Alaskan Hunter Gatherer Cultures that Survive by Default

By Lester Earnest with comments added by  son Mark Earnest

March 2009, amended April 2017


Native people in Alaska have several things in common with those in the rest of the United States, such as having been decimated by influenza, smallpox, measles, and other imported diseases and being alternately abused and neglected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Many groups with valuable mineral or timber resources also have been exploited by commercial interests and “helpful” charlatans. However Arctic people who live in lands that nobody else wants have been relatively free of interference and have been able to preserve much of their culture. They could do even better by commercially developing the resources that they have but there are cultural barriers to doing that.

This paper looks at a few native groups in Alaska, especially the Yup’ik Eskimos of Nelson Island. It is based on personal observations together with stories from my family, especially my older son Mark, and some additional reading, including the weekly newspaper of Bethel, Alaska, to which we subscribed for some years. Much of this material consists of biographies or travel logs, to tie things together, but is mainly based on memories.

North to Alaska. When I took a position at Stanford University in 1965 I brought my family to Los Altos Hills, California. As our kids grew up I noticed that our older son, Mark, seemed to like Asian girls. However, in an amusing incident shortly after graduation from high school he found himself ethnically misclassified based on his conduct.

Mark took up bicycle racing as a high school Junior and turned out to be a very able track sprinter. In his Senior year he was selected to the U.S. National Team for the World Cycling Championships in Munich but lost there to a gigantic Russian who we later learned was full of steroids. Other competitors in that event then invited him to come to races in Germany, France, Netherlands and Belgium, so he chose to bum around Europe for the summer, earning enough money from bike race prizes to get by. However in a race in Brussels he had a flat tire and decided to abandon the race. Because his new racing shoes were tight, he took them off and walked back to the Start/Finish Line. There a photographer took his picture and, to his surprise, he appeared in the next day’s newspaper on the cover of the Sports section with a caption stating that an American Indian was competing in their races. It turned out that in their view an American who went around barefoot must be an Indian!

Mark studied geology at nearby Foothill College beginning in 1973 and, through some family friends, got a job the next summer at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park. He was assigned to work with the Alaska group there and, after studying that state from afar and hearing their stories, became fascinated. When it came time to go on to a four year college he announced that he wanted to go to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. I pointed out that there were a number of colleges with good geology departments much nearer, such as Stanford, Caltech and the Colorado School of Mines. He then stated that he wanted to study permafrost geology! Well, he had me there, so we planned to send him north.

This was in 1976, the Bicentennial Year, which had begun oddly with heavy snow in Los Altos Hills in February. I decided to ride a tandem bicycle down the West Coast from Canada to Mexico that summer and took two weeks to do it, camping along the way. My younger son Ian joined me on the early part of that trip but blew out his Achilles tendon in Tillamook, Oregon, and had to withdraw. I picked up a hitchhiker in Gold Beach, Oregon, who turned out to be a rather good cyclist, and took him to Patrick’s Point in California. Mark joined me for the segment from Los Altos Hills to San Diego just before flying off to Alaska. We didn’t know then that it would be another seven years before he would return and then only for a short visit.

Mark Notes: In Alaska, native women seemed to be attracted to me, and vice versa, although I dated almost an equal number of white women. My long term relationship was Catherine. I had an entire Filipino community in Unalaska trying to find me a “good” Filipina when things were starting to fall apart with Catherine. It worked out. However, I would have been perfectly happy to be with someone of any color, origin, or nationality. I just don’t care about that.

Distractions. We offered Mark a flight home and back for the next summer but he chose instead to do geological survey work in remote areas of Alaska. They were flown in by helicopter along with camping equipment and a gun, to deal with bears, and the helicopter came back every week or so to make sure they were still alive and to bring more food. When it came time to go back to school Mark learned that his first Yup’ik girlfriend had decided to stay home with her family in a village near Bethel, in western Alaska. 

Mark decided to pursue her and moved to Bethel, in western Alaska, taking a job as a lineman with the local power company. He rented a tiny house made from an insulated cargo container into which a door and a window had been cut. An oil stove provided for cooking and heat but there was no plumbing. Mark found that climbing power poles to fix outages during whiteout blizzards in the winter was a challenging occupation. When salmon season began he hired out to the native corporation for that operation on the Kuskoquim River. This work ran 24 hours a day as long as the salmon came. He and others took two hour naps whenever they had to. 

After having little success in his romantic pursuit, he went back to school in Fairbanks. We heard from him only occasionally, when he needed money for food, tuition or books, but he was generally self-sufficient. 

Surprise! On November 21, 1981, we received a call from Mark informing us that we were grandparents. He hadn’t told us about Cathy Lincoln, his new Yup’ik girlfriend, or that she had become pregnant. We learned that she too had been a student at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and came from a village called Tununak on Nelson Island in the Bering Sea. Mark took responsibility and, needing money, signed up to work as a junior geologist on continental offshore exploration wells in Norton Sound near Nome and in the south Bering Sea near the Alaska Peninsula.

Work on the drilling rigs was four weeks of 12 hour shifts followed by two weeks off. During his time off, he worked with the Native village corporation where his girlfriend was a member investigating coal and gravel resources on the island. At the conclusion of the drilling season, he moved in with his girlfriend’s family in Tununak. There he observed that there was no water or sewer system and that houses along the beach were being threatened by coastal erosion.

Tapping the flow. At this time, oil money from the Alaska Pipeline was beginning to flow into the State coffers and Mark learned that grant programs were being offered to municipal organizations, especially those in native areas. He drafted proposals for a seawall to protect against erosion, an engineering study for a water system and another for a sewer system, and sent them to me. 

I had left Stanford two years earlier to become founding president of Imagen Corporation, which developed and marketed the first desktop publishing systems using laser printers. I put his proposals in my computer, edited them a bit and ran them through the spelling checker. Mark then came down and fiddled with them some more. We next printed them up, bound them nicely and mailed them off to the Alaska legislature. 

To our surprise, the first one was funded a month later, the second a month after that and the third after another month. Thus the village of Tununak, with about 300 residents, suddenly had over three million dollars to work with. They immediately appointed Mark as City Manager. 

After Mark contracted for the work to be done and got it started, other Eskimo villages in the area heard about it and asked him to prepare proposals for them. He developed a lively side business writing grant proposals for various Eskimo communities and, remarkably, they nearly all got funded. 

Mark and Cathy had another baby girl in 1983 and in 1984 finally decided to get married. This apparently was not an issue with the villagers, where unmarried mothers were not looked down upon, but the Jesuit priest who came to the village every month or two was pushing on this. 

Midwinter Visit. On December 12, 1984, my wife Joan and I flew from San Francisco to Anchorage, then to Bethel, then to Tununak to attend the wedding. Remarkably we were able to do this in a single day, though we arrived well after dark. The first flight was on a large jet, the second on a small jet that was split half-and-half between cargo and passenger spaces, and the third was on a small Twin Otter, which also carried both passengers and cargo. The computer system that generated our tickets apparently was confused about the identity of the airline for the final leg, which was erroneously listed as “Baja Airlines” but they accepted the ticket. 

The trip west from Bethel was over treeless, very flat terrain, composed of frozen lakes and tundra, until we reached the barren volcanic hills of Nelson Island. The pilot buzzed the village, to let them know we were coming, then circled over the ice-filled ocean and landed on the tiny airstrip just south of town. Mark met us there in a pickup truck and brought us to the village, where we were introduced to Cathy, her parents (Dick and Maria Lincoln), and their large family. Cathy originally had eleven siblings though two had perished.

We learned that everyone in the village had both Yup’ik and English names but they were kind enough to give us just the English ones since we couldn’t get our tongues around the generally harsh sounding Yup’ik. I later learned that the word “Yup’ik” means “Real people” in their language. A schoolteacher who came to this village later wrote a book about her experiences there called “Place of the Pretend People” [1]. There was also an anthropological study of the island published in 1983 [2] but I haven’t seen it. 

A family next door to the Lincolns had been kind enough to vacate their house, moving in with relatives, so as to give us a place of our own. We soon went to bed but committed a faux pas the next morning when we came next door at around 9 am, only to find everyone asleep in various places in the living room and on the floor. We learned that the local convention was to get up with the sunrise, which was around 10:30 am that time of year. 

All the houses in this part of the village were on stilts, allowing cold air to circulate underneath so as to not melt the underlying permafrost. If they had been built on the ground these houses would soon have been tilted at odd angles. The space under each house naturally lent itself to storing equipment such as snow machines (called snow mobiles in most of the Lower 48 states) and bicycles. Outside the door of each house was a dog on a leash, which functioned as a garbage disposal unit. They were left there in all kinds of weather, which seemed a bit cruel, but they still greeted each visitor. 

It was evident that nobody used dog teams anymore since snow machines had become the preferred mode of travel in the winter and three-wheelers in the summer. Planning for supplies of gasoline, diesel fuel and large equipment had to be done well in advance given that the village received only a couple of shipments a year, brought in by barge from Seattle. 

We observed that all houses had vestibules, and that the door leading into the house was never opened at the same time as the door leading outside. Each vestibule had a bucket of what they called blackfish, which made continual slurping sounds and appeared to be some kind of eel. They occasionally picked some up to cook. 

Before long it was time to go to the church for the wedding. Being male I was given a ride on the back of a snow machine whereas my wife and other females were relegated to the toboggan that we towed behind and that nearly got away sideways on a descent. A priest had flown in for this event and it all went smoothly. Music was provided by a fellow named Charlie Fairbanks playing an electric guitar. 

There were celebrations with food afterward and at some point I was taken to one of the older houses by the beach. Because there was no permafrost there this house was built directly atop the sand, However when I entered I found that I had to stay bent over since the ceiling was less than six feet high. That was fine for nearly all of the village residents. 

I noticed that there was room for more houses along the beach south of the place we visited and asked why none were built there. I was told that this was the place where they collected grass for making baskets, so that was not allowed. 

We learned that traditional Yup’ik culture was matrilineal and that there were strict role assignments based on sex. All indoor work, including food preparation and clothing creation, was women’s work while nearly all outside work, including hunting and fishing, was men’s work. In the summer women did pick berries out on the tundra and they were also allowed to fish in steams and ponds but were never allowed to go to sea in a boat other than to be transported somewhere. 

The sex roles had at least one interesting side effect in the modern world. Since office work is indoors it is all women’s work. This means that women are very much in control of relations with the outside world. 

There are abundant resources in the area including salmon, halibut and seals as well as musk ox and imported reindeer. The village operated pretty much as a communist economy since all resources were shared. Nearly everyone was related but those getting married were encouraged seek a mate in another village, which encouraged beneficial genetic diversity.

Mark and Cathy’s daughters ended up with her family name.

Mark Notes: This is actually a funny story. Regarding Nicola, the PHS Hospital in Anchorage entered Lincoln as her surname, and we didn’t discover that error until after we got home. Since her name was a near anagram, I thought we should just keep it. As for Amanda, the flights from Tununak to Bethel were cancelled due to fog, so I missed her birth and the hospital there did the same thing. 

We learned that Eskimo children are typically nursed until age five or until a later sibling appears and that all children have no responsibilities through age six. After that they all have numerous chores of various kinds and are expected to be productive members of the community. 

The young kids clearly had the run of the place. They went in groups from one house to another throughout the village and were welcomed everywhere. In those winter months they always dressed warmly and peeled off the outer layers upon entering a home. They then put it all back on before moving to the next place. 

The home we were in had central heating using an oil furnace but the electricity went off when one group of kids was visiting. This happened fairly often, as we learned, but the kids immediately swung into action by grabbing flashlights, putting paper and driftwood in a central stove and lighting it up. In short order the place was toasty warm again. In fact it got too hot. 

At some point I decided to walk to the village store, a couple of hundred yards away, to see what they had for sale. Since it was a short distance I went wearing my Hawaiian shirt and felt no discomfort. I found the store had mostly bare shelves but a wide array of children’s toys as well as milk in quart cans and pilot biscuits, which are thick and firm wheat-based wafers. They didn’t use bread because it would go stale during distribution delays and, since they mostly lived off the land and sea, they didn’t need other foods. 

When I returned from this sojourn I was chastised by my son for going outside without a jacket. He informed me that it was their practice to always be prepared for extended exposure to cold whenever they went outside. Along the way I learned that most Eskimos seem to be more sensitive to cold than I am. 

We noticed that the homes there had television sets and that everyone had Citizens Band radios, which were used to talk both across town and to people in nearby villages. The television system had recently been put in by the State using oil money. They had put a satellite dish in each village and a local cable distribution system to each house. Whereas it had been a longstanding tradition during the winter months for people to retell myths, especially grandmothers talking to grandchildren, it appeared that much of that tradition had been replaced by television viewing. 

We learned that Cathy’s father, who was descended from a long line of shamans, had become a deacon in the church and sometimes conducted services when no priest was around, which was most of the time. 

Maintaining genetic diversity is important in a sparsely populated area and traditional Eskimo culture encouraged this in another way – visiting males were often allowed to sleep with someone’s wife. However, the church has consistently preached against that practice even though it was a natural result of evolution aimed at maintaining genetic diversity, which is difficult to do in Arctic regions, so as to reduce the frequency of genetic defects in children as a result of inbreeding. As you may know, evolution among other tribal groups led to the widespread incest taboo for the same reason.

Over time I learned that there was evidence of adult males molesting adolescent girls but that practice was being discouraged by threats of legal action. Even though this was a remote area, it was clear that a number of village women had gotten around inasmuch as some children appeared to be of mixed race, mostly half “white.”

I learned that general policies of the village were set by a council of elders. When I asked how someone got to be an elder I was given the enigmatic answer that “You know when you are one.” 

We were slated to leave after three days but a violent storm moved in and all flights were suspended. This turned out to be lucky for us inasmuch as we were able to attend the Eskimo dances that night. Their dancing style is similar to that of Polynesians in that performers stand in one place and move their arms and bodies in ways that tell a story. This is accompanied by an all-male drum corps who beat their sealskin drums with sticks in such unison that they sound like a single loud drummer.

Women dancers have a fan in each hand lined with neck hair from a musk ox that waves gracefully as they move (see Figure 1). Men use fans with stiff bird feathers attached and dance more forcefully. In fact they really ham it up. In effect the women dance in the graceful Hawaiian style while the men act like Tahitians.

Figure 1.  Yup’ik women’s dance fans lined with musk ox neck hair. Tununak, Alaska, 1984 

Since each dance told a story that was known to the audience (except us) and those stories included jokes of various sorts, the audience would periodically break out in laughter while we sat there in puzzlement. Jokes are an integral part of Eskimo life and probably help take the edge off living in a tough environment. 

At some point I learned that after the U.S. purchased Alaska (without consulting its residents), various churches decided to rescue the heathens living there without going into competition with each other. They put down a grid on the land areas and each church group was given a monopoly in certain areas. Nelson Island was given to the Jesuits while Bethel and its nearby villages were put under Moravian control. 

Sometime around the 1960s the churches and BIA conspired to end dancing and also tried to suppress Yup’ik speech. This suppression later ended on Nelson Island and the grandmothers then taught their grandchildren how to dance, but there was one generation that never learned. Thus in the performance we saw there was a wide range of ages in the dance groups but the young adults were missing. We learned that in the Bethel area the Moravian Church continued to suppress dancing and that this tradition therefore died there. 

Nelson Island, like most places with substantial native populations, has serious problems with alcoholism. For example, two of Cathy’s close relatives died in separate alcohol-related accidents, one from a snow machine crash and the other by falling through thin ice. The villages are nominally dry, by decision of the voters, but there is always homebrew and money to be made by bootlegging. 

Darwinian evolution will probably solve this problem in the long run but it will be a painful process. I speculate that our Middle Eastern forebears experienced similar problems long ago when both agriculture and alcohol brewing were invented at about the same time. Supporting evidence is that the modern descendants of ancient agriculturalists are generally less susceptible to alcoholism, most likely because those who were susceptible died thousands of years ago.

Over time we received several baskets made by Cathy’s mother, Maria Lincoln, as pictured in Figure 2. We learned that she was the premier Yup’ik basket maker and that her work is on display in museums around the world. 

Figure 2. Yup’ik baskets woven by Maria Lincoln circa 1984 

At a certain point the weather cleared, the wind shifted and suddenly there was no ice visible on the sea, so after five days we headed home. We knew that plane schedules were not followed rigorously there and that they were often altered to accommodate basketball teams going to play in various villages. Indeed, we spent a couple of hours waiting in the terminal, which had a roof and walls on three sides but was mostly filled with snow. At a certain point a pilot landed in a light plane carrying a chest of drawers for local delivery and he offered to take us back to Bethel but we decided to wait for our flight, which came about a half hour later. 

On our jet flight from Bethel to Anchorage a priest and a businessman were sitting behind us and the priest expounded loudly and at length on what a bunch of dimwits the Eskimos were. This went on for about an hour and as we got off the plane my wife had a few quiet words with the priest. She spoke too softly for me to hear but he immediately turned red in the face and apologized to her all the way into the terminal.


Power Lunch. After awhile, government officials in Juneau became curious about this fellow in Tununak who kept sending in quality grant proposals for various native villages. The state senator for the region, an Athabaskan Indian from Ruby, flew out to Bethel to meet Mark and offered him a staff position in Juneau.

The upshot of that was that he was hired by the Senate Finance Committee and assigned to review and recommend which grant proposals to fund. Perhaps they figured that they could save money by getting him out of the business of writing grant proposals. He then moved his family to Juneau for most of the year and soon another child was on the way, this time a boy, who they named John Sackett Earnest after the prominent Athabaskan legislator. 

For the next several years Mark traveled around the state, reviewing grant proposals and trying to ensure that state funds were well spent. Cathy sometimes worked as a translator for Anglo politicians who wanted to address Yup’ik groups.

Glaciology. In June 1987 my wife and I made another visit to Alaska beginning with a grand tour of the state with a Caltech group led by geologists who specialized in glaciers. Among our fellow travelers were Bill Pickering, former head of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab at Caltech, and Harrison Schmitt, a former astronaut-scientist who walked on the Moon and then was elected to the U.S. Senate representing New Mexico. Pickering was a great guy and got us into some places we would not otherwise have seen. I thought that Schmitt was an egotistical jerk to some extent.  

The tour began with a ferry trip across Prince William Sound from Whittier to Valdez, with a visit to the foot of the Columbia Glacier along the way. When we got to Valdez we were shown movies of the tsunami that struck there on March 27, 1964, as a result of a big earthquake, and wiped out the town. The tsunami also destroyed Whittier at the other end of the Sound and much of Anchorage crumbled. 

As we headed north by bus along the Copper River, after pausing at another glacier, I was reminded of some family history involving a great uncle who came to Fairbanks during the early 1900s. He had been living in a boarding house in Minnesota earlier and took a liking to the daughter of the owners. After making some money in the Fairbanks gold rush he wrote a proposal to this young lady and she accepted. Knowing that the best time to travel in Alaska was in winter, when everything is frozen solid, he arranged for her to come by ship to Valdez, where he met her with a dog team. They then headed north on the Copper River and through the Alaska Range to Fairbanks, where they were married. 

On our bus trip north from Valdez we stopped for the night at a place called Paxson. By luck of the draw, some members of our party went on a couple of miles to stay in cabins overlooking beautiful Summit Lake but we were assigned to a hotel next to a power station. We noticed that even though it was rather warm the radiator in our room was full on. When I asked about how to shut it off I was told that the radiators provided cooling for the power station and could not be shut off. Thus we spent a rather uncomfortable night there, though probably better than the experience of my great uncle and his fiancé.

We visited an old gold dredge near Fairbanks and a cave that had been dug into permafrost by the Army Corps of Engineers in order to examine it from below. They kept it refrigerated so that everything stayed frozen and on the ceiling and walls we could see large lenses of ice, some as much as 20 feet across, interspersed with soil. It was clear why the melting of these chunks of ice, which is happening all over the arctic, causes deep pits to appear on the surface. 

We visited a University of Alaska site at Poker Flat, near the Arctic Circle, where they periodically launched rockets to photograph the aurora borealis and assess these emissions from the Sun. This was done by a small and efficient group who used Nike rockets that were being discarded by the military. They had just enough people to handle this project and had decided that their secretary was the best communicator, so she served as Launch Control Officer. They made it a point to call Russia just before each launch so that they would not think an ICBM was headed their way. 

I heard later that Alaska Senator Ted Stevens started showering this small research group with earmarked Federal funds and this operation soon became a useless mass of money-wasting bureaucrats. 

We also visited a major government communications facility that I suspect belonged to the National Security Agency (NSA), though I don’t think that was mentioned. While there, for some reason, we were treated to a lecture on geology by a fellow who obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. As he started talking about the non-existent “Alaska Plate” and its interaction with the Pacific Plate some of us rolled our eyes. Rather than intervening, the two faculty members leading the tour waited until we were on our way back to the bus before saying “Just forget all that!” 

Continuing on, we spent a couple of days at Denali, watching grizzly bears, Moose and other wildlife, then on to the Girdwood resort south of Anchorage and then to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula and back to Anchorage. 

Back to the beach. After the end of the Caltech tour my wife and I flew to Tununak where Mark and family were spending the summer. This gave us an opportunity to sample life there at a faster pace, since a lot of fish catching and drying occurs in the summer months as well as berry picking on the tundra. We were introduced to Akutaq, also known as Eskimo ice cream, which I found surprisingly delicious. We were told that the original recipe used whitefish, seal oil and salmonberries but the modern recipe uses Crisco, powdered potatoes, sugar and salmonberries, called that because of their color. 

Sounds bad but I found it so delicious that I thought seriously about opening an Akutaq shop at home. Trouble was that salmonberries have a short season and probably wouldn’t survive the trip south. I later found out that the correct name for what they called salmonberries was cloudberries. The real salmonberries grow further south and are a bit different. 

Nicola was five years old at this time and spoke both Yup’ik and English. She performed well as translator between us and Cathy’s parents and others who spoke no English. I found it interesting that she never made a mistake about the language of the person she was talking to. Many years later, after she had been living exclusively in Anglo areas, I asked Nicola if she could still speak Yup’ik. She said she had forgotten it all, but I would bet that she could quickly pick it up again if the need arose. 

One day I decided to hike to Toksook Bay, about eight miles away and the nearest village on Nelson Island. I borrowed some suitable boots and headed off on a tundra trail in what I thought was the right direction. It was rough going inasmuch as differential melting of the permafrost created a very uneven surface, with every other step going into a deep hole. After I had traveled the approximate distance between the villages but still couldn’t see my destination I figured that I was somehow on the wrong trail and turned back. Indeed, it turned out that I was on the trail to Nightmute, which was much further away. My son had facetiously warned me about going there because the residents were all Nightmutants.

Meanwhile back in Tununak our host Dick Lincoln had gotten on the CB radio to check with his cousin in Toksook Bay on whether I had been seen there. My wife heard this largely unintelligible conversation in the middle of which Mr. Lincoln mentioned “Abraham Lincoln”. That evidently was his way of describing me inasmuch as I had a Lincoln-esque beard. All was well when I returned. 

On one walk I passed the “Old Town,” a bunch of collapsed sod houses that had been built around circular pits. I learned that this area dated back to the early 1800s when the local population had been about 1,000 and there had been other villages nearby. I observed that the local people carefully stayed away from this area, fearing that it was haunted. They reportedly were truly horrified whenever a human bone was seen protruding from the ground. 

I later learned that when Edward Nelson, an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, came to visit in 1878 there were only six people left at Tununak, a result of smallpox and other imported diseases [1, p37]. Thus there have been major fluctuations in population on the island. The island reportedly was named after Nelson in 1880 by the U.S. Census Bureau, ignoring the fact that it already had a longstanding Yup’ik name: “Qaluyaag”, meaning “Place of the dip net.”

At some point when I was looking across the channel at Nunivak Island I asked Cathy if people visited back and forth from there. She said certainly not because the people in Nunivak are all ugly. She said that they were called the “Dog people” because they mated with dogs, which was why they were so ugly. She said this as if she believed it. 

When I later saw pictures of Nunivak people they looked to me pretty much the same as Nelson Island residents. In fact they all resemble Mongols to whom I suspect they are closely related though I have seen no DNA evidence.

Following this visit we flew to Juneau where Mark met us a day later. We had the “privilege” of sitting in on a special session of the Alaska Senate, called to address urgent budget issues. The individual speakers struck me as a bunch of egotistical jerks. I concluded that, like making sausage, it is better not to see how laws are made. 

Our hotel room overlooked the bay in Juneau and just after midnight at the beginning of July 4th there was a spectacular fireworks display. It was necessary to wait until about midnight for there to be sufficient darkness. As a result, Alaska celebrates Independence Day earlier than the rest of the states. 

Beginning July 4th we took a three day boat trip to Glacier Bay, to see the many glaciers disintegrating there. With the continuation of global warming, one of those glaciers is expected to retreat to the point where Canada will soon have a port connected to Glacier Bay. 

Capitalism in a communist society. While Mark enjoyed funding various community projects around the state and seeing the improvements in living standards that resulted, he was bothered that nothing was being done to address a fundamental problem in Native communities: they mostly had no sustainable source of income. Everyone collected around $1,000 a year from the state’s inverse income tax but they mostly were unable to earn more unless they moved to one of the cities. 

He saw an opportunity to do something about that and decided to resurrect a failed fish processing operation in Tununak and Toksook Bay. He knew that Yup’ik fishermen were very proficient and had abundant resources but had no local buyer or market for their fish. Mark quit his job with the state legislature and moved back to Tununak to organize a legitimate fish processing business based on halibut and later, Pacific cod. 

He had observed that aircraft flying to Alaska generally went with heavy loads and returned light and that this effect was even more pronounced in flights from Anchorage to places such as Bethel and then to the villages. He negotiated a deal with the airlines to provide cut-rate transportation for fish on their return flights, then negotiated deals with fish wholesalers in Bethel, Anchorage, and New England. 

In Nelson Island he set up fishing, cleaning and packaging operations and hired 13 local residents as processors and assistants. An additional 113 village men signed up as fishermen. His goal was to first involve all of the villages on the island and then consider expanding operations.

Just before the halibut season commenced, several fishermen approached Mark to find out when they were going to be paid for the fish they had caught the previous three seasons. As it turns out, the fellow who had been running the facilities before Mark’s arrival issued IOUs to the fishermen, but absconded to Bethel with all of the proceeds and managed to drink it all away. Amazingly, he got away with that scam for three years. Mark had to inform them that he was not able to pay for what had happened in the past, but that he promised that they would begin getting paid for their fish.

Everything went well for the two years Mark ran the operation. He was able to get funding from a nonprofit organization to provide training for the women workers in the art of making salt cod for New England markets. An expert was brought in from Maine, and the training as well as the high quality of cod fish resulted in a huge demand from buyers in the Boston area.

The plan from the beginning was to transfer operational control to a group of local Natives. He later quipped that he’s never worked so hard to break even in his life, and that Murphy (as in Murphy’s Law), was an optimist. In the Bering Sea, even things that can’t go wrong do. The original ice machines were donated to the experimental plants, for reasons that became obvious as soon as they were put to use. When one machine was fixed the other would fail. As a stopgap measure, workers and fishermen harvested snow from the crevasses and higher elevations. Eventually the machines were repaired.  

A bend in the river. Mark and family were in financial straits at this point. He heard that the town of Bethel was looking for a new city manager but he also knew that he could not be certain to get that job and that if he did it probably wouldn’t last long inasmuch as Bethel had gone through five city managers in the preceding three years. Nevertheless, he applied. 

He got the job and ended up becoming the second longest tenured manager five years. Bethel is about a hundred miles from the Bering Sea, and is the transportation and communication hub of western Alaska, which effectively makes it the capital of the Yup’ik region. In summer boats travel up and down the Kuskoquim River and in winter it becomes a highway once it freezes solid enough to support trucks. 

In late July 1990 we again flew to Alaska and spent a week with the family in Bethel, seeing the various civic improvements that Mark had arranged, including expansion of the water and sewage systems. In permafrost areas water can’t be piped underground because it would either melt the permafrost, causing the pipe to break, or the water would freeze. Instead it must be piped above ground in a loop from the source to the consumers and back. The water is continuously circulated with some heat being added to prevent freezing. 

We, Mark and Cathy then left most of the kids with one of Cathy’s sisters and headed off on a tour with the youngest arrival, also named Mark, who was still nursing. To avoid name ambiguity the younger Mark was generally identified by his Yup’ik name, Carupi (pronounced Cha-hoo-pi). We flew to Anchorage and rented a car, then drove to the Copper River where we hiked to the abandoned Kennicott mines, next to a glacier. We then drove into Canada to reach Dawson, site of the Klondike gold rush in the 1890s, then on past the Arctic Circle to the Inuit village of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories near the Arctic Ocean. The roads were pretty bad once we left the Alaska Highway. 

After returning Mark and Cathy to Anchorage for a flight back to Bethel we continued on to Homer then flew to Kodiak for a couple of days (getting stuck there by bad weather) then back to Anchorage and over to King Salmon, then to Katmai, where bears often picnicked on salmon, and where a recent volcanic eruption had filled a nearby valley with pumice. Then home. 

One problem that Mark faced was that the Kuskoquim River, which flowed along one side of town, was eating into the bank and threatening structures there. In flatlands all rivers slowly erode the outer banks of turns and fill on the inside of the turn. When this goes on long enough successive turns erode into each other and the river takes a shortcut, as has been happening all over the world for millions of years. The best thing to do to inhibit this process is to build a wall of rock on the surface being eroded. Mark realized that State funds would not be adequate for this project so he started working on getting Federal funding. 

About that time, however, he stumbled into a political firestorm. He had figured out that a number of merchants in town were collecting sales taxes and pocketing the money rather than turning it in. When he set out to recover those funds he discovered that some of the biggest offenders were members of the city council. They resolved this little problem by firing him and hiring a convicted felon who earlier had been caught bribing state legislators. That interesting development was covered by television and newspapers all over Alaska. 

Instead of speaking out on this issue Mark hunkered down and began looking for another job. Meanwhile the town government figured out that nobody there knew how to write a grant proposal to get money from the Feds. They ended up hiring Mark as a consultant to do that and had to pay him more than he had gotten as city manager. He did manage to get them a $10+ million grant and construction began a short time later. 

Going Dutch. Meanwhile his former budget director had quit his job in Bethel in disgust and taken a similar position in the Aleutian Island city of Unalaska, which is also known as Dutch Harbor. After awhile the city manager there got into trouble and Mark was recruited for that job. 

Unalaska is known for having some of the worst weather in the world but its seaport, which provides access to both the Bering Sea and the North Pacific, consistently produces the most seafood products of any place in the U.S. and, often, in the world. The television series, “The Deadliest Catch,” is largely based in Unalaska and has documented the difficulties and dangers encountered by crab fishermen who operate out of there during the winter. 

Dutch Harbor also happens to be on the great circle route between the West Coast of North America and the East Coast of Asia and is heavily used as a container cargo sorting place for ships going between these coasts. Thus it is a heavily industrial place that generates a lot of income. This has benefited the Aleuts who live there and who own nearly all of the land. However this can be regarded as scant compensation for their ancestors’ mistreatment by the Russians and Americans. 

Beginning in the 1700s they were enslaved by the Russians and forced to hunt sea otters for the profitable trade with China. Some were brought to Ft. Ross in California and hunted in San Francisco Bay and its creeks. Along the way many Russian men took Aleut wives and other Aleuts took Russian family names. They mostly were converted to the Russian Orthodox Church which still dominates that area. It is fairly easy to figure out where the Russians established themselves because in such places most of the natives have Russian names. 

Things didn’t get any better when the Americans took over and got much worse during World War 2 when the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor.

Mark’s Note: The U.S. Government removed Native people from their Aleutian Island homes to keep them from becoming captured by the Japanese. Some Natives were captured and never repatriated to Alaska. The Japanese captured two islands—Kiska and Attu, and there was legitimate fear that more was on the way. Of course it was a diversionary tactic as part of their primary plan to attack Midway. It wasn’t a racist thing, after all the US for the so-called Eskimo Scouts to serve in the military reserve force during the war.

From Wikipedia: The Alaska Territorial Guard (ATG), more commonly called the Eskimo Scouts, was a military reserve force component of the US Army, organized in 1942 in response to attacks on United States soil in Hawaii and occupation of parts of Alaska by Japan during World War II. The ATG operated until 1947. 6,368 volunteers who served without pay were enrolled from 107 communities throughout Alaska in addition to a paid staff of 21, according to an official roster. The ATG brought together for the first time into a joint effort members of these ethnic groups: Aleut, Athabaskan, White, Inupiaq, Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Yupik, and most likely others. In later years, all members of some native units scored expert sharpshooter rankings.

What happened is that the Aleuts who were shipped to abandoned fish processing bunkhouses in Southeast Alaska were abandoned and forgotten. Many developed life-long illnesses and others died. Many or most of the villages’ homes and churches were ransacked and burned by American soldiers. It was a travesty, but not for the reason cited. Here is an extraordinary publication on the subject:

Those who survived were eventually allowed to return to their homeland, which had been transformed by the placement of military structures everywhere, such as pillboxes. Thousands of soldiers had been stationed in Unalaska throughout the war based on the Defense Department’s assumption that the Japanese would try to invade North America by way of the Aleutians, which ignored the fact that this would be grossly impractical.

When Mark and family came to Unalaska in midwinter they were provided with a duplex house to accommodate their five children, including an infant named Jeff who had just been born. Three weeks after arrival a serious problem arose when Jeff managed to find and swallow a penny that lodged in his esophagus and threatened to rotate and cut off his breathing. There were no doctors on the island, just a physician assistant, and the nearest hospital was 800 miles away in Anchorage. 

To make matters worse there was a major blizzard blowing so no airlines were flying. However one of the local fish processors had a cargo plane at the airport that was there to pick up seafood, waiting for the storm to lift. They loaded Jeff and the physician assistant, ploughed snow off the runway for a distance of 800 feet, enough to get off, and flew them to Anchorage where a doctor was able to safely remove the penny. There was no charge for that service. This is the kind of thing that nearly all Alaskans do for each other when someone gets in trouble. However Mark then had to fly to Anchorage to retrieve Jeff as soon as commercial flights resumed.

The family made friends with the locals and Cathy learned to weave baskets the Aleutian way, which used the same grasses as on Nelson Island but in a somewhat different style.  

In August 1993, Joan and I drove from California to Alaska by way of Dawson in the Yukon Territory, then through Fairbanks and Denali to Anchorage. We then flew to Unalaska, noting that the round trip air fare was over $1,200 a person compared with about $100 for a trip of comparable length in California. We learned that one reason was that the weather was so unpredictable that flights had to turn back about a third of the time. Another reason was that they had to put their best pilots on this run because the airfield at Unalaska, which was hastily built for fighter planes during World War 2, was quit short and had a cliff on one side and the ocean on the other. Because the runway was so short, the city road crossing one end had traffic lights to stop vehicles when planes were taking off or landing. 

I had been warned about this and braced myself for the landing but as we flew toward a large mountain and did a tight left turn just before hitting it, then swooped down over the bay, hopped over an island, and slammed down on the runway with the engines in full reverse and the brakes nearly locked, the person sitting next to me freaked out and swore he was going to sue someone. He was still ranting two days later when I encountered him at a local watering hole. 

We stayed there over a week and visited many sites. One day Mark and I hiked to an uninhabited part of the island called Cook’s Bay. It was where Britain’s Captain Cook had put ashore during his northern journey. The Unalaskans reportedly went to see him and his crew repeatedly and brought food. A short time later Cook returned to Hawaii and got clobbered. 

We flew back to Anchorage and drove home, taking part of the trip on an Alaska ferry from Skagway to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and stopping at a number of places where Tlingits lived. I had brought a folding bicycle and was able to zoom through the villages to see totem poles and other scenic objects. 

A Sea Journey. In August 1995, we signed up for a Bering Sea tour with another Caltech geologist. It was to begin in Nome, so we got there a day early and rented a pickup truck to tour the local roads and visit an Inupiat village or two. All went well until it was time to get the truck back to Nome to avoid being charged for an extra day. We were on a dirt road in a remote area well north of town and as we headed back we encountered a couple hundred reindeer blocking our way and slowly rotating in a large circle. 

I knew that reindeer generally travel in a tight formation, unlike caribou, and they used this rotation scheme, with large males on the outside and smaller animals in the middle, as a defense against wolves and other marauders. We were surprised to see a small albino unicorn in the center as they slowly rotated. 

After five minutes or so I decided to press the issue and slowing moved forward. When I got about three feet from the outer circle they parted a bit and I moved on in. Over a period of another five minutes or so I was able to move slowly through the whole rotating mass and emerge on the other side. As we left I could see in my rear view mirror that they were still rotating in place, though I knew not why. 

We boarded a ship called the World Discoverer the next morning in Nome and headed north, passing King Island. I knew that the Inupiat people who lived there earlier had migrated to the mainland but their large village on the south side of the island appeared to be intact. As we cruised by I saw one person walking through the village, perhaps a wayward archaeologist or anthropologist. 

We stopped at the village on Little Diomede Island, which was on the steep west side of the island facing Big Diomede, just 2.5 miles away. Half way between them lay the border between the Russia and the U.S., which was also the International Date Line.

Mark Notes: Unbeknownst to Sarah Palin, you really can see Russia from there! I’ve been there too. One of the interesting things is that the high school basketball team had a girl player and an eighth grader. They were very short, but could run nonstop, which they did when playing against the much taller teams from places like Nulato and Shishmaref. Also, the girls who were born and raised there “escaped” to the mainland as soon as they turned 18. The eligible men would travel to places like Nome and Wales to find future brides. This all according to the school principal.

We went ashore using Zodiacs and were given a talk in the gym by a village elder named Patrick Omiak followed by a dance presentation. I saw that the dance style was similar to the Yup’iks but they didn’t use fans. Afterward I chatted with Mr. Omiak and learned that he knew my son, who had arranged for the funding of the gym and other village facilities. 

I asked about contact between them and the people on Big Diomede. He acknowledged that they earlier had been close relatives but had been pulled apart by government authorities on both sides. Nevertheless they sometimes crossed both ways by boat in the summer and on sea ice in winter.

Mark Notes: Maybe, but it was only the Soviets that closed their waters to the Native fishermen around the time I was there. I arrived less than two months after KAL 007 was shot down in 1983 and tensions were still pretty high. When I talked to the mayor, he said that he was sitting in his office when the phone rang. It was the Russian commander asking that he keep “his” fishermen on the US side of the border. The mayor look at me and asked how in the world could the Russians have gotten his phone number. Also, while we were preparing to take off by helicopter in Nome, a station wagon pulled up to us and asked if we could take a couple dozen frozen turkeys to the village. There were no flights for a week, and it was Thanksgiving. We did, of course.

I mentioned that I recently had tried to get them involved in the Olympic movement. I had been involved in bicycle racing politics for many years (and still am) and had officiated at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Given that the 1996 Olympics were to be held in Atlanta, I had proposed that instead of bringing the Olympic torch from Greece by airplane that we would arrange for local people to carry it across Asia to the Chukchi Peninsula, then to Big Diomede, then with a handover at the international border to Little Diomede people, then on to the Seward Peninsula and down through Alaska and Canada to the lower 48 and to Atlanta. Based on some research I knew that in order to make this work it was be necessary to make the Bering Strait crossing in March, which is the only time the ice there is firm enough (with a little luck). 

My contacts in the Soviet Union, Alaska and Canada all thought this was a great idea and so did the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Atlanta Organizing Committee. To make it work, we knew it would be necessary for the Greek Olympic Committee to light the torch in Olympia a few weeks earlier than in the past. Unfortunately they were unsympathetic because they had wanted to put on the 1996 Olympics themselves, which would have been exactly one hundred years after the first Olympic Games of the Modern Era were held in Athens. They therefore vetoed this idea and the whole scheme unraveled. Mr. Omiak remarked that he wished this project had been accepted because his village very much would have enjoyed participating. 

Following this discussion I headed out and climbed a steep trail leading to some rocks above, where I found two boys about ten years old using long poles with nets on the end to catch birds, which they evidently used for food. The boys seemed to be having a good time and there are abundant birds everywhere in the Bering Sea area. 

By the time we reboarded our ship the fog had rolled in and we couldn’t see more than about 100 yards in any direction, so Russia was out of sight.  

Our next stop, the following morning, was in Providenya, Siberia, on the south edge of the Chukchi Peninsula. The town there was at the head of a long fjord that had been discovered in 1848 by a British sea captain who was trying to escape a Bering Sea storm. He was lucky enough to find the relatively calm waters of this place, which he named “Providence Bay”. 

When we disembarked I brought out my folding bike and rode around town. I found it interesting that even though Communism had supposedly been overthrown, this town still had a prominent statue of Lenin in the central square. We learned that this place was the northernmost seaport in Siberia that remained ice-free all year and was used as a supply hub for military facilities throughout the area. 

While riding I noticed that people were tracking me out of the corners of their eyes but not looking at me directly. Perhaps that was how they dealt with odd-looking people in Hawaiian shirts riding peculiar bikes. 

We were given a ballet dance presentation in the local theater, which included a number of dolled up Russian girls and a couple of natives who could have been either Chukchi or Yup’ik. We also were invited to visit the local bakery, where we saw a number of cats. The ladies working there alternately petted them and went back to kneading dough. We also visited the brewery, which was run by a Russian woman who looked as if she could throw 100 pound kegs around with ease. Unfortunately, the beer was awful. 

We went from there overnight to the Yup’ik village of Gamble on St. Lawrence Island, in the middle of the Bering Sea but on the U.S. side of the border. Again we were treated to a dance exhibition. They didn’t use fans and the dancing seemed different and less humorous than the Nelson Island dances. I was told that their language had drifted far enough from mainland Yup’ik that they no longer can understand each other. 

We spent the next day at Hall Island, occupied only by walrus, seals, a few foxes, and hordes of birds. The next two days were spent on the Pribilof Islands, first on St. Paul then St. George. Again I was able to race around on my bike to see things. I saw that they were quarrying large rocks on St. George and loading them on a boat. I learned that these were headed for Bethel to build the riverside wall that Mark had set up. 

We next visited Dutch Harbor, where Mark came aboard to expound to the passengers on the wonders of that place before sending them off on a bus tour. The rest of the family then joined us and a little later a new pilot came on board who was to handle the navigation through the Aleutians. He was colorful looking, with a handlebar mustache. He took one look at Cathy and said “You look like a Lincoln.” It turned out that he had earlier made numerous barge trips to Tununak and knew the family. 

Mark introduced him to me as “Captain Jack from Kodiak.” Mark later mentioned that Captain Jack was a native Athabaskan and suggested that during the ongoing voyage we spend some time with him on the Bridge and get him to tell stories. He was absolutely right – Captain Jack had a lot of interesting stories. 

We headed east along the Aleutians and stopped on some more uninhabited islands before reaching Kodiak Island. There Captain Jack used the PA system to invite us ashore but confided that he was staying on the ship because he had three ex-wives there! Thus it became clear why he was “from Kodiak.”

After returning home and getting our pictures developed we showed them to our daughter Joanne, who leafed through and said, “Hey, that’s Captain Jack.” I asked how in the world she knew him. She said he owned a bar in Placerville, near where she lived, and she used to play on the softball team he organized. It turned out that he spent his summers as a marine pilot in Alaska and his winters selling booze. This “small world” observation provides further support for my theory that there are only 1024 real people in the world, the rest being simulations. 

Meanwhile back in Unalaska, Mark continued to exercise his skills by rounding up State and Federal funding to get a large harbor constructed there for small ships as well as other improvements. However he and Cathy had a falling out and moved to Anchorage, where he worked for a time with various engineering firms before becoming city manager of Whittier, Alaska, where he remains today (March 2009), still rounding up outside funding for city projects. In the meantime I have made two more trips to Alaska, in February-March 2001 and in August-September 2006. 

What should be done for Native Americans? It is clear that Native Americans have been very badly treated by immigrating Europeans over the last five centuries, though some of the worst things that happened to them were unintentional, specifically the importation of diseases for which they had no resistance. This leaves us with the question of what compensation should be provided to them, if any. 

While there was an initial pretense that Native Americans were independent nations, that was dropped almost immediately. While many native groups were badly abused, so were many others such as African slaves and our government has generally followed the rule that descendants are not eligible for compensation to make up for abuses to their progenitors. 

There have been recent attempts to compensate for past injustices by providing special treatment for “minorities”. However this hinges on identification of who is eligible. As I pointed out in a journal article 20 years ago, racial and ethnic classification schemes used by governments around the world are based on scientific nonsense [3]. I noted that these classifications could be made rigorous through DNA testing though there doesn’t seem to be a point in doing that. 

As things stand, people generally get to choose whatever racial classification they want, but where financial advantages are involved that is a poor way to administer things. Tracing family histories is one basis for qualification but since fatherhood is generally uncertain without DNA confirmation that leads into a morass. 

If membership in a given group is to be based on family history then a threshold percentage must be chosen. If it is 25%, as some use now, then over time all membership in the group is likely to vanish as intermarriage continues. In my own family, for example, I have five grandchildren who are half Yup’ik, my two great grandchildren are one-fourth Yup’ik and their descendants are likely to be further diluted. If the threshold is set much lower, however, the size of the group may expand over time. 

I believe that instead of creating privileges based on racial or ethnic classification we should first do our best to eliminate ongoing discrimination, then attempt to compensate individuals for abuses in their lifetimes, but do nothing directly for their descendants. I think that government aid to families and individuals should be based on economic status, not race. After all, some “minorities” are filthy rich. 

Regarding groups such as the Yup’ik, I believe that ways should be found to bring them into the modern world as productive and adequately compensated people. They likely will loose some of their culture in this process, which may be sad from an anthropologist’s viewpoint, but any scheme that sustains them through subsidies effectively turns them into a zoo exhibit. 

Unfortunately politicians have learned that racial classification, however nonsensical, can be used to grow constituencies and create mythical bases for needed compensation. It will not be easy to turn things onto a sensible course of action.



[1] Carolyn Kremers, Place of the Pretend People, ISBN 0-88240-478-4, Alaska Northwest Books, Anchorage, 1996. 

[2] Ann Fienup-Riordan, The Nelson Island Eskimo: Social Structure and Ritual Distribution, PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1983. 

[3] Lester Earnest, “Can computers cope with human races?” Communications of the ACM, February 1989,