By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, May 1, 2005
Let's say you were looking for a vacation destination in winter. And also, that you were out of your mind. You might pull out a map of Alaska, locate Anchorage, and then let your eyes roam north and west, across mountain ranges, through millions of acres of wilderness, until you ran out of dirt. You would be in Nome. Nome: the last outpost, Babylon on the Bering, famously dissolute, said to be home to the desperate, the disillusioned, the hollow-eyed, the surrendered, the exiles, the castaways, the cutthroats, the half dead and the fully juiced. Nome, the end of the Earth.
Only it isn't the end of the Earth. You can see that, right on the map. To get to the end of the Earth from Nome you would have to hop a small plane and head 130 miles out into the Bering Sea, where you would land on an island so remote that it is closer to Russia than the U.S. mainland. To the people of Siberia, this island is the middle of nowhere. On it, according to the map, is a village named Savoonga.
Savoonga. Va-voom. Bunga bunga. Funny, no?
I thought so, too, when I first saw it. It gave me an idea for a funny story. In the dead of winter, I would pack up and blindly head to Savoonga, unannounced and unprepared. No research at all, no planning beyond the booking of a room, if there was one to be had.
The whole thing was an inside joke, one with a swagger. It is a journalist's conceit that a good reporter can find a great story anywhere--in any life, however humble, and in any place, however unwelcoming.
That is how photographer Michael Williamson and I came to be in a small commuter plane in late February, squinting out onto a landscape as forbidding, and as starkly beautiful, as anything we'd ever seen. Land was indistinguishable from sea--the white subarctic vista, lit to iridescence by a midafternoon sun, was flat and frozen straight to the horizon. The first clue that we were over an island was when the village materialized below us. It looked as negligible as a boot print in the snow, the grimy, nubby tread left by galoshes. The nubs were one-story buildings, a few dozen of them, and that was it.
I'm back now, trying to make sense of what we saw, trying to figure out how to tell it. It's all still with me, except for the swagger.
LET'S PUT TO REST ONE CLICHE. You can sell refrigerators to Eskimos.
The people of Savoonga are Yupiks, the westernmost of the
Eskimo tribes, closer to Siberians than American Eskimos in their appearance, their customs and their distinctive, liquidly sibilant native language. And, yes, they all have refrigerators. In the winter, food gets freezer burn if left out in the elements. Eskimos need refrigerators to keep their food warm.
I was still unpacking in the small lodge we had rented (two refrigerators!), wondering how to find a funny story line that somehow would capture the otherworldiness of where we were. At that moment, there was a knock on the door. An Eskimo named Larry walked in and produced from beneath his parka, swaddled in a towel, two treasures to sell. They were bones of formidable size, polished to an impressive shine. Each was roughly the dimensions of the handle of a lumberjack's axe. I asked what they were.
"Walrus dicks," he said.
So far, so good.
THERMOMETER READINGS MEAN LITTLE TO SAVOONGANS, because in this treeless island village, wind is a constant irritant; on that first day, we were informed, it was "30." That meant minus-5, adjusted by wind chill to minus-30. In Savoonga, in winter, the "minus" is a given.
There is no real way to prepare, physically or mentally, for 30 below. You can dress as warmly as you think appropriate, with long johns and woolen socks and layers of fleece and a sturdy parka and a ski cap, and then you step out into it and you realize that, in the words of Richard Dreyfuss in "Jaws," you need a bigger boat. When we'd first landed, Michael and I left the plane for two minutes to photograph the unloading of cargo, then we scurried back aboard. With barely a word to each other, but exchanging slightly stupefied glances, we slipped on full-face balaclavas and thick gloves and eye goggles and a second layer of hat.
And soon we were actually walking in it, heading out to explore the village. Thirty below is opportunistic. If you leave a slit between chin and Adam's apple, 30 below works its way in and moves down and around in a darting shiver, like the icy hands of a pickpocket. To take photographs, Michael had to remove his goggles, freezing his eyebrows, as he put it, "in a permanent state of astonishment." Your first lesson, then, is to expose nothing.
Savoonga is home to about 700 people. The inexpensive frame houses have no numbers, the few streets have no names. In the winter, the town rests on five feet or more of packed snow, and the only transportation is by snowmobiles, which roar about day and night.
Trudging through town, we found a grocery store, a K-12 school, a small City Hall, a small Christian chapel, a medical clinic, a firehouse and finally a post office, at which we briefly stopped. Outside it, scratched into a wooden wall, was a welter of remarkably sedate graffiti. Even though this was obviously the handiwork of the young --pop lyrics and so forth--there was barely any profanity. Most writing was a simple assertion of self, followed by the same plaint, repeated in almost identical words, flat, mild and disturbing. Here's one: "I was being bored here. 11/13/04. 7:41 a.m."
Also: "I miss Nicholas."
Also: "I miss Ernie."
Also: "I miss Don."
When we returned to our lodge, we had company. Visitors to Savoonga are an event, or, more specifically, an opportunity. A woman named Bessie, toting a baby, offered to sell us a whale tooth. A man had a small carving of a seal made out of walrus tusk. Would-be vendors arrived and departed serially, a minute or two apart. Polite and self-effacing, each person nodded placidly when we declined, then shuffled off; there was no hard sell, no hard-luck story, just resignation.
One visitor had no wares at all. We thought for a moment that he was looking for a handout, but it turned out he just wanted to talk. He appeared to be about 65, a small, leather-skinned man with a stooped bearing, weary eyes and an apologetic manner. His deeply fissured face bore a Fu Manchu mustache that framed a toothless mouth. The voice belied it all--it was soft, cultured, almost professorial.
He told us his name, which was Dean Kulowiyi, and his age, which was 42. If he saw our surprise, he didn't show it.
Born here but educated on the mainland, Dean said he lives in Savoonga because he is stuck here without the means to leave. "I'm a poor man," he said. Partially disabled from a construction accident, he said he survives mostly by hunting and fishing for his food. The Savoongans call this "subsistence living," which in this village is not a lament but a matter of pride, at least to the elders. Still, Dean said, the old way of life is buckling under ferocious assault from modernity. Teens are questioning the ways of their forebears, he said, losing respect for their authority, staying mostly idle, and taking to drink and drugs.
Even the ancient Savoongan art of ivory carving, Dean said, is slowly being lost. He himself learned it at age 7, beside the bench of his grandfather. He seemed proud of this, so we told him we would love to take a look at any carvings he had. But he had none to show--not on his person, not in his home, nowhere on the island. Ivory carving is painstaking work, he said: A single, substantial piece can take months or even years. He must sell everything immediately to survive, he said. Life can be hand to mouth in Savoonga.
Dean brightened: We could see some of his work, he said, if we ventured to Washington, D.C., in the Lower 48, and found a place called the Smithsonian Institution. Had we heard of it?
DEAN KULOWIYI, IT WOULD TURN OUT, is one of the world's elite ivory artists. His pieces have sold for thousands, and some have been marketed at Smithsonian gift shops. He inspires imitators, such as our next visitor, a handsome young man named Jason Iya.
Jason arrived as Dean was leaving. "We're cousins on our mother's side, and maybe a little on our father's," Jason said, and both laughed. There are only about 20 Eskimo surnames in Savoonga, as we would discover, and it is hard to find two island natives who are not in some way related.
Jason, 22, is one of a few young, skilled carvers on the island. He showed us a foot-tall, long-necked cormorant he had made, lovely and delicate, sweeping up from a stone base. He was selling it for $200; we'd seen far less skillfully rendered pieces in the Anchorage airport for four times the amount. In fact, Jason said, he'd been living near Anchorage, carving and selling his work until a half year earlier, when he had to come home to help his family.
Help them with what? I asked.
Jason fiddled with his cormorant. He had a downy mustache and sad eyes, and he sat in an eloquent slouch.
"My brother died," he said.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Everyone on Savoonga named Iya got together to make his casket and cross."
"How did he die?"
Jason studied his boots.
"He got murdered."
He began repacking his carving in bubble wrap.
"He was stabbed."
It was pulling teeth. We were both embarrassed. The first lesson in Savoonga: Expose nothing.
"Did they catch the murderer?"
"It was his wife that did it."
A long silence.
"They were under the influence of alcohol."
AT THE SMALL AIRPORT IN NOME, we had seen posters warning that it is a serious crime to be caught smuggling alcoholic beverages of any kind to St. Lawrence Island, which is home to Savoonga and Gambell, its sister village 40 miles away. The island is dry and has been for some time, part of a desperate effort to control a problem that has gotten painfully out of hand.
Savoongans are only a few generations removed from a near-Stone Age existence. Details from the distant past are murky, but in the late 1870s much of the population of the island was wiped out in a holocaust of complex origins thought to involve illness, climate changes and behavioral factors. What is indisputable is that the commercial whalers of that era brought some modern ways to the island, along with disease and alcohol. Genetically, in both cases, the natives had no defenses.
Dean Kulowiyi had mentioned a scene he said is repeated all over Savoonga: two young people sharing a smuggled bottle, then getting into a fistfight over the last swallow. Jason Iya said the concept of social drinking is unknown; young people in particular simply drink to pass out. Alcoholism and depression. It's an old, sad story familiar to Native Americans, whether Eskimos in Alaska or Navajos in Arizona. In Savoonga, for reasons we would come to understand, the phenomenon seems to be intensified.
Jason told us he likes Savoonga, respects the tribal ways of his people, enjoys hunting for seal, whale and walrus. (As indigenous people with a subsistence lifestyle, Eskimos who are Alaskan natives are permitted to take otherwise protected species.) Jason agreed with Dean, though, that too many of the young people seem spoiled, rootless and without ambition, content to sponge off their parents. Despair, Jason said, is a constant companion. Bad things keep happening, such as not long ago, when one of his friends from high school, a young woman, fatally shot herself in the head with a .300 magnum. That sort of thing was unusual, though, he said.
Good, I said.
Girls, he explained, will more often hang themselves.
SUICIDE, WE WOULD LEARN, has reached near-epidemic proportions among the young people of Savoonga. They have been taking their lives in violent ways and in breathtaking, heartbreaking numbers for some time now, and there is little agreement in the village on precisely why, or precisely how to stop it.
Savoonga is run collegially by a loose, three-part government: a tribal council, a native corporation that owns the island--all Eskimo residents are shareholders--and a civil authority, headed by Mayor Jane Kava. I found the mayor at her desk in City Hall. A sturdy, pleasant woman, she has been here 28 years and said she wouldn't live anywhere else. When I asked her why, she said that it is wholesome: "You don't have to worry about crime. You don't have to worry about your kids."
But, I asked, what about the suicides?
Yes, she acknowledged, that has been a serious problem for people under 30.
How many have there been?
Lately? She counted in her head. Four in the past year. But those are just the ones that succeeded. Lately, she said, there have been as many as six unsuccessful attempts in a single month, among people from ages 13 to 18.
This is in a place with a total population of 700.
(With such a small sample, statistics don't mean much, but four deaths in one year is roughly 200 times the average suicide rate for young Americans.)
The village is dealing with the problem, Mayor Kava said. Two months earlier, Savoonga hosted a federally funded wellness conference for teenagers, with specialists flying in from the mainland. The mayor believes the main culprit is access to drugs.
"What's really hurting," she said, "is marijuana. It's getting to younger and younger kids."
All in all, though, the mayor said cheerfully, Savoonga is doing well. The people may be poor--unemployment is above 30 percent--but the government is working to make things better: There is satellite TV, now. And in the past two or three years, she said, the village got running water and in-home sewage, so citizens are no longer dealing with smelly "honey buckets."
The village store is a modern grocery, shelves stocked with goods at eye-popping prices. A Tombstone frozen pizza, $7 at a Washington Safeway, was $13.95. Bean dip in a cat-food-size can, $5. Many of the perishables were well past their expiration dates.
There we found Parson Noongwook, 41, wearing a "Native Pride" baseball cap. He told us he liked it in Savoonga just fine. He loves to hunt, is proud of being an Eskimo, has everything he wants. Michael asked him to pose for a picture. He said sure, if we would give him $50. We thought he was kidding. He was not. No picture.
This sort of scene would play out more than once. Later in the day, an older woman would berate us, whipping a scolding finger: "You earn a lot of money on this, you should give us some! I need false teeth, but I can't afford to go to Nome for them!" This turned out to be Gloria Kulowiyi, Dean's mother. She, too, is an expert carver as well as a seamstress; I would find her work for sale on an Alaskan native art Web site. A small Gloria Kulowiyi ivory hair barrette, sold online, costs $162.
There was something puzzling going on, involving money. The people of Savoonga were being mostly friendly--polite and accommodating, if reserved--except on this topic, where several seemed almost belligerent.
Back at our lodge, not far from the airport, we were bearing witness, day after day, to Savoonga's dispiriting balance of trade. Incoming: boxes of tuna fish and soup and Spam and overly old dairy products at exploitative prices, along with the occasional smuggled poisonous bottle of booze. Outgoing: not much, except for the occasional piece of native culture--elegant art, pain-stakingly crafted from the wealth of the land, sold in desperation, whenever it is ready, for whatever they can get.
EVERY DAY, AT NOON, a procession of old people assembles in the basement of City Hall, where volunteers feed them lunch; it is part of a government program for seniors, but it is administered with extraordinary dignity by a society that reveres its elders. The old men arranged themselves in a row, like the Last Supper, and ate mostly in silence; the women gathered more communally, facing one another and chatting. The teenage server remained quiet and deferential. The setting was banal, the cutlery was plastic, the stemware was Styrofoam, but the feel was almost holy.
From Harriet Penayah, an elder with a snow-white shock of hair, we heard what by now was becoming a familiar complaint: The kids are raising hell, she said, using drugs and alcohol, not respecting their parents, and losing their native language.
One of the cooks called me over. Adora Kingeekuk Noongwook did not want to challenge an elder. But she told me, quietly, that the problems are not the kids' fault. The kids need skate parks, she said. Then she looked at me, and stopped. I was not writing it down. I started writing it down.
"They need bowling alleys. Skate parks. Swimming pools. They need recreation. You tell that to Washington."
I promised her I would. She was not smiling.
MIKE KIMBER IS THE ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL of the Hogarth Kingeekuk School. He is one of maybe 20 non-Eskimos in Savoonga. Almost all of them work at the school and live in an apartment compound on the school grounds.
At 55, Mike remains enthusiastically dedicated to his job. You can find him working early in the morning, when the pupils arrive, and late at night, for after-school activities, and on his lunch hour, when he teaches basic reading skills to cute little kids. He's a downstater from Royal Oak, Mich., who came to Savoonga 10 years ago and has no intention of leaving anytime soon. He loves the children and he loves his work. In particular, he loves the land, for its archaeology--you can find woolly mammoth bones just a mile outside of town--and for its physical beauty, and even for the physical challenges it presents.
Mike swiveled to his computer and punched up pages of photos he took in the summer, when the mantle of snow is gone and the temperature sometimes reaches 60 above. The most compelling are of the graveyard, out near the airport; it is a surreal scene, either spooky or spectacular, depending on your point of view. Most coffins are only partially buried in the permafrost; that's as deep as a spade can go. So many of the plywood caskets are exposed to the air. In time, they collapse in on themselves. You can see bones and skulls among the crosses.
Savoonga gives no quarter; it is merciless even to the dead.
Savoonga is so physically inhospitable it practically orders you to leave. Those who don't are descendants of those who didn't, and they are among the hardiest people in the world. Perversely, Mike said, that makes them vulnerable. Their stoicism, he said, is legendary, their pride intense. They don't often complain. They don't always seek help when they need it. Many resent offers of help. Take a people who bottle up emotion, he said, introduce them to excessive amounts of alcohol, and very bad things can happen.
Jason Iya had said much the same thing. His brother--who had threatened suicide in the past, before his wife finished the job--had never discussed the nature of his personal problems at length, Jason said. Neither did Jason's high school classmate, right up until the gunshot to her head. "People here don't communicate," Jason said. "They're too shy or too scared."
Here is what I had noticed: Most Savoongans were walking around with their faces exposed in weather so cold we needed ski masks and goggles. Their skin is impervious, often frostbitten to insensitivity. To survive here, part of you must deaden.
In Savoonga at the start of the 21st century, a disheartening drama seems to be playing out as two generations of Eskimo people fitfully try to define their place in the world. Elders watch helplessly as their culture weakens, assaulted on every level by unstoppable forces--some of which are as simple, and as heartless, as nature. As the climate changes, the walrus, seal and whale meat, upon which their culture has subsisted for so long, is becoming harder to find and harvest, requiring longer and more hazardous forays over the ice. Alternatives in cans and frozen TV dinners are available at the grocery.
Meanwhile, their children are beguiled by TV, and tormented by it. It is affecting the very tapestry of family life; long evening family conversations, an important part of Yupik culture and history, are being supplanted by the tube, which seems to interest only the young.
"TV," Mike Kimber said, "is giving the young people a twisted idea of what life is, creating desires they can't possibly realistically satisfy. They are cheated by false hopes. They're frustrated."
Yet, physical escape is difficult. People do leave Savoonga, sometimes through the military, sometimes through marriage, sometimes in other ways. But not all have the money, or will, to relocate. The last time a student made it out of the high school to an accredited college on the mainland, the assistant principal said, was 12 years ago. And she returned within two years. The culture shock was too intense. Moving out from a reservation in the Lower 48 is one thing--moving away from a society as insular as this is quite another.
The kids' attendance in school is spotty, Mike said, their performance subpar, their home life, at times, utterly desperate. "Some children," he said, "will live in a house with 15 people. I had one who came to school exhausted. He said, 'My uncle was up late, so he took my mattress.' There were 15 people in the house and five mattresses, and so the kid had missed his shift. When that happens, you can't wake them in class. You can shake them, and they won't wake up."
And the adults? For many, their entire lives, their families' histories, and their sense of self-worth are invested in a celebration of abilities and attributes that are less and less significant in a changing world.
"It used to be," said Mike, "that a person here was judged by his skills. He was considered valuable if he could hunt, if he provided meat for the elders and meat for his family, if he could guide his people to a better hunting camp. But that's less necessary now."
To the older Savoongans, it seems, every move toward modernity is, by its nature, a repudiation of the past and of everything they are. A hunting and trading economy has been replaced by one that runs on cash. Money from state oil revenue, and other government subsidies that are intended to help--food stamps, housing and energy subsidies and such--has the effect of keeping the community in a listless stasis: getting by in a threadbare fashion.
Government programs can backfire, too. The school used to offer half an hour a day instruction in Siberian Yupik, the native language. It no longer does. The rigorous course requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind policy, Mike explained, simply leave no more hours in the day to teach it. The school does what it can, sometimes in small but significant ways; photos of the town's elders line the corridors, as a sort of cultural Hall of Fame. Elementary school essays, posted on the walls, retell the story of a walrus hunt.
Savoongans have enough to live on, barely, considering their expenses. And some of their expenses are costly in other ways as well. Cigarettes are $7 and $8 a pack, and practically everyone seems to be smoking. (Even some grade-schoolers have the habit, Mike said ruefully, and indulge in an alarming fashion. Some will furtively chew tobacco in class, and swallow the juice.)
Mike asked me if I knew what the going rate was, in Savoonga, for a smuggled fifth of booze. I did. Both Dean and Jason had told me: $300.
"That's right," he said. "And a joint is $30."
The island is swimming in both kinds of contraband.
I asked: How can they possibly afford it?
"Priorities," he said, sadly.
SAVOONGA IN WINTER HAS A CERTAIN KIND OF DESOLATE BEAUTY, but Mike and others told us that it was a pity we couldn't see it in the summer, when plants are in bloom, the sea is a spectacular vista and the wildlife can be gorgeous. I'd looked at some Web sites, seen some pretty pictures, but only one fact registered, for its metaphorical horror. In summer, the island is teeming with one kind of rodent: lemmings.
One night, Michael the photographer and I were walking on the edge of the village, along the seashore. It was 50 below. We happened upon two dogs--small, spotted husky mixes--tethered to poles in the snow. Dogs in Savoonga stay outside, in all weather.
The first pooch was barking at us, tugging at its rope, asserting its territorial rights. But the other was collapsed on the ground, shivering in a tight ball, without the energy even to clear his face of snow. He had settled beside a flimsy shard of sealskin jutting up from the ground, because it was the only available shelter from the wind. It wasn't working.
This fella didn't move when I approached, and offered no resistance when I bent to pet him. He seemed about a year old, with soft, gentle eyes. He let my gloved hand smooth his fur and wipe his face a little.
Up close I could hear him whimpering. It was a shallow, forlorn bleat, only muzzle deep, as though he hadn't the breath for more.
"This dog is dying," I shouted to Michael over the wind.
We looked around. There was a house nearby, with lights on and furnace roaring. Maybe they know all about it, Michael said. Maybe it's sick and they're letting it die.
We should do something, I said.
I looked at Michael. He looked at me. We both looked at the shivering animal, and then the house.
"Are you going to walk over there," Michael said grimly, stowing his gear, "and tell some Eskimo he doesn't know how to care for his dog?"
He started off, toward our lodge.
I stayed a second, and then followed him, not looking back.
BEFORE THIS TRIP, Michael and I had worried we would not be able to handle the weather, that it would break us. But we were handling the weather fine. That wasn't what was breaking us.
At the very moment we most needed to find warmth in Savoonga, we did.
As in most of the houses we'd seen, the floors in Floyd Kingeekuk's home are linoleum, the furnishings modest, the decor a controlled riot of clutter (in a society that must bear with an irregular supply of provisions, not much gets thrown out). Also, the inside temperature is stifling, which seems to be the Savoongans' nose-thumb to the elements.
But, the ambience! On the walls of the living room were a gargantuan American flag and a signed photo of two generations of presidents Bush, thanking Floyd for his support. Also, snapshots of Floyd's kids and grandkids, pasted into seashells. Also, a talking Big Mouth Billy Bass. In Savoonga, fads, too, are somewhat past their expiration date.
Floyd is 71, wiry and compact and aggressively hard of hearing. Across the room was his daughter, Adeline Pungowiyi, and her 2-year-old niece, Lucy. Lucy was not only adorable but was being adored, as
Adeline lovingly brushed her hair into a topknot. There aren't enough houses for all the people, and many families are extended, often eccentrically.
Floyd is a carver; he and his wife, Amelia, make dolls. She had none to show us--they sell for thousands when she finishes them, which is not very often. But she has a scrapbook, and in looking through it you can forget you are looking at inanimate objects. The faces and hands are crafted from ivory, realistic down to the veins in the hands. The hair is made from the skin of unborn seals. The coat is walrus intestine. It is a pride of the Eskimos that every part of every slaughtered animal is used for something.
Floyd learned to carve from his father, who was also a fine artist. But his father would produce pieces on demand from the mainland, and much of it was utilitarian kitsch: napkin rings, pickle forks. When money is in short supply, the practical still trumps the artistic. Dean Kulowiyi had told us that he once produced a few silly, whimsical carvings of turtles eating mushrooms. Mainlanders liked them, so he gave them a name, and, for a while, one of the world's foremost ivory artists was spending a lot of time carving "tundra turtles."
When Floyd told us he still shoots some hoops down at the school gym, we envisioned a klatch of indomitable wrinklies playing a spirited game of H-O-R-S-E. So we were not prepared for what we found when we visited the gym the next night.
The school keeps it open at night, as a sort of free-for-all playground. The floor was filled with older kids. The Savoonga school is big on basketball, and the 17- and 18-year-olds were practicing for a regional tournament. And right with them was Floyd, 71, huffing, puffing, sweating, running full court, draining the occasional 15-foot jumper. He plays a sneaky defense, too.
It was an exhilarating scene--no generational divide on that basketball court. But aside from Mike Kimber, Floyd was pretty much the only adult in the place. Kids of all ages were scrambling in the grandstands, unsupervised. Savoonga's adults were elsewhere.
We found them where some kids had sullenly predicted we'd find them--across town, at the firehouse.
The lights were on, and about two dozen snowmobiles were parked outside. Every few minutes, one or two more arrived and one or two departed. Michael tried to walk in but thought the better of it when a smiling-but-insistent patron warned him that if he brought that camera inside, he'd become "polar bear bait." So I went in alone.
The firehouse resembled a firetrap. Dozens of people were sitting at tables jammed wall to wall. Some had impromptu card games going. Someone was calling numbers. It was Bingo Night.
But the real action seemed to be happening up front, where people were shuffling forward, passively queuing up to buy instant lottery tickets; some had $20 in their hands, some had $50. Some were going back more than once.
I bought a $2 ticket. It was dated "1989," and it looked like a throwback technology, the sort of thing state lotteries offered before scratch-offs became popular. These cards are called "pull tabs." You lift off cardboard tabs that cover three slot-machine payoff lines.
If you are an adult, and you are seeking entertainment on a winter night in Savoonga, apparently this is where you go. Pull tabs are one bad bet. The jackpot payoff for a $2 ticket is $200. A large barrel was provided to collect the losing tickets; it was nearly full.
Fresh on the icy wall beside the entrance, someone had traced a message with a warm finger. It said, "Boring." Michael and I had come to refer to this ubiquitous, plaintive graffito as "the writing on the wall."
Outside, a gap-toothed man approached Michael, pointed disparagingly at his hat, and offered to sell him a better one, made from sealskin, for $150. The guy said he was in a jam and needed the money for airfare to Nome, to serve a 45-day jail sentence.
For what, Michael asked.
He'd been convicted, he said, of trying to smuggle liquor into Savoonga.
They agreed on $75 for the hat, and also that, under the circumstances, he would not be named in this story. He and Michael walked to his house. Michael forked over the money; the guy produced the hat and immediately got on the phone to plan his trip.
The linoleum floors at the man's house were eroded in places down to plywood. Seven children--some shirtless--sat around a TV set on grungy throw rugs, eating ice cream from a gallon container, watching a tape of "Gilligan's Island." The oldest was a 16-year-old girl, sitting to the side, impassively playing GameBoy. The babysitter. It was not clear who would watch the kids for 45 days.
"I love Gilligan," said a 7-year-old. "He always gets hit in the head with a coconut and goes to sleep."
Mostly, the kids' faces were frozen in the glow of the screen, silent against the sounds of the show.
The tale of the stranded castaways
Who are here for a long, long time
They'll have to make the best of things
It's an uphill climb . . .
Once he'd been paid, the man walked out with Michael, cash in hand.
The last Michael saw of him, he was heading back toward Bingo Night.
AT THE GRANDSTANDS IN THE GYM I had met a friendly 22-year-old named Collin Noongwook. In this place, you couldn't miss Collin. He had an orange crew cut.
Personable, squarely built, wearing a Pure Playaz shirt, walking with a modified hitch and roll, Collin wouldn't look much out of place on the streets of D.C. Unlike most of the younger people we'd spoken to, Collin seemed not in the least personally dispirited. When I asked him what he wanted to do with his life, he outlined a plan. He wants to get out of Savoonga and live somewhere warm--California or Hawaii maybe--and he hopes to do it through the National Guard. He's tried to interest his friends in joining him, he said, but he's failed. They haven't the will to leave.
If I really want to get a sense of what Savoonga is all about, Collin told me, I ought to talk to his dad.
That is how, the next day, I was sitting in Chester Noongwook's home, at his kitchen table, perspiring in the heat. Chester is 71, with a distinctively Eskimo face--flat, round, weathered, twinkly-eyed, resembling his father and grandfather, whose photos reverently adorn the walls, across from the big-screen TV, beside the socks hanging out to dry on a clothesline.
Chester immediately declared the impending end of the world. We were in the Christian end times, he thundered, and we'd better be ready for the Second Coming of Christ. The signs, he said, were everywhere: "Suicides, war, earthquakes, people asking too many questions . . ." His face remained impassive, and only after we burst out laughing, did he, too.
Like many of Savoonga's elders, Chester speaks in heavily accented English. He used to work for the U.S. Postal Service, delivering the mail from Savoonga to Gambell, back when mail came once a month, there were no snowmobiles and it took two days "by dog." His last dogsled run was in 1963. He also was on the local team of fishermen that caught Savoonga's first whale in 1972. Chester still hunts, but less often, and it bothers him. He used to live on what he could trap and hunt, and that suited him fine.
"When I was going on foot," he said, "you might go out 20 miles to the Bering and back. A man used to walk 60 miles to get his family something to eat. Today we get something at a store, a New York steak for $40."
He barked out a list of expenses he found abusive--heating oil! rent! propane!--then quickly offered to trade his camera, a cheapo Instamatic, for Michael's thousand-dollar Canon, as part of an important cultural exchange among new friends. There was a moment of stunned silence until Chester guffawed. He was having fun with the rubes from the south.
"When I was 10 years old," he said, "I didn't even know what money was. We relied on ourselves and got our food from reindeer and fish and walrus."
Chester produced a slate-gray object made from fossilized ivory. It resembled a small rudder, like a seal's tail. "So much has changed," he said, "so much has been forgotten. This is proof of how we used to catch the walruses." He demonstrated how you would stick the object onto the wooden end of a harpoon, and then, with a quick, discus-like motion, whip the bone-pointed weapon across the surface of the ice. The rifled tail would act like a stabilizer, or the feathers of an arrow, to ensure the flight was true. It must have taken extraordinary skill, hunting walrus that way.
Nowadays, when Eskimos kill walrus, they use steel-tipped harpoons fired by shotgun. For whales, the tips are charged with explosives.
The whole Savoonga dilemma seemed to be playing out before us in that overheated kitchen, in an unscripted tirade responding to a question that hadn't been asked. Chester was delineating the Savoongans' reluctant, grudging, almost tragic acceptance of a sterile, technology-driven, cash economy that in ways subtle and dramatic was turning a fierce and proud culture into a docile, dependent one.
Collin entered the room. I asked Chester what he thought of his son's hairstyle. He said he thought it was just fine. But across the room, Collin's mother was smiling and vigorously shaking her head no. Sally Noongwook was wearing a True Value T-shirt and a look of exasperated devotion.
Collin plopped down next to her on the couch. She's just jealous, he said, because she's tried to dye her hair and failed. They started playfully shoving and tickling each other.
Here, in front of his dad, Collin lost a little of the swagger from the day before. When I asked Chester about Collin's plans to leave, he said that whatever his son chose to do was fine with him. But Collin blurted how he would never lose respect for his family, how his intent is to follow his father's footsteps in earning respect as a man. How, wherever he was, he would stay in touch with his family and honor them, and might one day build a walrus-skin boat to sail around the world.
Whatever despair was haunting the young people of this village, and dividing generations, it was not apparent in this home.
"I liked Savoonga better before," Chester said--back before government handouts, the modern advantages, state-financed housing and whatnot. "People would do things together. They would build a frame house, together, one hand, one heart, one thought, one mind, one man, working together."
I was just staring at the guy.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I wish I could say things better, but my English is not that good."
THAT NIGHT, Michael and I took a detour, swinging back around the edge of the island, to find those two dogs. Or, with luck, one dog. My hope was that the sick one's suffering had ended quickly.
Both were there. As we approached, they bounded toward us exuberantly. The dog that I had declared half dead leaped up on me, tail whipping in the chill air, demanding a pat on the head.
From a house nearby, a man and a boy walked up. I told them that I had seen the dog the day before, and that he had seemed really sick. They laughed. The dog--his name was Headache--was fine. He'd been a little under the weather, they explained, because the island's walrus-meat inventory was low, and he'd been eating less protein-filled food. The owners were really friendly people.
And I, clueless in an alien culture, hadn't known what the hell I was talking about.
Also, lemmings do not commit mass suicide. It's a myth. I looked it up.
MICHAEL AND I APPEARED BEFORE A TRIBUNAL of Savoonga's leaders, to obtain permission to go ice fishing. Afterward, we got to talking with them. I asked how, given their isolation, Savoongans avoided the dangers of inbreeding. Did they have strict rules, such as prohibiting marriage between cousins? They looked at me like I was crazy.
"I am married to my cousin," said Linda Akeya, laughing. She is secretary of the village corporation, an attractive woman who is missing a front tooth. Then, she said: "When it's 70 or 80 below, our kids are at school."
"You have to be tough to live here."
The Eskimos of Savoonga are a particularly tough distillate of some of the toughest people on Earth. They are descendants of Gambell residents who left the comparatively easy village life to live in camps as reindeer herders; several reindeer camps coalesced into the village of Savoonga in 1920. What Linda Akeya was saying is that they will do what it takes to make the best of their circumstances, and they will survive, and they will propagate, and that doesn't mean living by the niceties, or rules, of mainlanders.
Morris Toolie, the president of the village corporation, said the community is facing many challenges--among them, the loss of language: The young adults today tend to understand Siberian Yupik but cannot speak it. The next step is as apparent as the passage of another generation.
Gingerly, I asked about the suicides. In the past few days, we had heard more details, more heartbreaking stories: The high school girl who had let it be known that there was a bullet with her name on it--literally--that she was keeping at the ready. The boy who shot himself after a hanging attempt failed. The girl who'd be dead today, except the rope broke. The 14-year-old girl whose rope did not break.
Understandably, this is a subject the adults of Savoonga are hesitant to talk about with strangers. Toolie spoke only obliquely of the youths' disaffection. He blames TV for much of it. Linda Akeya agreed: "There's violence, even in cartoons." But she added: "We have a lack of jobs, a lack of things to do. It's just boring for them."
What Savoongans need, she said, is more money for more jobs and more recreation, and this is how she said they need to get it: The kids need to leave Savoonga, get a college education, become expert in the ways of bureaucracy, then come back to help the village as community leaders, writing grant applications in a way that will ensure their approval.
I didn't ask the question that was in my mind, because it would have seemed impertinent, and culturally unthinkable: Isn't that assuming a lot, that they would come back?
THE NIGHT BEFORE IT WAS TIME TO LEAVE, Michael and I decided to go back to the school. We realized this was becoming a story about the kids.
The basketball court was being spiffied up for the tournament. Mike Kimber was there--Mike is always there--but almost no young people.
Where were they?
Probably at Yugni's, Mike said.
The place all the kids go, he said.
In four days of asking everyone about everything, this was the first we'd heard of Yugni's. No one had volunteered that such a place existed.
It wasn't easy to find, because from the outside, it looked just like a boarded-up house. Our clue was the cluster of little kids--6, 7, 8 years old, hanging around the entrance, cracking open the door, peeking inside.
"They're smoking marijuana in there!" one of them giggled, pantomiming sucking on a joint.
Yugni's place had once been a single-family home, but that must have been a long time ago. The insides were stripped bare, the windows boarded up, the floors pitted plywood, the walls painted the color of industrial rust. All the furniture was gone, replaced by a foosball game and a battered pool table with duct-taped felt.
There was no pot that we could detect. The room smelled only of desperation and languor.
The lighting was dim, like a skid-row saloon. The place was wall to wall with Savoonga's youth, from 8 to their mid-twenties. Some played pool, as little kids wove and tumbled through their legs. Most just stood around, talking, or not talking, just standing.
"[Expletive] you," an 8-year-old screamed to his buddy, as he wrestled him to the ground. It was, oddly, the first profanity we had heard in the village.
In the kitchen, coffee and watery Kool-Aid were for sale, 50 cents a cup, beside a photocopied drawing of Jesus and the words "Happy Holiday, the love of Christ controls us."
Pool was 50 cents a game. Collecting the cash was Yugni, whose English name is Maynard Kava. He's the proprietor, and the mayor's brother-in-law. Yugni is fiftyish, toothless, with a sunken face and long stringy hair. He speaks in an unintelligible mumble. After he failed to sell us a carving of a walrus, he took his seat beside the cash box and paid us no mind. He ignored the kids; the kids ignored him.
Some older kids were playing pool, stone-faced, almost robotic. One hauntingly beautiful girl with long chestnut hair and charcoal eyes would lean over the table, barely aim, take a bad shot, return to her spot against an old bar rail, silent, impassive, her face a mask. She moved like a zombie.
Little kids swarmed us. They groped Michael's camera, queued up for the entertainment of serially peering through the fogged-up lens of my eyeglasses.
Throughout Savoonga, the Writing on the Wall had been an occasional sighting-- a few furtive scribblings here and there. In this place, it was an entire infrastructure of despair. Every inch of wall space was covered in writing that had been scrawled in, or scratched in, or seared in by cigarette. Even the ceiling. It was overwhelming--almost unendurable:
"JDS--One day without toking 1/20/05"
"We were here 1-26-2004, bored out."
"Boring Boring Big Time"
Next to a drawing of a daisy with a frowning face: "Really, Really Bored."
"I Wish I Die Now."
"Wanna Die Right Now."
"I Can't Wait Til It's My Turn."
I plopped into a seat at the only table, and younger kids descended on me. I didn't want to interrogate little kids, but they wanted to interrogate me. They told me their names, insisted I write 'em down. A 10-year-old boy pointed to a drawing on the wall behind me. "That guy is thinking about marijuana!" It was a cartoon of a man, with a thought balloon containing a marijuana leaf. Another showed me a wall inscription "P.I.M.P."
"That means pot in my pipe!"
Then he leaned forward, conspiratorially. "My mom is in jail. I can't say for what."
I recognized an older kid: Lanky and fresh-faced, Freeman Kingeekuk had been effortlessly hitting 20-foot jump shots at the gym a couple of days before. Freeman, 15, likes Savoonga, is an avid hunter and fisherman. No complaints?
Booze and bingo, he said.
Bingo? "The [adults] go three nights a week, and if one night has to be canceled, they'll set it up for another night that week."
The beautiful, stone-faced girl is named Carolina Burgos. I learned that when I went up and spoke to her. She turned at the sound of my voice, her face unfroze, and she smiled, as though awakened from something. Carolina is a high school senior.
Yes, she dislikes Savoonga: "It's like we live in a freezer." She wants to go to college in Anchorage, to study finance.
I thought: This is Linda Akeya's dream. Maybe.
Does Carolina plan to return?
She rolled her eyes. No.
"When I was young," she said, "I thought Savoonga was the best place. There was so much to do. Now . . ." She just looked around the room, then down at her pool cue.
"One of my cousins locked herself into a room and shot herself. I guess it was 2001. She was drinking that night."
Why did she do it?
"I don't know." That is what everyone in Savoonga says, when you ask why.
Watching the pool game, at the old bar, is Jason Noongwook, 25. His sad eyes peek from under a Nike cap, on top of which is a cloth woodworker's mask. Jason is an ivory carver. He showed us a half-finished walrus. Nice.
Jason said he plans to stay in Savoonga, because he's figured out how to make a life here. It hasn't been easy. Then he started talking and didn't stop for a while.
"I lost my brother six years ago to
suicide. He used to work for the water and sewer authority. He was a member of the [tribal] council. There was alcohol involvement. He didn't look like he was going to
do it, before. I guess he was hiding it, holding it inside. He didn't come home for two days. He worked at the water plant, and he hung himself down there.
"Two months ago, my uncle attempted suicide. Actually, he attempted and succeeded. He shot himself. It was alcohol related.
"Kids nowadays take a lot of pills and talk about suicide. I don't see why people do that. Well, I guess I do. I have been there. I got depressed a few months after my brother died. I loved my brother. He taught me how to shoot a rifle, you know? So I tried it two times."
"I planned it real hard. I didn't even know who to talk to. I love my father, but I didn't want to worry him. I was going to do it the same way my brother did. I used to work at the local washeteria. It was night work. I had a rope, tied it up, and I kicked the chair away, and the rope slipped off. I hit the ground.
"The second time my girlfriend caught me trying it, and talked me out of it."
After that, Jason said, he decided life in Savoonga was livable, if you kept yourself occupied. "I carve and do hunting. I avoid stress and depression."
Digging outside of town, he recently found three fossilized ancient ivory dolls, one of which sold to a collector for $3,000. He's doing okay. And he and his girlfriend have a baby, a 2-year-old girl.
"I think about my daughter. She keeps me around. I'm staying alive because of her."
Jason said he has a trick to keep his depression at bay: weightlifting.
"I lift rocks. That's what I do. That is how I take it out."
Take what out?
THE TEMPERATURE WAS PRACTICALLY BALMY. It was zero. So was the visibility. We could see one another, but, a few feet beyond, everything dissolved into white. It was as though the rest of the world had disappeared.
Deno Akeya, 29, was looking around nervously. What was wrong? Nothing, he said. It's just that he had forgotten to bring his rifle.
Why did he need a rifle? I asked.
"Polar bear," he said. Oh.
His uncle, Arthur Akeya, unloaded a gas-powered auger from his snowmobile, set the drill bit on the ice, fired it up and began drilling a Frisbee-size hole. The drill sank one foot, two, three. Finally it punched through. Arthur pulled it back up, and with it came a furious rush of seawater. We were 200 yards offshore, out in the Bering Sea. It was lightly snowing.
I dropped a hook in, and before the line touched bottom, I felt a hit. What I brought up through the hole was as hideous a thing as you will ever see. It's a mottled beast the Eskimos call the uglyfish, the size of a shoe, full of warts and polyps and blebs. It looks to be a cross between a catfish and a bullfrog. It's great eating, Arthur assured us.
More holes were being drilled, more lines dropped, and the fish were chewing the lures like popcorn.
Next, the kill. A quick whack behind the eyes with the wooden spool, to break the spine. Then, you gut it the way Eskimos have done for 2,000 years: You tromp on it with your boot, and the insides shoot out of the mouth. I'm a city boy and an animal lover, and none of this felt wrong.
Nor was I surprised to learn, two hours later, that those ghastly looking creatures, boiled for 20 minutes and then drenched in melted butter, were as succulent as lobster.
Out there in the enveloping whiteness, it had been possible to lose yourself, fishing with Eskimos in the Bering Sea the way it has been done since the age of the igloo. There was no village, there were no dead kids, no fog of denial, no generation in agony, literally bored out of its mind. There were no soul-wrenching choices between survival of self and survival of a culture. There was just an exhilarating ritual, as old as a civilization, irreducible, unencumbered by a sense of guilt, not subject to misunderstanding or misinterpretation through cultural chauvinism. It was clear and it was clean. It was possible to comprehend the joy of surviving by your skills and savvy on the bounty of the Earth alone, in defiance of whatever hell nature and fate throw at you. And it was possible to understand why, lost in that moment, you could want to live that way forever.
Gene Weingarten is a Magazine staff writer and columnist. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.