♪ melodic acoustic guitar ♪
PETER: Good morning, guys.
Here in Savoonga,
Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska
and I wanna show you where I’m staying.
So it’s an old medical clinic.
I was told the ER surgeries
were performed right there.
And we walk through here.
This was the reception
but it was used not long ago.
It was a quarantine building it looks like.
I’ve been fortunate to have this place.
I thought I was honestly gonna be
sleeping on a floor somewhere.
There are no hotels in this town
but check this out, this hallway.
Now I got the lights on for the camera
but at night when it’s dark
and there are all sorts of bangs,
and creaks, and noises in this building
It reminds me of The Shining.
The little girl on the tricycle.
So I put some flowers out here
to keep out the bad spirits.
Got my room set up here
and across the hall to the bathroom.
Here’s where I’ve been staying.
Perfect for being in a place like this.
You know, got my own bed,
window that opens,
fresh air coming off the sea.
But hey, Saint Lawrence Island,
what a treat.
What an adventure.
What a beautiful place, hospitable people.
Last day here.
A lot of these flights get cancelled
but hopefully I’m out tomorrow morning.
The story will be over here
but definitely burned in my memory
for a lifetime I think.
[wind blowing and waves crashing]
PETER: You just caught this one?
-Yeah, we just came
from commercial fishing.
-You guys from Savoonga?
-Yep, we are from Savoonga, Alaska.
-Do you love it?
I wouldn’t want it any other way.
-You don’t want to live
in some big city in the lower 48?
-This is what I’d rather be doing.
-How far out to sea are you guys going?
-Us, we are going 56 miles East.
-Yep, we’re going 56 miles East
back and forth.
-In one of these?
That’s pretty hardcore, huh?
-What’s up, buddy?
It’s your son?
-Do they pay you all right?
So if you have a good catch,
it’s good money?
This fish is gonna hit the table where?
or go all the way to the lower 48?
-Literally all over.
They sell this fish all over, around.
-You been to the lower 48 before?
-Yeah, I have actually.
-What’d you think of it?
-Not the same.
The hunting is better.
The hunting is more open.
It’s not something easy to describe
but it is… You know what I’m saying?
-No, I understand what you’re saying.
I feel it just by being here,
like, it’s very wild.
You know, going over that flat top
mountain yesterday, thousand reindeer.
-That’s where I took my baby
for a ride to the first time.
-He took his first ride there.
-So you feel freer here, you would say,
than the lower 48?
-You feel free out here.
-That’s a halibut right there.
-That’s you guys out at sea this morning?
-Does it ever get
super dangerous out there?
-Yeah, it gets super rough.
8, 10 foot (swells).
The island can disappear from the waves.
-So if something happens you just…
You’re out of luck, huh?
-Just gotta know how to handle.
-You like the adventure though, yeah?
Look, we were climbing cliffs
for murre eggs.
-Yeah, these cliffs.
-Murres are a type of bird?
-So you guys pretty much
get everything you need.
Halibut, reindeer, murre eggs, whale…
-Walrus, seals, fish, birds.
We even live off of these greens.
Like, these greens out here.
-I was eating those last night.
We live off practically
everything out here.
-Could you imagine living in a big city?
-Nope, can’t imagine that.
My whole life, I grew up around this.
-So you’re constantly interacting
with the natural world?
-This is the way of our life,
the life that we know.
When we’re out there, it’s a tradition
to speak Yupik when we’re hunting.
-When you get on the water
you don’t speak English?
-Yeah, we speak Yupik.
-Do you guys feel American at all or no?
-I feel native.
-Yeah, we feel native.
-You feel native?
-Yeah, this land was once
Russian land or something.
-You too, guys.
♪ melodic acoustic guitar ♪
How you guys doing?
-How’s it going?
-Hey, how are you doing?
-A walrus head.
-When did you kill this one?
-Like a week or two weeks ago.
-So what do you do with the tusks?
-We sell ’em.
-How much is a tusk, like one of these?
-If I took ’em off the bone
they’d be like 45 a pound.
-How many pounds is this?
Maybe average like five pounds.
-The way of our life, you know?
Live off the land and the ocean.
-I like it.
♪ melodic acoustic guitar ♪
-This is fossilized walrus cheekbone.
Where I like
’cause it’s got weight for a base.
-And this is Ivory from last year’s hunt.
-And I cure my ivory before I work on it.
So you have to cure it about a year
before you work on ivory.
-Do you guys carve also?
-Those two, they make earrings.
-I got some of Frank’s earrings.
He (likes to work with) dead whales.
-Can I show?
What do you got here, earrings?
-You seen ’em before.
-So did you guys go on whale hunts
together when you were younger
-You guys all went out in a boat?
-He got a whale.
-You caught a whale?
-My brother got a whale.
-Could you ever imagine living in a city?
-I’d like to.
-You want to?
-I lived in Fairbanks five years.
So I know what it’s like. [laughs]
-You know what
the big cities are like, yeah.
-I brought big city over here though.
-California was big.
-California’s big, yeah.
What do you guys think of the lower 48?
Do you feel like the people are a lot
different in the lower 48 than up here?
-When I went to Virginia, East Coast,
Pennsylvania for volunteering
I found out color did matter.
-You felt that?
-In Virginia, yeah.
-And that was something
my brother-in-law said,
“Expect to see stuff like that.”
“It’s always been like that here.”
-When was that, when did you go?
-Uh, back in ’90, ’96.
-When I brought my boy
to University of Virginia.
Oh, your boy went to
University of Virginia?
-Good for you.
Is he… Did he come back or is he still…
He’s (in the cold) now.
-He moved back, okay.
So when I say the word Miami,
what do you think?
But it feels like a world away doesn’t it?
Like, super far?
-And we’re technically
in the same country, right?
-Even though you guys got
your own private island here
it feels like a separate country.
Tell me about that,
how’d you fight to have it private?
-Well, it turns out
Bureau of Indian Affairs
tried to say Savoonga and Gambell
are way behind on back taxes
due to the school buildings.
-This building up here?
-Not that one.
-An old one?
-The old one’s down that way.
-And they tried to say,
“You guys got no more land.”
because of that,
and we fought and fought.
-Okay, so the island was behind
on so-called taxes, they said.
-And they wanted to take all the land?
-What year was that?
-Uh, probably about 2000.
-But now it’s completely
your land now, private?
-Yeah, we fought for it.
-‘Cause you got some of the most
beautiful real estate in the world.
I was up in those mountains,
I’ve been down there a bit.
What do you think the outside world
could learn from you guys here?
From those on Saint Lawrence Island.
Well, they could learn
to try to be friendly with each others.
You guys are pretty friendly here
I gotta say.
Everyone knows everyone.
Are there any challenges in town with that?
Like, everyone knowing everyone
or that helps it?
-Usually when hostility shows we try to
change the subject to a good thing.
That’s the main thing,
people like here, teamwork.
-It’s what we call in hunting, whaling.
We call that teamwork.
-How many whale hunts have you been on?
-Ever since I was a kid, quite a bit.
I have two big whale bones
by my house up there and I’ll show you.
-Yeah, big jaw bones.
-Let’s go, yeah.
-These are from a 52 foot whale
on a Thanksgiving day.
My 13 year old got this.
He was just training.
And we got this whale
’bout 30-something years ago.
-Oh, this one 30-something years ago?
So when you were a child,
you were going out in skinned boats, right?
For the whale hunt?
So how was it?
You were rowing out…
-And then you had a javelin or what is it?
-Usually a whale, we would roll out to it
but then if the whale’s gone
within that time we’ll put our sail up
and then, we call it tribecta.
Going like this with the wind.
-So we can keep cruising.
In the skin boat with a sail,
we’ll go quietly
and then when we see a whale,
the mast go down, go after the whale.
-People died in that building too,
the gray building.
And then some people
in the yellow building there.
-Okay, so Dean, I’m staying in that clinic.
-And it is haunted?
-You get noises from the east side
of the building where you hear [knocking].
-It feels like The Shining, the movie.
-Here, let’s go over there.
-Yeah, they’ll whistle too.
They’ll make that whistling sound.
People would say, “Ah.”
So it’s not just me, people in the village
think the building is haunted?
-People that came out
even say it’s haunted.
-So this was the emergency room, right?
-Yeah, these were where…
Those weren’t even built
You just had this kitchen.
All appointments were here.
-Okay, so here’s where
I hear the banging at night.
All around here.
-It’s back here?
-Yeah, it has to be back here…
-And echoes, the sound goes
all the way down the hallway.
From in here. [knocking]
Check what I did here, Dean.
-I got those plants down there,
that’s what I was told.
A lot of Bibles around I’ve noticed too.
-Yeah, that’s why they put the Bibles there
because this is a haunting…
The best thing about…
If there’s a feeling, a presence…
Yeah don’t be scared of it, right?
-And don’t even try to confront it.
-No, we’re totally cool together.
It won’t bother you.
-We’ve been good.
I just don’t… I walk through here
but I don’t walk through here at night.
Through the old emergency room.
I just feel weird about that.
-Oh yeah, I almost died in there.
-You almost died?
-A doctor… black guy, Samuels.
We had to land our whales over at Kukulak
because the ice was packing in.
And at that time, hypothermia
and my high blood pressure hit me
and I had a stroke.
And they had a person come.
Go pick me up at
over a Kokulak on the snow machine
and when I got on the land
I just kept falling.
I kept falling on my side
and my whole face kept going…
And the thing is I’m real happy
that I didn’t lose that talent
to work on my carvings.
So Derek, who I met
on my first day here, said,
“Come on over
and one thing we do in our culture…”
“…or what we don’t do
is knock on the door.”
“Just walk in.”
I said, “Is it okay if I roll the camera?”
and he said, “No problem.”
So I guess I’ll just walk in.
So I did what you told me,
don’t knock on the door.
-Yeah, it’s fine.
-That’s very cool.
Whales are a big part of your lives, huh?
-So what is this part of the whale?
-That’s the baleen.
And if you come a little closer,
you see a little bit of scrimshaw
Junior did when he was a kid.
That’s why we hang it.
‘Cause some carvers make this
for decorative purposes.
-So whales, there’s at least
one whale kill a year here, right?
-There’s a quota of,
like, six they can get.
-Six (strikes), yeah.
-But lately it’s been kinda hard.
-If say for example,
you didn’t get a whale one year,
would that be a real big problem
for the village?
-Okay, so it’s super important
that you have a whale kill.
At least one a year?
-And Derek, you work at the store?
-And I was surprised actually,
how much stuff you had at the store.
Being so remote.
-Yeah, we get a lot of stuff certain days
’cause of the weather like this, the fog.
-Is there ever a time in the winter
if the weather’s bad for weeks
that you don’t get food?
-Yeah, it gets pretty bare at the store.
Starts running out.
-So that’s when you have to
live off reserves
like whale or whatever else you have?
Some families like to
normally eat it every day.
-Although there’s food
from store available,
however, they may get it ’cause
a lot of our villages, they get food stamp.
AUDREY: We live in a high… I’m sorry.
We live in a high cost living area…
-And that runs out,
so there’s people that no matter what,
they live on daily basis
eating the native food.
PETER: What’s in demand?
-Pop, soda pop and energy drinks.
-Sometimes as soon as they get in,
there’ll be, like, two pallets of soda
and it’ll just go, just like that.
‘Cause everybody’s waiting for it.
-How much is, like,
a 12 pack or a 6 pack of soda?
-A little over $16.
-Like 12 Cokes in the can?
-Yep, in the case.
And it’s a dry town
so there’s no alcohol coming in?
PETER: There’s a wedding going on?
-Traditionally, the groom’s family
is going over to the lady’s family.
Bringing goods over.
-Right there, you get a glimpse of it.
And then he’s gonna work
for her family for one year.
Helping her family out
with anything that requires
for a man to assist.
Stove oil, going to their family’s homes
for stove oil.
Doing errands for the family.
-So he has to do work
for her family for one year?
-And if he does a bad job, what happens?
We don’t think of bad jobs.
-They all do good work?
Right now they’re doing a (stukfeshto).
-They’re buying (stukfeshto).
-When you say “Buy”, you mean
bringing presents, bringing a dowry?
-They call it stukfeshto and if you
translate (stukfeshto), it means buy.
-So the first step was before (stukfeshto),
they (arananshaked) her.
His family went to her family
to ask and proposition
if it’s okay that they do the (stukfeshto).
The next step.
So in the village of Savoonga,
it’s still traditional like that?
Everyone’s getting married that way?
-How ’bout your family.
-We… yeah… [laughs]
-You’ll do it that way?
-Yeah, they did me.
I was feeling uncomfortable to my dad
’cause Derek’s elder, which was his uncle.
So the oldest guy in Derek’s family
came to ask my grandma.
My oldest living family member.
Asked me for my husband’s…
How was that experience?
-It was… At that time I was younger
and was feeling embarrassed.
-But I’m okay that it happened that way
and we plan to do that for…
(Mya and Eyu) did that last year.
-Around this time,
but sometimes in August.
Late August, we marched like this.
There was less four-wheelers
’cause it was more proper to march over.
Okay, all these four-wheelers
came over for it?
-Her family’s gonna gather some things
for (ugohadis) I think.
It’s called that.
Where she goes over to his family and…
-Not so much hard labor like we expect,
’cause she’s a lady
but that’s the last step and that means
that family, his family,
gains the daughter.
She’s no longer…
Do you think it’s a very important
ceremony in your culture?
-Yes, it is.
When I was a kid, it was more traditional.
Our culture was more alive.
-As I get older, I know it’s fading
and I could see it.
We used to speak our language.
Our kids knew it.
-I was a kid that spoke
nothing but my language.
-And English was very hard for me.
I went to elementary school and I was like,
“What is this new thing
that I’m not so familiar with?”.
Do you think it’s fading because of
technology or because Washington D.C.?
-Does Washington try to
push its power here or…
-Going with… about educational purposes
with our school…
I feel like it’s being enforced more
but lately, past couple of years,
I feel like they’re trying to
encourage us more
to be lively with our
culture and tradition.
-So that’s a positive, right?
-Like, Washington’s actually
promoting more for you guys to be…
-I don’t know if it comes from Washington.
I don’t know if it’s the school districts
that’s telling us themselves.
-I know Washington’s
asking the students to do this
but we’re also gonna throw in, like…
Try to keep your culture alive
as best you can.
What about when you go to the lower 48?
Have you been down there?
-What’s it feel like when you go there?
-I feel like I’m in a different world.
Out here where we’re from,
we greet each other.
We’re more open to each other
and when we get to the outside world
we are kind of like
to ourselves or something.
-Right, ’cause everyone
waves to everybody here in this town.
Oh, even small talk.
-I’ve only been here three days
but it’s like it’s very connected.
-So do you guys… I mean the weather,
especially in the winter gets harsh.
I mean these storms come in.
Do you guys really stick together
as a community?
-Like you really come together…
…or people stay to themselves a bit?
-We connect with each other.
-Especially when you’re given heads up
that the weather’s gonna turn bad
and it’s gonna be bad for this long.
Let’s say a few days.
There’s gonna be power outages
and whatever follows through
the power outage afterwards.
Could be water and sewer
freezing up in the pipes.
-Um, no phone access, no internet access,
and then we kind of look out for each other
and make sure that we check on each other.
-Especially in our neighborhood.
Like, we go see the old lady over here.
Make sure she’s okay,
her and her household.
PETER: You’re on a wait list
for, like, 18 years?
-Well, I stopped putting in
my application several years ago.
-If you see those new four or five
housing units by the stock.
-I was promised to get one of those.
They kind of gave me a false hope.
-So housing’s tough here?
-Is the population
increasing or decreasing?
-Why is there a problem
with building a lot more housing here?
-I would like to know that myself.
Not a priority, not important.
From our government not hearing us out.
I don’t know whether it’s because
we’re natives and we’re pushed aside
but then there’s also words of our IRA.
Our Native Village of Savoonga.
Not the ones that are
currently running them.
-But there’s some people in the past…
…that ran, and were council members,
and they mishandled the money.
-They’ll point fingers like that.
To why we’re lack of housing
but I think it has a lot to do
with the bigger government.
Like in Washington D.C. and stuff.
PETER: Have you ever been in a forest?
Maybe more like just past.
-But imagine if you were alone
in a forest with big trees.
Do you think that would be scary?
-I don’t want to be too deep in it.
I have anxiety.
DEREK: It can induce anxiety.
-‘Cause we’re so used to
seeing everything open.
When I was inland once out in Tok.
Driving back to Anchorage.
It felt kinda strange.
Not seeing any ocean.
So being away from the ocean,
to you, feels very odd?
-Yeah, it’s unnerving for me, kind of.
I tend to get anxious
not seeing a body of water at least.
DEREK: So this is the main ice that stays.
-And a lot of the times,
hunters, they’ll walk out .
Sometimes all the way down
but they drive up to the smooth ice
and then they start walking around
these chunks to get to the edge.
-And they’ll be hunting walrus,
and seal, or even birds.
-That’s right off the coast here?
-So they’ll hike out over all of this ice?
-And you can see the town right there.
-Me and Derek are one of the few kids
from the ’80s that are mixed.
I’m mixed with black.
My biological father is from all that
and Derek’s mixed.
Well, his mom’s white…
-My biological mother is…
I don’t know who it is.
-Is that common out here, the mixes?
-Not when we were in the kids.
Now in Max’s age group,
yeah, there’s mixed
but it’s starting to get common.
DEREK: The birds, we call ’em ushpa,
it’s just a quick chase.
AUDREY: …native of Saint Lawrence Island
And the only different people
is the outside visitors.
Usually that’s the teachers
or a healthcare provider
comes out sometimes.
Like doctor visits and stuff.
Otherwise our whole town is just us.
-Do you like it that way?
-I don’t know, like,
I wanna move on and live a city life
or not so much a city.
I would want to be in a suburban part
or the suburbs or whatever.
I’ve been wanting to move a while
and I told Derek that many times.
Housing’s a problem.
Power, common power outages
certain times of the year, the dark.
‘Cause winter’s the longest season
of all the other three seasons
but we really did have
odd winters in Ahtna too.
Global warming is real.
-You’re really feeling that here?
With our food.
The ice goes away
before the hunters were able to get
female walrus and baby walrus.
-And that’s what we prefer.
Is getting female
and baby calves, walruses.
I used to go trick-or-treating,
You needed a snowmobile,
it’d be so winter that much.
Like five feet of snow and whatnot.
-And then in my 20s,
I started to take notice that winter
was not happening around that season.
It started happening in December more.
And then for a couple of years or so,
we didn’t get ice out on our ocean.
Usually completely frozen, you know.
DEREK: There was one year
where it never came at all.
PETER: How ’bout last winter?
DEREK: Pretty close to normal.
-Winter, a normal year that we finally had.
PETER: Last year was more normal
DEREK: This is just through
the main road coming from the airport.
PETER: That’s spring time?
-May, late May.
-Late May, wow.
There’s the town, 800 people?
-Now we’re going out to sea.
Doing some fishing.
[boat scraping on rocks]
PETER: You didn’t grow up in Savoonga,
you grew up in Gambell?
EARL: Yeah, since a little child.
-Where is more beautiful?
-Uh, I like it here more to be honest.
So guys, I forgot to ask.
Are we actually fishing?
Set a line.
And what are we fishing for, halibut?
♪ mellow acoustic guitar ♪
This is (shtiwanka).
-Yeah, what is it?
-It’s pretty hard, but…
When you are whaling, are you doing it
out of boats like this size?
-Yep, 18 foot boats.
-And there’s a video from
a Gambell guy that they were boating,
looking for whales, and one just
popped up right in front of them
and made the boat lift.
-Oh, it came right under the bow?
-Once you kill the whale,
how do you get it back to shore?
DEREK: A whole bunch of us line up on,
like, a three quarter inch rope…
-…tied to the tail.
All of us together will
line up boat to boat,
tie each other down,
and then we’ll all drag it.
-What do you have to say to those
that think it’s bad to kill whales?
-I mean I understand that it’s a
mammal animal that’s being killed
but it’s our way of life.
It’s our way of feeding each other
and sometimes I do feel sorry for the whale
but at the same time
I feel grateful and whatnot,
to feed my community and keep bringing
our way of life for many generations.
And it’s a beautiful thing.
Some people may think
it’s pretty outrageous
and something horrible
that should be stopped
but other people
have different ways of life
and this is just our way of life
and we love to keep it.
EARL: Go slower.
That’s a lot of water.
JERI: Should I sit up here now?
ELI: You got this.
[rope buzzing on aluminum]
PETER: If it hits on one,
then we’re gonna start pulling it?
-Nope, we’re gonna wait for like an hour.
-Two hours or something like that.
DEREK: Drop the anchor.
ELI: Throw the buoy out too.
-Oh yeah, I noticed it’s not connected.
PETER: So Eli,
these are where you hunt seal from?
-So you just sit back there
and wait for them to come on shore?
-What are they feeding on?
-Piece of a whale from last year,
-Still eating on it from last December?
Those birds, we wouldn’t. [chuckles]
PETER: A rib?
PETER: That’s a what?
-And here is the blowhole.
-The blowhole of the whale?
These are like ears to the whale.
-Like, they could feel the vibrations,
or something, of other whales.
It’s like a fingernail material, huh?
-I think so.
-Sort of feels like that.
-I’m going to make
some earrings out of these.
-But then they’re more weathered,
the baleen I have.
They’re, like, white with black stripes.
I think this might be part of the backbone.
Part of the backbone.
They carve faces into the…
Like around here they carve a face
and then they’ll sell it
for thousands of dollars.
My uncle usually does that.
He’ll carve a face,
and he’ll drill holes around it,
and put feathers.
-And it’ll look like a…
-Right, so it’s sort of…
It’s upside down
but it would be like a mouth, right?
Is that what you… Okay.
Sort of looks like a cow’s head.
-[giggles] Yeah, or like a bull.
I never seen a cow before.
-You never seen a cow?
-Right, you don’t have any cows up here.
-I only been out of the state once
and that was to Las Vegas.
So I never got to see much wildlife.
-You went from this to Las Vegas?
-From Teller, to Nome,
to Anchorage, to Las Vegas.
-How was that, the first hour?
-It was cool.
I was, like, really amazed
at how different it was
and how much
houses there was… buildings.
♪ mellow acoustic guitar ♪
PETER: What’s that?
Like at Teller, they call em bullheads.
So throw that back.
Hold up, hold up.
Don’t let the head out of the water.
-Did you get it?
PETER: Whoa, what is that?
-There’ll be two more on there.
EARL: ‘Cause I was pulling it.
DEREK: Right down here.
Pull it up, yeah.
-Pull it up.
One, two, three.
So we got two pretty good size halibut.
[boat sliding on rocks]
PETER: This is the skull of a whale?
So the eyes are here?
Oh, that’s the blowhole.
DEREK: I put bait by the boat and…
All right, guys, ‘nother epic day.
It’s 1:00 in the morning,
check out this light.
We just had a nice dinner
at Junior’s grandad’s place
but out of respect
I didn’t want to roll the camera there.
So this is my final day in Savoonga
if the plane goes tomorrow.
I was told that is a 50/50
if that’s gonna happen
because of this fog that lays in.
So I wanna close with these thoughts
about Saint Lawrence Island.
Came in here with,
really, zero expectations.
Didn’t know what
I was gonna run into at all.
Didn’t know where I was gonna stay.
What’s up, guys?
So all I’ve got is that.
Just really cool people,
warm smiles, people inviting me in.
I was never alone here
and I got really lucky.
Unfortunately, most will
never get to experience this
just because it is a private island
and it’s invite only,
and the tribal council controls everyone
who comes in and everyone who leaves.
So really a once in a lifetime experience.
I want to thank all of those from Savoonga.
Thank you, all the wonderful people
here that came out,
and showed me around,
and brought me on adventures.
My butt is properly broken now,
seven hours on the back of a four-wheeler,
on the metal bars yesterday
and I just froze out in the Bering Sea.
But wow, what a cool adventure.
Nothing but respect and admiration
for the people here and the culture.
Thank all you,
for coming along on this journey.
I’m gonna tuck into my
haunted ex-medical clinic,
get a few hours of sleep, and hopefully
be on this runway tomorrow
to some clear skies back to Anchorage.
All right, guys, until the next one.
♪ melodic acoustic guitar ♪