The past few days since Super Bowl Sunday have been a bit wild and I’m glad to take a quiet moment and share the scene.
I’m back in Anchorage now, the project hit a delay and I caught a last-minute plane back to the city for a respite while some new equipment is ordered. While I’m grateful for a chance to see friends and enjoy some civilization, I lamented the delay in getting my project complete. Such things aren’t uncommon in villages, as logistical hiccups are part of doing business in remote areas, but it’s still saddening.
In a way, this turn of events is proof-positive of what the Nightmute principal discussed with me earlier in the trip. Operating out beyond a road system is tough, even with the most meticulous planning.
However, this affords me some time for reflection on those I met in Nightmute, along with the astounding souls I encountered on my way back to Anchorage.
As I mentioned in the first Nightmute post, my client arranged for a cook to feed the new school’s crew. Little did I know, the gentleman preparing our meals would be one of the most fascinating individuals I’ve gotten to meet in Alaska. His graciousness and attitude of gratitude was infectious.
An Alabaman by birth and a truly adaptable chef through and through, our savior of sustenance was a master at making do with shockingly little. Supply chains getting to Alaska’s villages can be tenuous at best. Regular fresh shipments simply aren’t a reality with unpredictable inclement weather and mechanical holdups. And so our cook’s creativity shone through as he prepared delicious meal after meal with random supplies.
But that’s the least of our hero’s attributes. This fellow served in the United States military and fought in Afghanistan. He’s seen a lot of the world and the worst of humanity. While we only discussed the war briefly, it was clear that the experiences impacted him deeply.
After his service ended, our cook’s path took him north, where he used his G.I. Bill money to attend culinary school in Seward, Alaska. During this time, he met and fell in love with a woman from Nightmute. The rest is history: they have two children together and he’s been happily living with his new family in the village for a few years now.
An avid runner, he gave great tips on places to jog during my stay, even going so far as to recommend neat places for photographs at sunset and sunrise. But the most profound part of our conversations revealed his deep appreciation and alignment with the Native Alaskan communal culture.
“Everyone helps each other. Family and community, they’re the most important thing in the world to Yup’ik people,” he told me one afternoon after lunch. His insights were spot-on with what I’d witnessed in other Yup’ik and Native communities: nothing can compare to the family bonds in such places.
He was especially proud to raise his children in a bilingual household and he’s picked up a decent command of Yup’ik himself…though he admits to having a hard time with some of the more challenging sounds. We talked a lot about how cool it is that the Lower Kuskokwim School District places a huge emphasis on teaching children Yup’ik and preserving their beautiful culture through embracing their language.
(Schools are even going so far as to pay for Yup’ik speakers’ college educations. It’s one thing to state support of a bilingual program, but backing this claim with actual high-dollar programmatic funding shows the authenticity of the schools’ goals.)
From the experiences of a somewhat checkered past and service in the United States Armed Forces, our chef grew into a remarkably humble and diligent 30-something whose admirable twin philosophies resounded deeply: food is a language of love and small pleasures are the best pleasures.
Our cook lives simply, and shares his meals and prosperity with everyone he can, even individuals in the village who are still wary of him for no other reason than his status as an ‘Outsider.’ This guy rocks and I’m glad we exchanged contact information, as his story and outlook were incredibly inspiring.
Flash forward to my trip from Nightmute to Anchorage. I caught a puddle-jumper to Bethel, where I was lucky enough to visit the Bethel Cultural Center. If you ever get to visit, it’s informative and reveals some of the special spirit alive in Alaskan Native culture.
I then sat in the Bethel airport for a spell and engaged in one of my favorite hobbies, people-watching, which is especially amusing in Alaskan village airports. This day was no different. In fact, it was better than anything I’d seen before because there were WILD children running amok.
They ran willy-nilly with shrieks and shouts, crashing into stuff (or each other), screaming, laughing, crying, sneezing, hiccuping, coughing, and generally creating a sublime sort of chaos. I loved it.
The poor Alaska Airlines ticketing agents tried to keep their cool and patience through the pandemonium, but now and again it got to be too much and a voice would crackle over the PA:
“Please don’t let your children play on the baggage carousel.”
“Do not allow children to bang on the vending machines please.”
And the one that made me laugh right out loud:
“Children are NOT to bring snow into the terminal!”
This last one was shouted after a few ruffians declared war on another faction of miscreants with snowballs from outside. Yep, it was full-scale havoc. Oh, and then there was this kid…
He was a tough one to photograph; he literally leapt off every surface he could with a barrage of Nerf darts. Chairs, window panes, walls, doors, his legs were springs and his imaginary foes many. Just when I thought he’d mellowed out, he dropped his Nerf gun dramatically and busted out TWO MORE!
By this time time, he knew he had an audience and he struck a brief pose for some laughing passengers, twirling his instruments of death-by-foam. What a great kid. I don’t know his name or where he’s from, but I’ve a hunch he’ll go far.
On my flight from Bethel to Anchorage, I was asked to move my seat so an elderly couple could sit together. By the time I moved my seat, the journey was starting to take a toll. I was tired and sort of overstimulated from watching the Bethel airport’s Lord of the Flies rendition, but I struck up conversation with my neighbor (you never know what might transpire or whom you’re sitting near) and I so was glad I did. In a twist of fate, I ended up sitting next to a member of the State of Alaska Department of Corrections Parole Board.
The ensuing conversation covered a wide range of heavy topics, but all circled around Alaska’s crime rates, criminals, and socio-economic challenges. I’m excited to pick up there next time, as this is something I’ve tried tackling before but with little success (or at least not enough to hit that ominous “Publish” button).
Until then…please enjoy my favorite photo from Nightmute of a fellow actually riding off into the sunset.
© Chasen Cunitz and AKv2v.com, 2017
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Alaska: Village to Village