It takes a village …to gain perspective

Aug 17, 2012 | 1 comment

When you hear the word “village,” if you’re anything like me, America is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet in the Seward Peninsula, villages are almost the only form of community that exists here, aside from the bush towns of Nome and Kotzebue. 

Unlike these towns, villages all seem to have less than 300 people, 1 or 2 schools, maybe a store, and maybe a post office; there is also usually a village council or IRA (a tribal headquarters — not the Irish Republican Army!), and a community center. Most people seem to lead a subsistence-based lifestyle, hunting seals, whale, moose, walrus, and birds; fishing; herding reindeer, and crafting. 
Teller Trading Co.
One of our jobs as the National Park Service is to work with the local villages to teach kids about Bering Land Bridge and give them the opportunity to become Junior Rangers — and that’s just what we were doing this past Monday in the village of Teller, about 70 miles west of Nome. 

The beach

The experience was unlike any I have ever had. The little seaside township appeared dead when we first rolled in; no people, cars, or any signs of life, save for a couple dogs chained outside some run-down homes. We all nearly jumped out of our skin when a barge blared its horn at us for driving over their fuel line pumping gas to the village. After that, it seemed that everyone knew we were there.

Eventually we found where we were supposed to go, and a woman from the IRA let us into the community center/bingo hall where our Junior Ranger program would be held. We had been notified that children in these villages come to programs on their own — no parents or supervisors, which also meant I couldn’t get release forms to get their photos (or at least, their faces in photos). 

Part of the town

Sure enough, when the time came, the door was pushed open by a flood of small children between the ages of about 2-11. Some were shy, others talkative, over half of them related to each other in some way, and they ran around as if they owned the town. More and more kept coming in, until we had about 25 kids all sitting around the table.

Fortunately, our interpretive rangers are phenomenal here. They kept the kids pretty well focused and interacting, teaching them about the local ocean ecosystem. We played some nature-themed indoor games with them, and took them outside to explore the beach and play more active games.

Ranger working with the kids

Even though I wasn’t running the program, just helping out required every ounce of patience and energy I had. A few of the kids were just outright mean; it was clear most had grown up with very little guidance — especially those who hadn’t yet entered school — and would bully each other to an unsettling extent. They weren’t “bad” kids, but they obviously lacked some discipline at home, and seen some pretty nasty stuff in their families or around town.

Adorable little ones

As is common with the Inupiat culture though, the kids loved to tell us stories, ranging from the fascinating to the heartrending. Many would run along beside me as we were walking to and from the beach, telling me about their cousins and aunts and uncles; about seal-, moose-, and whale-hunting with their fathers; about swimming in the sea.

The harder ones to hear were those who talked about relatives who had been imprisoned for alcoholism or violence, as if this were a topic of everyday conversation. And on a lighter note, one boy enthusiastically told me about the scary “little green men” who roam the tundra; according to him, his uncle had stumbled upon their house while moose hunting, and they had chased him away (he half-acted this out, twisting his face up to emphasize the scariness of these little green men).

Heading back inside

The whole day, I was just perplexed by the village and the children, by 7-year-olds taking care of their 2-year-old siblings; by kids telling me stories about hunting and fishing and how tasty seal jerky is; and by the few elders who came in trying to sell us ivory carvings. The fact that places like this exist in our own country is beautiful to me, even with all the harsh realities that come with it.

Random dogs running around

Kids racing down the beach to the ranger

Ranger program for the older kids

I guess the hardest part is coming into a community like this as an “outsider.”  You can’t help but stand out in your NPS uniform, or carrying a huge camera, or being obviously non-native. And on top of that, trying to impart a larger global perspective to kids whose world consists of 3 roads and whose community is made up of their own siblings and cousins is not an easy task.

Yet, in the end, I think we got through to at least a couple of them. I could see some of them making connections between things they had learned in school and what we were teaching them here, and a look of pride in some of their eyes as they swore the oath of the Junior Ranger and received their honorary badges. Ultimately in an effort to bring new perspectives to their community, I think they brought new perspectives to me.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    A well written and very touching article!

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