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“Live your life with reverence for life itself”
Lessons of gratitude and respect from a Yukon River village
Story and photos by John Lyle
Golden birch leaves set against a slate-blue sky and formations of geese move me to reflect on another passing season, on not only how people in our lives may come and go and then come back again, but how seemingly different events and encounters — even those separated by many years — are interwoven.
A recent phone call from an old friend, Philip “Tucker” Semaken, was a prompt to dig out photographs from time spent living and teaching in the middle Yukon River Koyukon Athabascan village of Kaltag. It’s always heartwarming to hear Tucker’s distinctive voice and hearty laugh. As we spoke I gazed at the photos, many of former students. In one, smiling skiers pause atop a bluff with the mountains behind them. Many are now parents or grandparents, and, sadly, some have passed. Yet the strength of their characters is very much alive in their faces.
I first arrived in the Kaltag in late August 1980. On the mail plane from Galena I sat next to Marylene Esmailka, whose kind eyes spoke of hope and acceptance. “You’ll like Kaltag,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place. You’ll see.”
Near the end of the flight Marylene touched my arm and raised her eyebrows, looking toward the front of the plane. Appearing on the horizon was the Yukon River, and perched above it on the bluff was the village. Beyond lay dense forests and the Kaltag Mountains, which captured the brilliant fall colors in the late afternoon light.
Soon after arriving, I was invited to dinner by Edgar Kallends, a former riverboat captain and a veteran of the original, 1925 Nome serum run. He and his wife, Virginia, operated the post office and a small general store. Over moose soup and fish strips they shared stories about Kaltag in earlier times, when riverboats took passengers and supplies to villages along the river. Edgar recounted the massive amounts of wood used to fuel the steam engines and the attention to detail needed to pilot boats up and down continually changing river channels.
Mentioning the high attrition rate of rural teachers, I asked Ed and Virginia for guidance.
“It’s pretty simple,” Ed said with a smile. “Love the children, help the elders, laugh at yourself.”
Like many rural teachers I prepared for numerous classes spanning multiple grades each day. Most subjects were of personal interest, such as Alaska Native land claims, health and nutrition, child development, and world geography. But just as important was what I’d learn as a student myself.
After school, students would run or ski, not so much to train for competition as for the love of exploring the backcountry.
And later on, to prepare for ski treks to the Bering Sea.
In 1980, four students in the Alaska Native land claims class proposed a cross country skiing field trip to Unalakleet. They set a goal of skiing 500 miles to prepare for it. Tommy Neglaska, Peter Nickoli, Jerry Nicholas and John Allan “Jake” Semaken inscribed each day’s skiing mileage on a wall chart in the ski closet. When they added up the figures, the students realized they’d far surpassed their goal, which only increased their resolve to succeed.
The motivations for the field trip were many: to test physical limits; to feed a desire for exploration; to step into a new cultural experience; and to learn by experience some of the challenges and insights gleaned by the elders from years past. And not insignificant was that students simply hoped to have an awesome adventure in beautiful, wild country.
Tucker and his dog team, and another person pulling a sled by snowmachine, gave us critical support, allowing us to ski the 90 miles in three days. Our route was the Iditarod Trail over the Kaltag Mountains to the Unalakleet River, and then into the Inupiaq village of Unalakleet. Rugged, exposed terrain tested our mettle with overflow on the Unalakleet River, powerful headwinds crossing the flats and whiteouts near the Whale Back Mountains. On the third day a chance encounter with Alan Soosuk boosted our spirits. Soosuk, from Unalakleet, was ice fishing on the Unalakleet River when we came upon him. The sharing of a much-needed meal with the fisherman set the stage for the last hard push to Norton Sound.
“You come a long ways but you still have a ways to go,” he said. “I’ll let them know you’re coming!”
None of the students had been to Unalakleet or to any Eskimo village before and didn’t quite know what to expect. The final day was tough on all of us, dogs included. As we neared the crest of the last bluff with not much energy left we were greeted by a rising orange moon in the evening and a long string of lights and lanterns lining the way into town. As students approached their cheering hosts they were filled with new-found sources of energy. They looked like Olympic champions.
The first to welcome the group was Allan Soosuk, on his snowmachine. He shook our hands and led us back to his house, where we stayed the night.
Now, as Tucker and I spoke on the phone I asked him what stood out from those trips.
“Those boys were strong, and they didn’t give up. I respect them for that,” he replied.
Spokes of a wheel
Tucker then went on to describe the stick dance held in Kaltag this past March.
“It was beautiful — hundreds of people in that community hall, people from all over. We were honored,” he recounted.
The significance of this generations-old tradition is immense. Family and friends from all corners of Alaska come to honor the lives of loved ones who’ve passed. Before the potlatch elders welcome visitors, then everyone sits together on the floor and shares bowls of moose soup, platters of king salmon, freshly baked breads and rolls, caribou, Indian ice cream and several types of berries. Visitors from the Bering Sea bring gifts of muktuk and seal oil.
Almost all the food comes from the surrounding land, air or water, a reminder of how people depend on subsistence.
At the last stick dance I attended several years ago there was an unexpected surprise.
Someone came into the octagonal log community hall and announced, “Two guys out there just skied down from Fairbanks.” Outside the hall appeared two frost-burned faces with trail-weary smiles. It was Ned Rozell and Andy Sterns, who just happened to stop by on their way to Nome.
“Good to be here,” said Ned. “An understatement,” quipped Andy.
Later, Ned returned to the hall for the stick dance. We watched as blurred lines of singers and dancers revolved arm-in-arm around the hall like spokes in a wheel.
For many folks who grow up in small, isolated towns or villages and then abruptly move to the city, the transition can be traumatic. In the village a person knows how everyone is connected, but in a city one can become lost in a sea of strangers. Going back for stick dance narrows the gaps and renews important extended family connections.
As Tucker reflected on old times, I leafed through photos and spotted a faded copy of a handwritten note dated June 8, 1984. Taped to the note was a black-and-white image of students dressed in clothes they’d made for the Festival of Native Arts, held at UAF. I’d carried the photo with me on a trip to Montana to visit old friends before flying to the Midwest to see family. The note was written during an eastbound flight out of Billings.
As I boarded the airplane, I had noticed a passenger reading a French newspaper. Clearing my throat and rustling my rucksack caused the paper to lower, revealing a gentleman in wire-rimmed glasses and a green flannel shirt with patches on the elbows. His jeans were faded and worn. With wide eyes I raised my hands as if to say, “What in the world are you doing here?”
Smiling, he shrugged his shoulders as if to reply, “But of course!”
Stunned, I continued down the aisle and found my seat next to a man in a three-piece suit.
“You’ll never guess who’s on this plane.”
“And just who would that be?” he sarcastically replied.
“Jack who?” he snapped.
“Oh, never mind,” I said. “Sorry to bother you.”
As the plane taxied down the runway I considered approaching Cousteau. He probably wanted to be left alone, but then again it would likely be my only chance to meet him and thank him for his lifetime of work in ocean studies.
After the plane reached its cruising altitude, I took out the photograph of my students. On the back were their names, along with a sketch of Alaska showing Kaltag and the Yukon River. Taking a deep breath I walked up to Cousteau, introduced myself and handed him the photo.
He smiled and motioned to the empty seat next to him. “Please, sit down.”
Cousteau said he had been in Montana studying Missouri River paddlefish and was returning to France. However, he was most interested in knowing about the young people in the photo dressed in handmade beaver-trimmed mittens, fur-lined moose- and caribou-skin boots, and colorful ruff-rimmed parkas. They were students from Kaltag, Alaska, I explained.
Despite their relative isolation, they knew who Jacques Cousteau was and enjoyed watching his 16-mm films whenever we received them from the state film library in Juneau.
Cousteau closely examined the photo and smiled. “I know Kaltag. I visited many years ago, and I’ll never forget it.”
He then took out a pen and pad of paper and wrote:
I just met John Lyle and he gave me a picture of his students — you – in Kaltag, Alaska. I look at all your happy, smiling faces and I sincerely wish that you can live your life with reverence for life itself, all the way to serene happiness. I love you,
Speaking with Tucker and seeing the old photos of students was a poignant reminder of the dynamic and powerful bond which connects people living together in rural villages across the state. It’s a bond based on respect, and it’s precious. It’s the respect people have for the natural world and ways it sustains their lives. The respect students experienced from the power of the elements. The respect that comes from honoring those who’ve passed. And as one man put it so eloquently, respect for life itself.
John Lyle, ’87, lived and taught in Kaltag from 1980 – 1985. He then moved to Fairbanks where he completed studies in counseling and guidance at UAF and worked as an elementary school counselor for 15 years. He’s presently working as gardener in residence at The Center for the Study of Something, which at first may seem trivial but upon closer inspection takes on global significance.