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Keeping Native Kids’ Despair At Bay In Small Alaska Town

By Lisa Demer, Alaska Dispatch News, Anchorage (TNS)

HOOPER BAY, Alaska — The kids poured into the small white city building in the center of Hooper Bay: middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, and fifth-year seniors still working toward graduation.

They came to the youth and elders building one cold February night to dance, sing and drum, to be with each other, to save each other.

They call themselves the Native Survivors.

They are a youth group reviving old traditions and skills, a group born out of a desire to stop teens and young adults from killing themselves, to find peace through sewing and friends through dance. They are organized through AmeriCorps under the Rural Alaska Community Action Program.

The nucleus in Hooper Bay is the village’s Wilma Bell-Joe, 35. In this chapter of the nation’s 21-year-old AmeriCorps service program, the activists arise from the communities themselves.

Bell-Joe stepped up to launch the group after an unusually bad year for suicide in this Bering Sea village, a stretch of despair in a state where the rate of suicide tops or nearly tops the nation year after year. Among Alaska Native teenage boys and young men, the problem is far more severe, with a rate of suicide more than seven times greater than the state as a whole.

In 2010, Bell-Joe said, at least eight people committed suicide in Hooper Bay, a community of about 1,100 at the time. (The population since has grown slightly to about 1,200.) One was the 15-year-old daughter of her now-husband. Even more attempted it.

Since the formation of Native Survivors in 2013, something remarkable has happened: No one has committed suicide in Hooper Bay.

“Because of us,” Bell-Joe said quietly in a room ringing with the sounds of song, the beat of drums, the voices of young men. There were some suicide attempts, but none were completed. “These kids are inspired and encouraged and even if they make a mistake, they are not discouraged.”

That rough year drew in Bell-Joe, said Charlie Ess, one of RurAL CAP’s AmeriCorps program coordinators.

“She said ‘enough.’ And Wilma became a lion,” Ess said.

Hooper Bay is a dry village, but for some, alcohol (home-brewed and bootlegged) feeds emotional crises. Bell-Joe herself struggled with alcohol in the past but has been sober going on five years and uses her experience along with that of other volunteers to show the teens the trouble it brings. “You are slowly killing yourself,” she tells them.

Around Alaska, there are 35 AmeriCorps members working through RurAL CAP, mainly in villages.

Some focus on the environment through Rural Alaska Village Environmental Network or, RAVEN, in areas including recycling, energy efficiency, and gardening. Others, including Bell-Joe, turn to health, wellness, and prevention through Building Initiatives in Rural Community Health or, BIRCH. In the town of Huslia, young people learned to race and care for dogs through a project run by Kathy Turco, the partner of the late “Huslia Hustler” George Attla. In Haines, the AmeriCorps leader connected with kids at the Chilkoot Indian Association’s seal-hunting culture camp.

For kids and leaders alike, the benefits go beyond specific projects to the development of broad skills and gains in confidence as organizers look for ways to make a lasting difference.

“The program is her conduit to work miracles with them,” Ess said of Bell-Joe.

Bell-Joe grew up in Hooper Bay, the middle child of 13 children. When she was small, her family lived in a two-bedroom home, with her parents sleeping in one room and the children in the other. She was a teen mother who dropped out of school more than once. Ultimately, she graduated with a regular diploma after a sister convinced her that would it provide more opportunities. Her oldest child, then two, watched her graduate. She used her diploma to get jobs as an aide in community and behavioral health.

She’s found her best fit in the youth group. RurAL CAP leaders said she was offered a more lucrative job, but she wanted to stick with the kids. AmeriCorps pays a stipend of $600 every two weeks, but she’s also earned an educational award topping $11,000. She might eventually go to college to study child psychology.

The Hooper Bay group started with just two kids and is now at 53 and growing, Bell-Joe said. Even on a night when high school basketball practice competed for the teens’ attention, dozens showed up for dance practice and basketball players stopped by later.

Bell-Joe, who has had six children, including two adopted by her brother, blends in with the kids. She is just four feet, nine inches tall. When she hears of issues with a teacher or an aide at Hooper Bay School, she slips inside to observe, a watchdog in disguise.

“I literally dress up as a teenager and go into the classroom,” Bell-Joe said. “Sometimes we have problems with teachers at the school, with attitudes and favoritism.”

She stays quiet until a kid notices her. “Wilma’s here,” a student eventually says. She said she talks to the teacher and school board about what she sees.

“I remind those teachers they are here to teach and encourage our children, not discriminate … They are not there to talk down on the kids,” Bell-Joe said.

Her presence sends a message to the kids too.

“That’s my way of letting the kids know I am there for them,” Bell-Joe said.

The modern world can be so removed from village life, she said. “I just learned about Amazon last month. I just learned about Facebook last year.”

Traditional ways help anchor the kids, she said. Her parents, Margie and Joseph Bell, are among the elders who come to the little building to teach. Joseph Bell is also the mayor of Hooper Bay, and Margie teaches Yup’ik to children at the Head Start preschool. Elders have led workshops in making harpoons and beading, in making dance fans and sewing qasperet, the Yup’ik term for the cloth pullovers that non-Natives usually call kuspuks.

For each qaspeq, Margie Bell cut the cloth and boys and girls sewed them by hand.

“Just using needle, thread and thimble. No sewing machine,” Margie Bell said. Young people don’t need anything more, she said. “Only elder or older person, when they are in a hurry, they will cheat in sewing.”

All the projects are done with hand tools, Bell-Joe said. Next, they plan to make a pair of boots or, piluguuk, out of unsold sweaters and jeans donated by the Alaska Commercial Co. — the AC store — instead of the traditional materials of sealskin and fur. They don’t want to waste good material.

Sewing, hunting, and other traditional skills, Bell-Joe said, teach patience and help kids work through frustrations rather than blow up in anger.

One of her sons, Raymond, 17, wears a big heart stud earring in one ear. He said that when relationships go bad, that can mess with the mind and maybe even bring thoughts of suicide. Friends learn how to help each other through those sad times, he said.

“Friends would always come to me and tell me their problems. I just press the restart button on them and they become happy again,” Raymond said.

His father wasn’t around when he was growing up. Bell-Joe said he was in and out of jail. So Raymond turned to grandparents and uncles to teach him to hunt and fish. He’s gone seal hunting but needs to buy a rifle for walrus hunting.

In the spring, the youth group will walk the tundra with elders to collect greens. They’ll likely go on instructor-led hunts too.

At the dance practice, Joseph Bell and one of the young men led the drumming. Margie Bell led the dancers. On a cold night on which most of the teens walked or rode to practice by four-wheeler, some practiced in winter boots and insulated pants.

Larry Bunyan, 19, danced in the front row, his movements sharp, repeating a dance until he got it right.

Most boys would rather drum, he said. About a month ago he noticed a lack of boys in the dance line.

“So I put my drum down and became a dancer,” said Bunyan.

Valentina Tomaganuk, 18 and a high school junior, said she’s been coming to the youth group since it began. She loves to dance. She got involved through her grandfather. “My ap’a,” she said.

Bell-Joe gave the kids an assignment: Ask their parents who first taught them about respect. She wanted to get families talking.

The Native Survivors kept at it into the night. They danced the story of a big family celebration, a loud, happy time that drowned out the cries of a baby. Then each dancer reached out. Arms moved in unison. Each found their way to a tiny imaginary baby. They gave comfort in dance.

Photo: CTLiotta via Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists Rush To Save Yup’ik Treasures Threatened By Vanishing Shoreline

By Lisa Demer, Alaska Dispatch News

QUINHAGAK, Alaska — On the eroding Bering Sea coast of far Western Alaska, archaeologists from around the world are unearthing remnants of an ancient Yup’ik village frozen in place for hundreds of years.

Archaeologists involved say it’s the biggest excavation of Yup’ik artifacts from before the arrival of Russians and other Europeans in the early 1800s. The research is taking place in this remote Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta village as well as labs in Europe, Canada, and the United States.

In a region where tradition says old treasures should remain undisturbed, the Yup’ik people of Quinhagak invited the archaeologists in.

Why? “Because we had nothing,” said Warren Jones, president of the village corporation, Qanirtuuq Inc., which owns the dig site land. Cultural elements, including language and traditional dance, were stifled by the Moravian missionaries and nearly lost, said Jones, a behind-the-scenes leader in Quinhagak, home to about 700 people on Kuskokwim Bay some 70 miles southwest of Bethel.

Growing up “all I heard about was the church stuff, not what our ancestors did,” he said. They had stories but not ancient harpoons, stone ulus or little figurines of mythical creatures.

In a project that began five years ago, scholars, students, and Quinhagak residents are working together to carefully dismantle, document, and save relics from a sod house site they call “Nunalleq,” or old village.

“This is the first excavation of a Yup’ik house,” said lead archaeologist Rick Knecht, who has worked in Alaska since 1983 and now is with the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. “It’s not just any house. It’s a pretty spectacular one.”

Carbon dating of grasses and berry seeds at the site provides evidence that people first lived there in the 1300s, Knecht said. Then the village was attacked and set ablaze around 1640 by a neighboring settlement during the region’s “Bow and Arrow Wars,” he said. On the other side of the continent, the Pilgrims had just arrived in New England. But here, people were killed. The site was abandoned.

The old sod houses are on the Bering Sea coast a few miles across the tundra from Quinhagak. They collapsed in the fire and over time. The site was hidden in the tall grasses.

At the center, archaeologists say they found a traditional large men’s winter house. Smaller rooms connected by covered wooden walkways were added over the years, maybe as a way to bring in and protect women and children during the village wars, the researchers say. Traditionally, women and children lived separately from the men.

Until the permafrost began melting and the edge of the tundra eroded into the sea, the old village site, down to wooden cooking spoons, was well-preserved in the hard-frozen earth.

“There are all sorts of ghastly consequences to global warming but the one we’re worried about is the loss of cultural heritage,” Knecht said. “Because people live on these coastlines and the archaeological record is here.”

Just in the past five years, 30 feet at the edge of the dig site has been lost.

“It’s really going fast, right in front of our eyes,” Knecht said. Had the work not started when it did in 2009, thousands of artifacts at this one site would have washed away.

Quinhagak likely was one of dozens of settlements, maybe more, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta at the time, and may have been sizable, said Ann Fienup-Riordan, an Alaska-based cultural anthropologist who has worked with Yup’ik people for 40 years. The people here probably lived semi-nomadically out of necessity, traveling to the food sources by season. The old village may have been a longtime winter home. But much is unknown.

“The Y-K region is the black hole of archaeology in the state of Alaska. There is so little work out there,” Fienup-Riordan said. By the time the Russians came, around 1830, about 15,000 people lived in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, she said. The region now has about 25,000.

Archaeologists are concentrating on the men’s house as a rare opportunity to find and record items still in place.

“We have this kind of instant in time where the house was abandoned because of a disaster, because it burnt down,” said Charlotta Hillerdal, who is also with the University of Aberdeen and is one of Knecht’s co-investigators in the dig. “We have kind of captured everything in the house at its latest phase.”

The diggers have collected close to 50,000 items, counting ancient animal bones, bits of grass mats that covered the walls, and fragments of wooden tools. Of those, as many as 5,000 are special enough to display in a museum, Knecht said. Jones’ favorite: a mask with a dual wolf-human face, a symbol of transformation. All of it is evidence of human activity, Knecht said.

The work has attracted experts in many specialties: pottery and ulus, plants and bugs, dolls and shamans, bones and baskets. Diggers this year came from Canada, Scotland, Australia, Portugal, Sweden, France, Lithuania, and the United States.

Veronique Forbes, the program’s assistant field director and an archaeo-entomologist from Quebec whom everyone calls “the bug lady,” is studying insects inside and outside the sod house.

“The most interesting thing is that you can literally use insects to reconstruct activities inside the houses,” Forbes said. She’s finding dog lice, human lice, fleas, and surprising numbers of a particular kind of beetle that does not seem prevalent in the tundra now based on what she caught in little bug traps. The large numbers of dog lice tell her the people processed animal skins inside.

Fienup-Riordan, the anthropologist, collected impressions and stories from Quinhagak elders about the objects found. Team members brought in trays of dolls, hunting tools, woven pieces, and more for elders, who talked in Yup’ik, sometimes very enthusiastically, about the finds. One elder, George Pleasant, was able to identity the source of the stone for an ulu blade by its color. He described some wooden pieces not as handles, as the archaeologists guessed, but as weights for fishing nets.

“I think it’s the best thing anybody came and helped us do,” elder Annie Cleveland said of the dig.

The artifacts confirm and add detail to the stories of the village, Knecht said. Fienup-Riordan now has a date for the massacre story. What the elders say adds layers of explanation.

“We only get one shot at it,” Knecht said. “These are all pages in the Yup’ik history book.”

Village corporation leaders in consultation with elders are partners with the scientists in decision-making: when to dig, how to preserve the site, what to do with the finds. When archaeologists discovered bodies of several people killed in that long-ago raid, they consulted with village leaders and reburied the bodies.

Recently, the archaeologists put the year’s most interesting recovered objects on display in the big red community building and invited the whole village to see — and touch — them. A tiny seal amulet made of mammoth ivory. Wooden masks that had been broken in half. Stone harpoon tips. Pieces of model kayaks that show the evolution of the design. Researchers encouraged children to moisten the old wooden items with paintbrushes dipped in water.

“Be really gentle,” Ella McDonagh, a University of Aberdeen student from Scotland, told one group. “Fantastic! Well done! You are a pro at this!”

At a table with tiny pieces of carved ivory jewelry, John Smith, a village master carver, marveled at the skill of his ancestors before they had electric tools and metal blades. It inspired him to recreate some of the more intricate designs but he’s not yet satisfied with the result. He’ll keep at it. Maybe the dig project will draw village kids away from their video games and cellphones, he said.

Artifacts are shipped each year to the University of Aberdeen, which has a northern archaeology program and built a lab to process the Alaska collection.

By 2017, the researchers say, some artifacts will come home to Alaska and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Both the archaeologists and residents of Quinhagak say they want to create a village cultural center to display some of the ancient tools and art, and provide a place for artists and craftsmen to work and teach others. The Association of Village Council Presidents may create a repository in Bethel.

Quinhagak may just be the start, Knecht said. Other ancient Alaska village sites along the coast and on rivers are eroding too.

Their stories have yet to be uncovered.

Photo: Anchorage Daily News/MCT/Erik Hill

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