Art Works Blog

Postcard from Alaska, Part Two

Rocco caught a fish THIS big at the Silver Salmon Camp. Photo by Sven Haakanson

As you read yesterday, my first day in Alaska was truly jam-packed. The pace didn't let up! On the second day of our trip with the Rasmuson Foundation, we went to Bethel, and a small town nearby called Napaskiak, which you can only reach by boat. Both towns are very poor and it was very sobering for all of us on the trip. I’ve been in the third world and haven’t seen conditions this tough. Napaskiak didn’t even have a road. It had a boardwalk on which some very small three-wheelers could maybe go, a store without much on the shelves, and a rudimentary medical center. I mean this is deep poverty and subsistence-fishing living. Again, it was very sobering to see the economic conditions and what these people are struggling with just to survive.

In Bethel, we went to the Yup'ik Immersion School. The Yup'ik language is taught in the first three grades, so the kids are really raised bilingually, with the language of their own culture plus English. It’s a difficult issue there because sometimes the opportunity arises for these kids to go somewhere else where they can be educated and join the workforce. But the elders very much want to retain their young kids, steep them in the local culture, and have them come back and live there. But there aren’t always the opportunities there for them, so it’s kind of a constant tension about what to do. It’s interesting to see how they deal with those tensions.

Next we went to an artist’s presentation at the Yup'iit Cultural Center, Library, and Museum, where again a lot of Native heritage is preserved. Native artists were there exhibiting their wares, and we got to browse the museum. We had lunch at the Cultural Center with a lot of the regional leadership there, and we got to hear their point of view in terms of how they view their culture, the education of their young, their arts community, and so forth.

We also went to the Yuut Elitnaurviat campus, which cares for the people of the community. For instance, a big issue is dental care; in their community, the kids lose their teeth by the time they are seven or so. And they very often have to have completely new sets of teeth made. They’re trying to address these issues, trying to get earlier dental care, and earlier intervention to address the medical needs of the Native population.

We then went back to Anchorage and got on a train for a trip through the region. We were welcomed by the mayor, Dan Sullivan, who is also a very arts-attuned guy. He made a special mention of me and the NEA which was very touching. We all got on a train and took a tour that for a few hours long along the Cook Inlet. It had some of the most dramatic and glorious scenery you could ever imagine.

On the train I also got to spend some time with Art Rotch, who runs the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau. I caught up with what they’re doing; he has a very forward-thinking and interesting theater. He’s very good work there. They’re putting our message of consolidation and partnerships into practice, and are doing a joint presentation with the Anchorage Opera. It was neat to meet him.

As I mentioned yesterday, my cousin Jeremy Landesman was on the train and I got to sit and visit with him and catch up on some 50 years of disconnect. Jeremy owns one of the television stations there in Anchorage. He’s a true Landesman in that he’s an idiosyncratic, individualistic guy. It was just great to catch up with him.

On Wednesday we went up to the North Slope. We visited Deadhorse where there is a huge and impressive oil installation. They’ve been doing serious drilling there now for decades. The amount of oil coming out of it has decreased, but it is still very active. Deadhorse has a very intense work culture, which was interesting to see. People come in and work for two weeks and then have to take two weeks off before they can come back. Safety is paramount, and they need people to be alert and rested. During the working weeks, they live in dormitories, and work the oil field, which is very, very hard work. It’s like being in a completely enclosed environment there with a commissary and sleeping quarters. It was interesting to see an oilfield like this in operation. I’ve never seen that before.

We then went up to Barrow. Barrow is the kind of support town for the massive oil extraction operation. There’s an actual town and community life, and a hospital and cultural center. We met Richard Glenn there, who’s the vice president of Lands and Natural Resources at---and a board member of---Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which is one of the Native Regional Corporations created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. He talked to us a lot about the history of the Act and what it meant for them: what was good about it, what was disappointing about it. He really gave us a real history of Alaskan Natives. They used to be nomadic tribes, and would move with the whales and the caribou. After the missionaries came in, they became settled in particular places. Their whaling history was also changed by the International Whaling Commission which prohibited whaling in these areas. Now they are able to do it by quota.

We went in the afternoon to the Iñupiat Heritage Center where we got to see a lot of exhibits on the history of these whaling populations. We saw how whaling works, and there were a lot of cultural artifacts and even whales! It was a real window into the cultural history of Alaska’s whaling communities.

We also spent some time at Ilisagvik College, which is a junior college. We talked about the work that they’re doing in terms of accreditation, education, and what they’re trying to give the Native populations there. Again, these were very dedicated people laboring under very, very difficult circumstances. But there’s a lot of ambition there and a lot of optimism. There was a good Q&A back and forth, and Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, was at that session as well.

For dinner, we ate at a local Mexican restaurant that’s owned by a very interesting woman, Fran Tate. She had been a longtime jazz figure in Chicago, where she had her own jazz radio show. She’s a well-known character and cultural figure now in Anchorage. Richard Glenn was also there, and he talked to us again about the area’s history. He showed us maps of the region and we got to see how everything evolved to where it was. It was an invaluable piece of history.

Thursday it was back to Anchorage. We had a morning meeting at Governor Sean Parnell’s office, where we again had an interesting discussion about the situation of the Native communities, and also about the whole resource conundrum in Alaska. It was interesting to be exposed to the perspective of what they call the “resource community.” What’s interesting is that Republicans and Democrats---the whole political spectrum---are pretty much in agreement about the fact that there has to be a balanced approach to natural resources there. They consider themselves conservationists and preservationists, but they do believe in a balanced approach.

We then visited the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which was a revelation. I mean this was really a snapshot of creative placemaking at its best. A lot of things we’ve been talking about at the NEA are on exhibit at the Heritage Center. It’s like a meeting point between the city of Anchorage and the Native culture that exists in the small towns and remote villages and on the islands. It’s maybe a half-hour outside of Anchorage. It’s almost a transitional point where the Native-American culture is exhibited and preserved for other people to see, but they’re also providing a place for the Native communities to interact with the larger culture. It’s a place for people who have moved to Anchorage, or have moved on from their villages, to be able to come back to and have a sense of reconnection with their roots. We saw kayaks actually being made, and talked to a guy whose whole life is the handcrafting of these kayaks. There are exhibits about whaling communities, and other populations that migrate with the caribou and whose livelihood is dependent on that. You know, the different sections of Alaska are connected with different animals, and have different patterns of subsistence living depending on whether they’re rooted in the sea or the land.

We then took a small plane to fly into the Silver Salmon Camp. It’s right there on the beach next to the Nushagak River, bears everywhere you look, and a lot of wildlife. There we met Sven Haakanson of the Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository and Katherine Gottlieb of the Southcentral Foundation. Both Sven and Katherine are MacArthur fellows, and are very impressive people. Sven was very insistent that I go out and fish. And sure enough I went out and caught a fish. Gloria O’Neill was there from the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. She has a daughter who is deciding which Ivy League college to go to. I mean it’s amazing to see these people who have one foot in their Native heritage and culture and are very connected with that, but also are very engaged with the larger, wider world. For people like Gloria and Sven and Katherine, their mission I think is to keep the two connected, to live in both places happily at once. I think they are an inspiration to the Native people everywhere that you can expand the scope of your life but still keep your very strong roots.

On Friday, we made a stop in Sitka. I met up with Roger Schmidt who runs the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, which is a recipient of an Our Town grant. The camp is an amazing place. It’s on the old campus of Sheldon Jackson College, which went out of business. So they’re renovating the buildings, and bringing back the life there. It really is again a poster child for Our Town, and for creative placemaking. I really think this is going to be a centerpiece of Sitka, and a tourist destination. We went to the Sheldon Jackson Museum there where there are these amazing totem poles in all shapes, sizes, colors, old ones, and new ones that were being made as we were there. The arts are a big part of the identity of Sitka. Cruise ships stop there and people want to see the art of the place.

And then we went to the home of 2009 NEA Heritage Fellow Teri Rofkar, who is very involved in Native arts. She weaves very exotic jackets and blouses and baskets, which are just gorgeous. She fed us cured salmon in her home, which was a wonderful way to end what you can see was a great---and busy!---trip.

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