Alaska Natives – The Untold Story

Sep 04, 2022 200.6K Views 779 Comments

Far north of the lower 48 is a special place called Alaska. Here, the Natives tell their stories about growing up in a world removed from roads, learning English as a second language, their perspective of being Native in Alaska, and how they feel about the US. Join me as we learn about another place and people in America that most of us know little about.

► Video edited by: Natalia Santenello
► Researched by: Kymberly Redmond

WOMAN: Blackberries.
PETER: We’re here with Yulia…
Oh, thank you.
And Gwen.
And you two…
You’re both native Alaskans?
GWEN: Yep.
YULIA: Mm-hmm.
YULIA: Little village.
PETER: Where abouts?
Down in the Lower Yukon.
Right in the coast.
About five, ten minutes to the coast.
PETER: That’s completely Native people
out there, right?
Completely Native.
-You can only get in by a plane, right?
-Little planes.
PETER: And Gwen
is the ambassador of Alaska.
[Gwen laughing]
PETER: So what was it like
growing up in the village here?
<Well, very far from here
but what was that like?
It was wonderful
The time we were five and six,
we had to learn how to survive.
Bring some wood in.
Pack water and when it gets dark
even it’s so early we have to go to bed
and then when the sun comes up
we all get up with our parka, boots…
Go outside.
Go use the restroom.
We didn’t know what the
word “restroom” was.
We just go outside and…
-Simple life?
-Simple, simple life.
And it should be like this now
but everything changed.
We had no English words,
only speak our language.
-What’s your language?
-Yupik.
-Yupik, you still speak Yupik fluently?
-I still could speak Yupik.
I think I was about 11 or 12 years old.
I used to sit up front
and look at the Gossacks.
[laughs]
-Cossacks…
-Cossacks, yeah.
So I just learned this on the way here,
I’m a Cossack which is…
Like in Ukraine, they’re are the Cossacks
and you’re referring to what
when you say Cossacks?
Like Slavic people?
No, not Slavic but white people.
That came from…
where we didn’t know where they came…
We thought they flew like with their arms.
‘Cause we didn’t know what plane was
and they pop out of nowhere
just like in a fantasy.
We didn’t know what word “fantasy” was.
And now I could speak the English.
It’s like in the book.
<Hmm.
You know, like cartoons.
We didn’t know what cartoon was.
We didn’t know nothing about TV and…
Our parents only had dog teams.
They go out every morning to…
To feed us.
[sloshing]
PETER: It’s a full on bog back here, huh?
PETER: Look at this.
GWEN: Beautiful.
Here we go, Alaska.
Bring your bug spray
except they don’t bite you, they bite me.
-So how is this hunt so far for berries?
-Horrible, horrible.
-Why is that?
-They’ve either been picked out or…
And the ones that are still there
are water logged.
your father was White, correct?
Yes.
He was from Valdez.
-He was from Valdez?
-Born and raised.
interracial marriages in those times?
Lots.
-Still?
-Yeah, just like Julia and her husband.
YULIA: Mm-hmm.
Okay, Julia’s 100% Native
but you married a Cossack?
YULIA: A Gossack.
GWEN: Gossack.
Not Cossack but Gossack.
<Gossack, oh, okay.
Yeah, not Cossack.
That’s your wife’s area.
-Yeah, Ukraine, warrior.
-Yeah.
That’s a different way.
getting it wrong on that.
You say Gossack.
No.
PETER: No?
GWEN: It’s not nice.
PETER: It’s not nice?
YULIA: He’s a good person,
I can’t call him names
but I will behind his back.
GWEN: You didn’t…
PETER: How about this, am I a Gossack?
You’re a good Gossack.
[all laughing]
PETER: How do most of the
Alaskan Natives feel of the Gossacks?
PETER: Just depends the person or?
GWEN: It depends.
YULIA: Depends how they are.
How they wanna be, you know,
bigger than the other people
that are non-speakers.
PETER: Mm-hmm.
They should, you know,
not try to be better than them
and put ’em down
just because they’re Natives.
PETER: Got you.
PETER: You were telling me, Gwen,
that in some of the small towns…
Like most of ’em in Alaska
you gotta fly in.
GWEN: Mm-hmm.
But you were saying that some of them
don’t allow their traditional dancing
and others, they do.
GWEN: Yeah, it depends
on the churches that went in.
-Okay, the churches that went in.
-Yeah.
When was it, Julia, 1900?
I only remember when I first went to.
GWEN: Father Lorenti
was in Alakanuk in the ’40s.
YULIA: But he spoke our language.
Yeah.
But he was Catholic Church.
PETER: So the Catholic Churches
came into a lot of these villages?
YULIA: Baptist, Russian Orthodox.
GWEN: Yeah, Russian Orthodox,
Covenant, Methodist.
They tore Alaska apart,
the churches, and said
“Okay, you’re going here,
you’re going here, you’re going here.”
PETER: And some churches didn’t want
the Natives to dance their Native dance?
Most of ’em.
-All of ’em really.
-Okay.
YULIA: But we didn’t stop.
Alakunuk and Emmonak didn’t stop.
Our chiefs said
“Why do you have your Christmas?
Why do you have Thanksgiving?”
“Why do you have Easters?”
“If you do that, why can’t we dance?”
That’s what he said.
GWEN: That was smart.
PETER: Do you still have
a good dance, Julia?
-You got it?
-We still have a really good dance.
In February or January.
I still go down.
You go back to your village?
I go back to my village
and take out the awful things
out of your body
That’s how you dance.
You dance…
And you take all your anger
and all your sins, whatever you have
you take ’em out.
-And be really happy.
-Can you show us?
-That’s how it is?
-That’s how we move.
<Okay.
C’mon Gwen.
<It’s all hands or you guys
do some hip movements too?
We have dance bands
and we use our Native outfits.
[laughing]
PETER: Oh, yeah.
That’s how we dance.
-We move around.
-That’s the… Do the…
We wanted to be Indians.
Pretended to be Indians or cowboys
GWEN: We did that a lot (laughing).
YULIA: ‘Cause they were cool.
The way they moved.
[Gwen and Peter chuckling]
How do the Natives here differ
from the Natives in the lower 48?
GWEN: They’ve been westernized
for a lot longer.
They don’t have anyone
that’s off a road system.
GWEN: Meaning off the road system,
you can’t drive to that place.
PETER: You gotta fly in?
GWEN: Mm-hmm.
go into these towns that are stuck…
-Not stuck but they are how they were.
-Yeah, exactly.
For you to take.
[Peter sniffing plants]
JULIA: So if you make tea…
Mmm, that’s…
Boil hot water and let it sit for a while
and then you can have tea.
It’s like a medicine.
It’ll heal your insides.
[Peter sniffing]
-It’s very nice.
-It’s a healthy thing.
Calms you down?
Mm-hmm, you could have it
in the morning, afternoon, or evening.
‘Cause we also have tea before we sleep.
<Okay.
When we were little.
YULIA: You ‘member that?
GWEN: Mm-hmm.
YULIA: We used to have tea…
GWEN: Always tea and dry fish.
Tea and dry fish, yeah.
YULIA: Before we were born…
GWEN: Yeah.
We didn’t have no names in the villages.
Someone named Emmonak
’cause there’s blackfish there.
PETER: So when someone would ask you
where you’re from what would you say?
I’ll say Emmo.
[Gwen laughing]
‘Cause it’s a modern word.
-Tell what Emmo means in the real world.
-Emmo means Emmonak, blackfish.
-For short, Emmo.
-Okay, but…
<Okay, Gwen, what’s on your shirt?
It’s Alakanuk, A-L-A-K-A-N-U-K.
-Okay, so what’s that mean?
-Mistake.
[all laughing]
Nine miles away from her.
I remember seeing her.
We didn’t speak English
and they spoke English
when they were little
’cause they had a Gossack daddy
and
we were all Natives.
I remember seeing her
and I was really looking at her.
[Gwen laughing]
YULIA: We were really small.
GWEN: I was little.
And they were dressed nice
and we were all…
You know, we had nothing but fur and we…
We’d stand by the door.
We’d look at them kids.
They were all, you know…
To us, they were so perfect for us.
[Gwen chuckles]
And when we go out…
Me and my sister, we’d laugh so hard.
We’d giggle ’cause we never seen
people that were so perfect.
PETER: You were in like a bear fur
or what were you in?
[all laughing]
We don’t even have bears in our village.
what would you wear?
We use rabbit.
<Rabbit, okay.
Fox, wolf, wolverine, seal.
GWEN: And the fur was inside
and the fabric was outside.
GWEN: We wore mukluks
with dried grass inside.
YULIA: For insulation.
Before they had this modern insulation.
PETER: So when you were growing up there
say when you turned teenager
did you want to come down to Anchorage?
You wanted to get out,
or you wanted to stay, or how was it?
YULIA: We had no choice.
GWEN: They did come, she did come.
When we went to school from the age of 11
and then we turned eighth grade.
I thought we were done school
and the teacher said
“You still wanna go school in a different…”
She named all the different names
and then I told her
“I want to go
the furtherest place in the world.”
Some place I’ve never been before.
My freshman year
I didn’t know what “freshman” was.
-Ninth grade.
-Mm-hmm.
I went all the way to Oklahoma.
-For my freshman year.
-Wow, how was that?
I enjoyed it ’cause there was
nothing but Indians.
-It’s what we used to play
-Oh.
-We used to play Indians.
-So you connected with them pretty easily?
They were really quiet…
When teachers asked us to read
or something I always raised my hands.
Even though I wasn’t a good reader.
So I used to go up front and read
and look at people, and be so proud.
I want to read so bad.
I want to learn so bad, English.
PETER: Did they accept you
after a while there?
Mm-hmm, they accept me
’cause I was like them.
[footsteps sloshing in bog]
GWEN: This is a cool log.
PETER: So how often are you ladies
out here berry picking?
GWEN: Probably every
other day until September.
GWEN: Oh, look how cool this is.
YULIA: What is it?
GWEN: It’s a dead tree with lots of…
YULIA: Pine cones.
-Something lives in there.
-It looks good though.
GWEN: You’d think that birds
would nest in there or something.
YULIA: Maybe, yeah.
There’s a trash here.
GWEN: Eww.
[Yulia laughing]
PETER: Oh.
YULIA: Somebody’s trash.
GWEN: That’s just sick.
PETER: Oh, what is that, salmonberry?
GWEN: Yeah.
YULIA: Mm-hmm.
You try it?
YULIA: ’Cause it’s a clean forest.
GWEN: Yeah it is except for that paper.
Tastes like a plum.
YULIA: Plum?
PETER: Yeah, little bit.
PETER: Okay, so growing up
where you grew up in the Native villages
what did you think of
the rest of the country?
Did you feel connected to it
or was it like some far away…
-I didn’t know there was anything else.
-We didn’t know.
When people first came…
[Gwen giggling]
From a different little village
we all ran to the bank
and we stared the heck out of ’em.
They were really shy.
They were so scared of us
’cause we kept looking at ’em.
-’50s.
-Oh my God, yeah.
really know there was another…
-I didn’t know.
-We didn’t know there was a different…
Only Alakanuk.
And I only knew Emmonak.
Just between us, we didn’t know.
We didn’t know what Anchorage was.
We didn’t know all those…
Maybe in ’60s.
That’s when we finally learned
about different villages.
I mean states.
<Okay.
-And we didn’t know what they were but…
They were teaching us city places.
when you think of
the greater United States?
Do you stay connected
with what’s going on?
-Nope.
-Are you interested in the politics?
Nope.
-You just stay disconnected?
-I do.
I just leave ’em
and let ’em, who they are.
‘Cause it’s not our business.
It’s their business.
I feel…
I feel I’m from my home.
-Okay, so…
-Even though…
-And I feel like I’m from Alaska,
not down there.
<You’d consider yourself American?
PETER: Would you identify as that or no?
GWEN: Yeah.
PETER: Okay.
[both] Yeah.
-Yeah, ’cause our
birth certificates are territory.
<Right, Alaska became
a state in what year?
– ‘59
-Is territory.
sold it to the US.
-Yes.
-But it wasn’t a state yet?
-Right.
to be its own country?
Before all these new people came, yes.
-But not now.
-It’s different now.
-How so?
-‘Cause everybody’s together now.
<Okay.
You know, they all came from all over
and we’re used of it now
’cause things changed.
or what do they not know, let’s say?
-Okay, the way I think.
They’re kind of stubborn.
They’re kind of greedy.
[Peter chuckling]
[laughs] And…
GWEN: Yeah, mean the people that are moving…
YULIA: They’re unfriendly and…
-We’re looking and…
-They want to have the best home.
-They want to be perfection.
They want to be better than anybody else.
<You’re talking about all of US people
or people moving here?
-People that are from…
That moved here.
-Yeah.
-And they don’t know who we are.
-No matter where they’re from.
<Okay.
-They talk about us, and we just
listen to them talk, and we’d say
“Let ’em talk, they don’t know
what they’re talking about.”
-We just leave ’em alone.
-I see a lot of…
-We just leave them alone.
-Moving up here because,
you know, the houses aren’t as expensive.
<Right.
And wanting to have
everything perfect in their houses
and importing things from lower 48
to make it look perfect for them
and I know the people that have moved here
use fertilizers on their lawns
and their yards, and they have wells
and you’re getting poison into the ground.
<Mm-hmm.
And Roundup, I see a lot of that now
and my neighbor doesn’t like my lawn
because it’s not pretty
but I refuse to use anything on it.
and look what happened.
[all laughing]
When I was in the village
I saw a bald man and I go…
[gasps in surprise]
[all laughing]
I was happy to see a bald man
’cause he looked just like my husband.
Mm-hmm, he’s a white man.
‘Cause in the village
all the people are relatives.
GWEN: Yes.
PETER: [surprised] Oh.
And I didn’t want to marry somebody…
GWEN: And there’s still cousins
marrying cousins.
YULIA: Close relatives.
<Yeah, how does that work
when you’re in a small town?
Our grandma used to tell us
“Don’t marry this person,
don’t marry that person.”
So we had no choice.
Not to go…
GWEN: Right.
YULIA: Non of our relatives
in the village.
GWEN: Even the next village over
had relatives.
YULIA: They’re all our relatives.
PETER: Gotcha.
Let’s say now, 2022 we’re in.
I almost forgot, but 2022
versus, say, 15 years ago?
15 years ago, there was
a lot of suicides then.
YULIA: Oh, yeah…
GWEN: Yeah, lots of suicide.
these villages?
GWEN: Yeah.
I think it’s because…
When TV came in.
Don’t you, Julia?
-I don’t know.
-When they could see, everyone could see
-what everyone else has.
<Oh, when TV came in?
To me, it’s like…
It’s from the parents.
How they treat their kids
in the good way
or in the bad way.
The ones that are taught the right way…
They go out in the city
and they get nice jobs
and the ones that didn’t learn and listen
they…
They’re home
and just stay with their parents.
<Mm-hmm.
With a horrible life.
some aren’t doing well
-or how does that work?
-Yeah.
-I think it depends on
the leadership in the towns.
GWEN: In the villages.
YULIA: Yeah.
‘Cause villages that have
really good leaders
and they’re doing exceptionally well.
<Mm-hmm.
YULIA: ‘Cause they
speak their language still.
<That’s an important thing to do, right?
Hold onto it?
Children’s services and all that.
<Right, so I’m going to Savoonga
on St. Lawrence Island
Which is way out
even west of parts of Russia.
GWEN: Yeah, you’re so lucky.
GWEN: I’m so jealous.
PETER: And so that’s an amazing thing…
-to do in Alaska.
-It’s gonna be wonderful.
GWEN: It’s a long ways from here.
It cost more to fly from
Nome to there and back
than going from
Florida to Tokyo, Japan.
And it’s an hour flight.
<Okay, we’re talking about drinking.
Alakanuk is dry?
GWEN: It’s dry.
You can be wet, damp, or dry.
Wet means you can
buy liquor in the village.
Damp means you can
order it in from Bethel
and then it comes in.
-Bethel’s a small town?
-The biggest town.
<Okay.
Dry means no alcohol at all.
So Alakanuk is dry.
-Emmonak is damp.
-My home is wet.
Damp, you can bring it in.
Order it and bring it in.
Bethel is wet.
There’s liquor stores.
A fifth in Alakanuk…
You sell for $350
if you’re bootlegging it.
<Wow.
And a pint is $150.
Rotgut vodka.
-A pint of nothing great vodka is $150?
-Mm-hmm.
is nobody drinking there or they just…
No, they’re all making home brew.
But you’re not supposed to have it
at all in the village of Alakanuk.
<Okay.
But people are drinking really hard.
The young people are.
GWEN: Yeah, not the old people.
PETER: Interesting, so I think…
YULIA: Yeah, young people are.
GWEN: Mm-hmm.
are actually drinking less these days.
GWEN: Are they smoking more dope?
PETER: I think, yeah, smoking more dope.
YULIA: And pills,
’cause I’ll hear it in the news.
PETER: Yes.
-And they’re dying from the pills and…
-Yes, Fentanyl.
GWEN: Oh the Fentanyl, yeah.
There’s lots of Fentanyl in Alaska.
<Alaska’s got a lot of it?
<That’s “nice”. That stuff’s terrible.
-They’re starting to come from the states.
-It’s horrible.
-It’s the worst.
Mm-hmm.
GWEN: Denise and her husband
went to mile 121
but I’m not gonna tell you what highway.
[chuckles]
PETER: What’s at 121?
Blueberries
but they’re not quite ripe yet.
out there telling you where to go?
YULIA: We’re the agents.
[both ladies giggling]
-We do this all the time.
-So this zone was hit?
I mean we have like three berries
and some tea.
it’s about the experience.
Yeah, we’re outside.
Man, this feels good.
Talking to this young fella from Florida.
PETER: I’m Florida man.
GWEN: Man, that’s a long ways from there.
YULIA: Fancy man.
PETER: I think you would love
the heat down there.
-I enjoyed it when I went there.
-Oh, you did?
-Gwen?
-Oh, I’ve never been there.
<88 degrees with 80% humidity?
GWEN: Nope.
YULIA: Just to get tan and looking cool.
[both ladies laughing]
PETER: You tanned it up down there.
YULIA: Just looking cool
for somebody that’s so cool.
[both laughing]
PETER: I gotta agree with you.
GWEN: Oh Julia, you’re so cute.
PETER: You ladies are pretty cool.
YULIA: It was fun in those days.
YULIA: Our young days.
GWEN: How old were you…
when you went to Florida?
YULIA: 20s…
GWEN: With who?
-Some dude.
PETER: [surprised] Oh.
YULIA: [giggling] Some fancy man.
PETER: There’s stories?
[sloshing]
YULIA: I used him and he used me.
[Yulia laughing]
PETER: You used him…
YULIA: And he used me.
PETER: Got you.
PETER: Any regrets or no?
JULIA: No, it was fun.
I got no regrets.
GWEN: I have no regrets
for anything I’ve ever done
because I learned from everything.
All right guys, little bit of a failure
on finding berries
but a very interesting experience
talking to the Natives here in Alaska.
It really does feel like
going to another country.
And I’m gonna do a whole series
all over the state
and as you heard
going to St. Lawrence Island.
Got approval last night from the tribe.
Saying that I can enter the island.
Fly in and that’s a place they’re still
living off a whale hunt every year.
Very excited for it.
Very excited to get
a lot of these Native perspectives.
A lot of these stories from the elders.
It’s just unbelievable to me
what the lady said about growing up
and not even knowing
about the rest of the country.
Very, very fascinating place.
Full of mystery and story.
Thanks for coming along.
Until the next one.

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