouth has been steam-shovelled and transported to the expanding roads further and further away from Nome. We would compare rods or reels and then vow that the next money saved through summer or parttime work would go for the better tackle.
Whatever it was that we youngsters did, I think it was done at least in part in order to forget the conditions in Nome, at a place where there were no tourists and no curious whites. No foreigners bothered to come close to the outwardly unkempt camp site. Just the same, there was a sort of order about the camps when one had the chance to visit them often enough. An order more felt than seen. The order of something which may not be felt or seen in the next generation, the order of a way of life which has been pushed out by such places as Nome.
Willie has tried to make his camp sites as comfortable as possible. He is aware of the differences in values of the Nome white and the Nome Eskimo more than most of the natives of Nome. He is in contact with teachers who are responsible for educating the new generation of Eskimos, and he learns what the teachers criticize most. To him, some of these criticisms embody virtual gems of instruction for the dying Eskimo culture. He probably does not realize that these "gems" cover up gross misunderstandings, the result in part of a high teacher turnover situation. The constant changes in the teaching staff guarantees that no far-reaching solutions will be dealt with. The most common complaints have been: the Eskimo school kids are too dirty, too poor, too uninvolved in protection of school property, too unaware of social graces, and too unmindful of the benefits of higher education. Therefore, when Dad started to set up a second camp at Nook, he wanted to make it as "white" as possible. He installed insulation and inside walls. He put in windows on all four sides and covered the exterior with tar paper. He laid a linoleum floor and trucked down the better discards from our Nome house. Uncle Nick helped him with the finer aspects of carpentry needed on the front steps and storage cabinets in the storm shed. It is really a small place. But to Dad it is his pride and joy; his answer to all that he heard in the school about the backward Eskimo, an answer that states there is no such thing as a "backward" Eskimo race.
Willie completed the Nook camp at the age of 61, and his physical condition has slowed down enough to show. Even then, he bought things to make himself self-sufficient in doing the jobs around the two camps. For instance, he used his new geared hoist to haul up his sixteen-foot flat-bottom boat to high ground, from the lagoon beach. He had tied one end to a driftwood post with the nylon rope attached to the hoist, and the other end to the hemp rope of the boat, apparently convinced that the old hemp rope could take the strain of the pull.
It was a nice cool autumn day; everything was still. The dead grass and tundra shrubs seemed to be waiting for the time they would be afforded the protection of the new snows, which was about a month away. Patience is the by-word for everything on the tundra, except for my father, who is laboring away to put things in their places for the winter. He has had a full summer of enjoying the boating and the quiet days, puttering away on the things that have to be done so that another summer will be assured. I was just out of the Army, another chapter in his years during which his children have been away one place or another, away from his life, his world. Anyhow, I was trying to make myself helpful around the camp, but he was too set in his ways, no longer relying on anyone but himself to do the things he felt were necessary.
I had just fetched water for cleaning some fish I caught when I looked over to see what Dad was doing. He was getting the rope tighter and tighter on the homemade winch, and the rope, straight as an arrow, began to pull the heavy boat an inch at a time. Then it happened! WHAPP! Like a .22 pistol shot, the hemp broke and he fell back. In that split second, I saw the rope whipping back directly at him. I ran to him, but he got up by himself and stood erect. That was a moment when I realized how strong a mind and body can be if forced to be pitted against so much. The threequarter-inch rope had glanced off his cheek and hit full force on his shoulder, but he gave no sign of pain. He just smiled in a sort of embarrassed manner while I helped him drag the boat up in the old way. We put driftwood logs underneath and rocked it up the beach. To me, the quiet air became a few degrees colder as we went about our business and the night grabbed the day as we drove home.
All those years of living with my parents could not make me comprehend more of the fact that it had been a hard life for Dad, than at that moment, when the test of not only the rope, but of the man and his environment was suddenly thrust before me. And yet, there was nothing really resolved from the incident. I could not really help my parents re-do their lives. Not that they would want it re-done, because the years went by without rendering them helpless, and they are happy. Neither was this the first time that a close call happened in our family. Stoicism is not really the special characteristic of an Eskimo family. If Dad is the no-nonsense realist who can treat his children's mistakes with angry scolds, our Mom is the one who can take the delinquent aside and quietly suggest better things to do. She once fainted at the sight of vomitus, when I had my tonsils taken out. For Dad, it probably is a holdover from the times when he had to vie for a position as sole provider for a family amid no-nonsense fellow hunters. But, that veneer of toughness and stern determination falls apart as readily as it is put on, as can be witnessed in his treatment of his grandchildren. No grandchildren below the age of five or six can escape his doting, almost childlike praises and playing. Also, close friends, white or Eskimo, can always recall his bursts of laughter and joking which can totally erase his moments of seriousness to a point of finding him a truly great friend to know.
But, besides grandchildren and close friends, I think that his sons would have a different definition for what is known as a close filial relationship, than those we read about in the school books, view in movies, or observe in other family situations. We cannot say that he was grouchy or unfair. Neither can we say that he was cruel, for he hardly ever touched us in anger. If there was praise for us, it was usually in the form of "Tdushza, Knunnuk adtah tdaimunna khiziennic inoonadtook." Roughly translated, it means, "Here it is readily comprehensible, because here now this example for its worth is the only one which proves the way to live in the past and future."
Ever since he started to work for the school and began to get free passes to the basketball games, he has become a great fan of Nome's most important school sport. When Skip and I entered high school, I was elected to the team because of my height, and Skip became its manager the first year. Mom and Dad watched every game, and when we came home after the games before going back to the school janitor's room to sleep (Skip and I were also "elected" to sleep near the furnaces to keep watch over them), Dad would give the strangest type of basketball criticism and proposed stratagems any youngster could hope to hear. Half in Eskimo and half in English, he would describe the bad plays, and then proceed to give suggestions on what might be done the next time. One could almost translate these observations from his memories of the times when he was young, and participated in the Eskimo games.
One Eskimo game was a form of kickball, in which a sealskin and reindeer hide ball, filled with reindeer fur, was furiously kicked about on the ice for points, by unlimited teams. He remembers the time when he damned near broke his toes on a hapless opponent's leg. He must have been newly married at the time, because Mom remembers the agony he suffered from this sport. I was never really good at any sort of athletics. The Nome high school team went through four years without making any spectacular record, and my team mates and I went through four years of discouraging attempts at keeping up the once championship material of ten years before. The team had just been entered into the Class B tournament bracket when I started playing. The last year, we were admitted to Class A. Throughout the tourney years, we were first beaten by the City League, whose players were the championship alumni. We had to fly to such cities as Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward, and Valdez to be beaten some more. We were beaten in more ways than by just playing a game with other high schools. Our first and second string teams were comprised of about half full-Eskimo boys and half mixed Eskimo, and white.
The Eskimo boys, myself included, were not always completely sold on the idea of aggressive offense in the play of basketball. We expended our energies, not because of wanting so much to win the lopsided games, but from wanting to fit into the kinds of activities that the cities had to offer young active boys. I don't know how many eyeglasses I went through while playing basketball. Some of the nights that Skip and I spent at the janitor's room were spent, at least to a small extent, in washing underwear and athletic socks after brotherly quarrels dealing with smelly socks and accusations of laziness. We bought new basketball shoes every year. The rest of the team were not always so fortunate, and we gave our old pairs to some of our team mates whose shoes looked as if cherry bombs had exploded in them.
There were other activities in our high school days besides the annual trauma of Alaska's most popular sport. Skip and I, like our father, didn't miss work except for five or six days due either to illness or excessively stormy weather. We managed to graduate in the top third of our class, even if we didn't try as hard as we could a have. However, there were other things we took part in that took time away from our studies. There was the high school band; Skip opted for the trumpet and promptly ordered one from Sears. I was I given the instrument that was too heavy for anyone else - the baritone saxophone. It was so old that I was continually ordering parts for it through the school. Once, I even went to the trouble of fixing a needle spring for one of the keys by soldering on one of my mother's skin sewing needles.
Then there was the Teen Club, occupying the old Army barracks, which was fitted with a few chairs and a phonograph. Even as I noticed that a good percentage of the white girls were not allowed to attend these weekly dances, I grew to like mingling with my classmates, and enjoyed the jitter-bugging with no special girls. Although some of the boys were too shy to try out the new dances (Like Skip was, quite unexpectedly), the affairs were always terribly lopsided in the boy-girl proportions, with boys in the majority. This was due mainly to the Eskimo and white families who mistrusted any contact of their daughters with Nome's teenage boys. The reason for this attitude on the part of the Eskimo parents was usually due to the fact that they took literally the teachings of the churches. As to the white parents, there seems to be no identifiable reason except racism and prejudice, of which there was plenty in Nome.
The high school years for Skip and me were most enlightening. We began to understand why Dad wanted us not to relent in our progress towards graduation. We felt how fortunate we were to be working. We were also finding out that the old fundamentalist taboos of no smoking and no drinking that Dad had wrapped around us were not binding forces. One form of release came because of the arrival of Ron and Nancy from Mt. Edgecumbe; I remember how aghast I was to see them sneaking cigarettes and smoking them secretly. At first (at the age of 13), I felt that they were committing the ultimate rebellion. Then I found out that Mom and Dad knew about this. Mom's point of view was that they should not smoke, but if they really wanted to, they should make their argument known to Dad, as to why it was alright to smoke. They kept sneaking cigarettes anyhow, not wanting to gamble on a successful reason why it was "all right" to smoke. .I was just starting into my teens when all of the traumatic experiences began to happen between a hard, non-drinking, no nonsense non-smoking father and his children, who were much like any other young people.
The differences between my parentsí ages and that of their growing children, were really differences between opportunities open to each generation. Such differences caused the least friction, however. Mom and Dad never wished to make big issues, truly believe they tried hard to understand. But from 1954 on, there were other and more profound issues that shook the foundations of the Senungetuk family. Such issues were brought about because the young people realized that cultural assimilation was de facto taken for granted by the older people of Nome, both white and Eskimo. It was taken for granted that business opportunities existed only for the whites, and that the Eskimos were in their natural place at the bottom of the opportunity ladder. The older white people were of course advocates of the status quo, mainly because no one objected to the system, and those who were the main money exchangers dealt not only with Nome business men, but with outside companies such as those in Seattle. For example, Hunt and Mottet (plumbing and heating equipment) of Seattle, 2,000 miles from Nome, has a virtual monopoly over Nome's pipe supply, tools, and other hardware. They are certainly not the best or most economical merchandisers, but they have long standing as suppliers. The same is true of many other important products such as building materials, motors and parts, tractors, road graders, boats, and automobiles.
Seattle is probably well satisfied with the steady income from Alaska's stand-still economy, knowing that there is no reason for this income to lapse. Indeed some day there may be an increase, from such items as the oil discoveries in Alaska. During the years of working at Nome Plumbing and Heating, Nome Hardware, Nome Public Schools, Federal Aviation Agency, and the Lomen Commercial Company, Skip, Ron and I have been closer to the operations of small community business than, say, our father. So the differences between the attitudes of the older generation and the younger involve much more than the educational status of both. We start to form our own ideas of what a business in Nome is, and we find that these ideas do not conform to Dad's. He maintains that the business district of Nome is the mainstay of Alaskan life, no matter who is running these businesses, or how they are run. Alaskan life to him is still centered around his immediate surroundings, even if he may be vaguely aware of middle-American life elsewhere. We, his sons, are at a point where we see so much being squeezed out of friends, relatives, and other Eskimos . . . and we have to disagree. Vast changes are needed in business, labor, education, management, and as well in the position of our own people in the economy of the state.
We argue about the usefulness of the church, while Dad believes there is nothing bad at all with a Nome church, even if there are some questionable practices by the more fundamentalist ones.
I don't think Dad fully understood what was taking place in the world of his teenage sons, even if he was aware of certain problems. What I felt then as a separation of the former closeness of the family was probably just his desire not to interfere with the teaching of his sons, education and training which he did not have at a similar age. Even his hard line principles of no smoking or drinking, which wore down to subtle lines of example, I sort of missed, because he just did not address himself to us any more than he had to. Sometimes, he would say something to all of us, if he found out that one of us had done something wrong. Naturally, we felt that this was grossly unfair. But we were still very wary of getting him angry.
Anger, to Dad and other Eskimo elders, is quite a different type of emotion than what is popularly seen in movies, books and other non-Native circles. There is no mistaking his anger for any other emotion. If he has a deep underlying silent rage against the present conditions of his modern day society, he does not show it.
Today, there are younger generations. Their emotions are less contained than those of my father. Willie's children are more than satisfied with his silent courage in dealing with the new world. Perhaps the youth will accept this heritage, adding to it their own eloquent, articulate solutions.
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