'I learned I had to be strong'
Mary Schaeffer is a Native woman with foundations in both Native and white culture.
She was born in 1940 in Kotzebue and reared in traditional ways, but she knows the world of politics as well. Along with her husband, NANA Corporation head John Schaeffer, she has been a part of Native activism in Alaska politics since the beginnings of the Alaska Native Land Claims effort. She's stayed involved by fighting for Native hire on the trans-Alaska pipeline project, and, more recently, on efforts to keep Eskimo culture alive through traditional elders' conferences and the northwest Alaska-based Spirit Committee.
Sophisticated in style and spiritual in outlook, she is today employed as a legislative information officer in Kotzebue.
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What is the Spirit Committee?
Well, we are trying to bring back spiritual values. It is because we want to bring back these values that we formed the Spirit Committee a couple [of] years ago. NANA, the Native corporation, joined with the local school district and the non-profit arm, Maniluq, to begin looking at why we had such an alcohol problem, why our young were committing suicide, why there were so many family break-ups.
We knew something was missing and discussed that what is really missing is that a lot of younger people have lost their spirit, their own identity and spiritual values that I had when I grew up. That is what we are seeking, a way to bridge the gap.
You refer to the traditional way you were raised. What does this mean?
I grew up with my aunt and uncle. When I was born my real mother was struggling to make a living at the hospital and she couldn't find a reliable babysitter for me, so she asked her older sister to care for me. Her sister and husband took me in. At the time they were living in Noatak, so I went up there and grew up with them as Mom and Dad.
Every spring we would go down towards Kotzebue, across from Sheshalik. We went down so Mom could help with cutting Beluga and fish and seals to try and get enough food for us during the winter time. We would follow the rest of the villagers; when the ice would first start moving is when the people from Noatak would start going downriver. We would camp there from the end of June to August and then would move to Kotzebue, where we would gather the basics and then go back upriver at the end of August for winter.
As far back as I can remember, Mom showed me how to make snares and how to use the dog team to go get ice. After school, I would go hook up my dogs and I would put out my snares for either ptarmigan or rabbit, and check them.
Finally, when I was 11, we moved to Kotzebue. It got to be hard for us living in Noatak in the winter time because we had to do so much work.
Did Native land claim politics affect you at all?
Some of the early organizing efforts were held right in my house. Just before we moved to Nome, Willie Hensley asked John to help organize a Native organization. He told us he was going to try and get some settlement from the government for all the Natives in Alaska. He told us that he had to leave for a meeting and that it was all on John's shoulders. John, in turn, told me to round up some people while he drafted up this organizational thing that we were going to get started on, something like the Northwest Native Association.
We only had one child at the time so we didn't have enough chairs, but I began to round up people. They were always going to the post office and we were right on Front Street. So I had my window open and would talk to people as they went by. I would tell them what we were trying to do and we got 15 to come to the first meeting. And that is how the Northwest Native Association first got started.
Then we moved to Nome and John was involved with it on and off. I would do detail work, the minor stuff they didn't have time for, like making coffee, rounding up people, getting paper, just little things but that is how I got political.
What were some of your struggles during such adventuresome times?
I think a lot of it at the beginning was trying to mesh the Western culture with our traditional culture. If you feel good about yourself and know what you want to do and where you are going, nothing will come in between. If you are open and free inside, you can be that way on the outside with other people.