At Remote Eskimo School, Yearning for the Lower 48
National Geographic News
Feb. 24, 2005

Perched on a barren Alaskan coast, the village of Tununak receives little shelter from the cruel winds of the Bering Sea. A storm last year wiped out its community center.

Yet it is perhaps the mercurial winds of globalization that are leaving the greatest imprint on this remote Yupik Eskimo village, population 350.

Like hundreds of other indigenous settlements throughout Alaska—and thousands more throughout the world—Tununak finds itself clinging to the last vestiges of its native heritage against the onslaught of Western-style modernity.

The older people in Tununak complain that their native culture has moved to the brink of extinction. Listening to the younger generation, which is tied to the outside world through the Internet and satellite television, it sounds like the culture has already gone off the edge.

"This place is dead," said Aaron Link, who is 16 years old. "There is nothing to do here. We would like to make new friends, meet new people … be part of the rest of the world."

To that end, Link and his fellow high school-age students from Tununak's Paul T. Albert Memorial School are raising money for a future trip to the lower 48, as Alaskans refer to the continuous United States.

Their plan is not to travel as cultural ambassadors to promote their traditional way of life. Instead, they are going simply to discover the outside world—a world they have only seen on television but one in which they see their own future.

Cut Off

The Yupik are a group of Eskimo people. Some 20,000 Yupik people live on the southwest coast of Alaska. Situated on Nelson Island, Tununak, which means "back of the river," sits near the Tununak River and the Bering Sea.

Native Americans settled in the village as early as 6,000 B.C. Over the millennia, the village population rose and fell as Eskimo warfare raged in the area.

Today residents speak facetiously about "downtown" and "uptown" in the collection of modest houses that make up the village. In addition to the school (the largest employer), there is a medical clinic (without a registered nurse) and a general store. The store now has an Internet connection through which customers can order food online from Bethel, 120 miles (190 kilometers) away.

The one road that cuts through the village is riddled with potholes, but fixing it is hardly a priority, since only one resident has a car. There is no road out of Tununak, which is accessible only by small airplane and when the weather permits.

Instead, the primary mode of transportation is snowmobile. During the six or more months out of the year when Tununak is covered in snow, the frozen river serves as the main thoroughfare.

The residents, however, revere the stark landscape of rolling hills and cragged shoreline.

"This is God's country," said Victor Kanrilak, a community advocate and counselor at the school.

Tununak is still a subsistence community, with residents relying on hunting and fishing for their survival. The fishing is done in the summertime, and the catch includes salmon, blackfish, halibut, herring, and trout. In 1969 musk oxen wer introduced on the island. Today there are 300 to 400 oxen, and hunters are allowed to kill 30 per year.

"Village English"

A future of subsistence hunting hardly appeals to the students at Paul T. Albert Memorial. But getting out of the village—and finding a job—is an uphill climb. In the last ten years the school has only graduated one male student. Most students who try for college do not succeed.

Language is one of the main obstacles.

Students begin their studies in the Yupik language then switch to English in third grade. Most young people in the village become fluent in neither Yupik nor English, putting them at a big disadvantage when it comes to taking statewide tests.

"The kids speak a sort of 'village English,'" Kanrilak said. "They'll say things like, 'We'll check you.' That means they will come to see you."

Kanrilak speaks to his eight children in both English and Yupik. Although his children can understand Yup'ik, they respond in English. Kanrilak says his generation was the last to be immersed in the Yupik language.

"We have been told that our language is inferior and we should speak English," he said. "Today we have to compete with television. A minority of people in the village speak to their children in their native language."

Experts say that language loss is perhaps the strongest indicator that a culture is eroding. According to Wade Davis, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence and an expert on struggling cultures, there were 6,000 languages spoken around the world 50 years ago. Today, fewer than half of them are being taught to schoolchildren.

"Unless something changes, [these cultures] are already dead," Davis said. "Language is not just vocabulary and grammar. It's the flash of the human spirit, a vehicle through which the soul of a culture comes to the material world, and every language is like an old-growth forest of the mind."

Language is hardly the only cultural loss. Already gone, at least in Tununak, are the spiritual traditions. In Yupik culture, nature is a metaphysic—a source of abstract knowledge of cosmology and being. According to Yupik tradition, shamans, dreamers who are receptive to nature's voices, can travel freely in the unseen world. They return to this world with new rituals.

But there are no more shamans in Tununak. A single Catholic church serves the community.

Kanrilak, the community activist, says the cultural loss is tragic, but inevitable.

"It happens to indigenous people, the lifestyle changes as they come in contact with another prominent culture," he said. "A lot of the things we used to do are memory now. Yes, I'm sad about it. But it's something that had to happen.

"If I let my kids live in the past," he added, "they would be left behind in this world we live in."

Telling Stories

Some parts of the Yupik culture are kept alive. Traditional dancing, involving both young and old people, is popular, particularly at special feasts.

Ladies, waving fans made from caribou neck hair and woven grass, dance to traditional drumming with young boys who kneel and wave feather fans. Most dances tell stories from long ago, many about hunting.

For their trip to the lower 48, the students plan to put together a presentation, including dancing, on traditional Yupik culture.

"Our students would like to share their culture as an awareness of the people who came before them," said Janet Hoppe, a teacher at the Paul T. Albert Memorial School. Hoppe, who is from Wisconsin, is organizing the trip.

But, Hoppe said, "the students are more interested in learning what the world is like, how to interact with their peers across America and gain confidence to step outside the village."

An itinerary has not been set, but Washington, D.C., would definitely be one stop on a trek that could last several months. Hoppe is thinking about taking a few students to the lower 48 on a nine-week "trial run" this summer.

To Joanne Albert, a 15-year-old student, it doesn't matter where they go. "I just want to see new faces," she said. "In the village we see the same people all the time."

As one might expect, the dating scene in Tununak isn't exactly huge, since most people are related to each other.

"The needs and aspirations of the youth are changing," Hoppe said. "The elders would like the tradition of young people staying in the village, taking care of the old, to continue. But the youth see a different future. They want to go out of the community and join the modern world."

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