AKP Teacher's Institute 2009- A Personal Journal

Final Days

Leaving the Land

I was sad to leave our camp. Living in such a pristine landscape is so different from anything in my regular man-made world. Although we had some modern conveniences, they did not subsume the natural environment.

The opportunity to be a human animal in nature — and feeling so right as that animal — was a rare and awesome one. Whether washing up or filling pails at Cocoa Creek, digging for masu in the bear hole, witnessing the speed and intensity of springtime thaw, hearing the thunderous crash of ice, or the vibratory silence of the arctic night, feeling so comfortable in and connected to that natural world was the highlight of my experience.

On our way back, we stopped at a short wall of rock behind which hunters lie in wait for approaching caribou herds, called a blind. So not to scare off the herd, hunters allow the first group of animals to move through the blind before attacking. Upon seeing the large pile of caribou antlers on the ground in front of the blind, I offered thanks and a blessing for the land and its inhabitants.When we got back to AKP, thanks to Al’s generosity, I was able to take a hot shower, launder all my clothes, eat his wonderfully prepared Thai dinner and view The Voice of Our Spirit.

This video, which Rainey helped produce, speaks to the loss of the Iñupiaq language and culture. Offering a depressing account of how the Iñupiaq language, traditional songs, dances and rituals were outlawed by the U.S. government and nearly lost, the film helped explain why our course emphasized speaking Iñupiaq. It made me glad that I could now read the language of so many consonants, and now thought of caribou as “tuttu” and bears as “aklak.” Louis had given me a copy of AKP’s fourth and fifth grade text “A Nunamiut ABC – A Coloring Book” to take home with me.

Unfortunately, despite the good things, returning to the village was difficult for me. I hated being inside buildings and on the roads with their hard surfaces and artificial light and noise. Even in bed, I missed the earth beneath my body and couldn’t get comfortable. It seemed getting used to "civilization" would be the final, and maybe greatest challenge of my experience.

The Memories Endure

At our final group meeting, we exchanged contact information, tied up some loose ends and cleaned and prepared all the camp gear for storage. Although most other participants left in the morning, I had a later flight, so got to re-visit the museum and NPS station again, buy Lela’s mask, share lunch with Al and Ada, visit Ada’s home and meet her son and young granddaughter.

On the Cessna flight back to Fairbanks, over clearer skies than my earlier trip, I saw the natural beauty of this part of Alaska, as well as its ugly pipeline, mining sites and miles of dead trees. Then, back in the city and my hotel, AKP was quickly replaced by hordes of tourists, miles of asphalt and shopping malls and the acrid smell of nearby forest fires. I holed up in my room that night, eating tundra berries, opening and closing windows and trying to adjust.

On my last day in Alaska, wearing pants bought at 6 am to replace my blood-stained camouflage cutoffs, I became a tourist. Using the hotel shuttle to get around, I cleaned up at a spa and then saw impressive displays of Inupiat art and history at the UA Museum of the North and bookstore of the Alaska Geographic Morris Thompson Center. After dinner at one of Fairbanks's many Thai restaurants (what is it with Thai food up there?) I took an overnight flight back to Boston.

With a blue “AKP Alaska” refrigerator bag full of roots, berries and Labrador tea, overstuffed backpack and lots of amazing memories, I arrived home safely to my husband Doug, dog Dudley and cat Nimbus 2000. Although it took almost a month to get used to East Coast time and the cool rainy June weather, I started working to share my course experience with others right away.

Reflections and Gratitude

As one of the older participants (not much younger than the elders), I’m happy I was able to meet the many physical, emotional and spiritual challenges of the experience. Although I did my share and never shirked my chores, I made a conscious effort to not get sick or hurt in that remote place. That meant I respected my age and body and was careful to avoid unnecessary risks so I wouldn't be a burden to anyone and could return home in one piece.

For example, I meditated every morning, did yoga regularly, took pineapple enzyme supplements to better digest the non-vegetarian diet and got adequate sleep. Most difficult was skipping two major temptations —a brisk swim in Tree Lake and night climb up the mountain. As it turned out, I did a good job. Although my skin was terribly dry, even in my nostrils, from the moisture-sapping arctic desert and I had some breathing problems from sleeping in a tent downwind from campfire smoke, I returned home in better shape than when I left. I had a nice tan from the sun reflecting off the ice and was 5 pounds lighter.

That all members of our group cooperated and tried to follow the protocols and values of the Iñupiat of the North Slope made good health and other positive outcomes possible. Being very different people from diverse backgrounds negotiating a new place and project, there were enough potentially sticky situations to have derailed us at many points along the way. However, to our combined credit, we didn't let it happen. For this I am most grateful to all my co-participants, guides, leaders, AKP residents and, especially, the AKP elders, who made this experience so safe and rewarding.

I also want to thank those at PEM, Ilisagvik College and ECHO for their work connecting and sharing cultures and making this unique adventure possible for me and others. My hope is that this account and other ways of sharing my experience will support their work and help honor and preserve Nunamiut land and culture.

Blessed Be!