This excerpt comes from Tetpon’s memoir-in-progress.
I WAS BORN in Shaktoolik, Alaska, a small village of about 130 Inupiaq people located on the shores of Norton Sound, on a narrow spit of land between the Bering Sea and a river. The day of my birth, January 5, 1943, was said to have been bitterly cold, with a stiff north wind blowing hard against the lightly insulated house we called home, a two-story tarpaper affair fitted with a cement chimney and heated by firewood cut from logs gathered from the ocean shore
I am one of nine children, and the third from the oldest. There were six of us boys and three girls. Growing up in a village gave us limited knowledge of the world outside. We would leaf through Life magazines and the Saturday Evening Post and see photos of cars, farms, railroads, highways, cities, large houses lit with electricity, and airplanes, causing us to wonder where these things came from. All we had were wood stoves, three-room houses, and dog teams.
What couldn’t be hunted or gathered from the land was mail-ordered from Montgomery Wards and Sears Roebuck. Well-used catalogs and magazines spent the end of their days in outdoor toilets. Crumpled and softened before use, their pages doubled as toilet paper. In most households, laundry was done on washboards and the clothes hung out to dry.
In winter, the need for wood for heat was constant. Sometimes late at night, when the stars were out, we could hear our neighbors cutting wood with a lumberjack’s saw. The sound is unforgettable — whee-whew, whee-whew — all night long. I never paid a lot of attention to it, but I also knew when we ran out of firewood at our house — we could see our breath in the air. But that was a common occurrence and no one in our household gave it much thought. It was a fact of life.
In those days, shoes were scarce. Most of the time, we wore handmade skin boots, except in summer when we each got a pair of rubber boots. And if we were lucky, we also got a pair of Montgomery Ward overalls, which were always a little too big, but we were expected to grow into them.
Shaktoolik was probably like any other Native village back then. There was one store, a post office in the front arctic entry of my Uncle Simon Bekoalok’s house, one schoolhouse, and one church. Back then, life in the village was tranquil. Peaceful. These were the days when things like homicide and suicide didn’t exist, days when alcohol and drugs weren’t even a thought or concern. Tribal councils ensured that long-held standards of village behavior, handed down from generation to generation, were followed by everyone. We children learned quickly that a village curfew was a rule to be followed, lest a visit by a tribal council member was made to our home.
Discontent, if there was any, was never shown in the open.
Our only means of knowledge of an outside world were our radio and magazines and books. For me, my world was the sky, the horizon, and the hills, rivers, lakes, and tundra. Once in a while, if radio reception was good and the battery was strong enough, we would listen to music along with radio shows like The Green Lantern, The Inner Sanctum, Doctor Six-Gun, and The Lone Ranger.
Like most villages, Shaktoolik was a case study of feast and famine. There was plenty of game in spring, summer, and fall, and little to none in winter. Dried fish stored in a cache built on stilts behind our house provided most of our food. Sometimes the cached fish lasted until spring, and sometimes it didn’t.
The center of life for the villagers was the church and the Bureau of Indian Affairs school. These provided rhythm and cadence to our daily lives. In the 1950s, Christianity was booming in our part of Alaska, and everyone went to church. By that time, most villagers had come to believe that their culture came from the devil because white preachers said so, and old practices like singing Inupiaq songs and Inupiaq dancing had been extinguished.
There was great fear among villagers that they would go to a place called Hell if they uttered anything cultural or if they danced. Shame and angst stood firmly against anyone saying the Inupiaq word for shaman. Villagers stood in awe of white people and treated them with a combination of respect and fear. Elders who had once been the foundation of our cultural heritage had become pillars of the church, and though I didn’t know it then, our cultural practices were being erased. And with our culture went the language. The Bureau of Indian Affairs teachers demanded we learn English and forget Inupiaq. None of our parents chose to object.
ON THE FIRST day of school, I was so excited about school that I was caught speaking my own language to my friends. “We’re going to learn how to read and write, just like our older brothers,” I said out loud. Really loud.
I was smiling and happy.
An arm grabbed me around my neck. The teacher. I could see his white shirt and plain black tie. He lifted me off the floor by my head, shoved a bar of soap in my mouth, and began to grind it over my teeth and into my throat. I gagged. I gasped for air. I could feel my legs thrashing about. I tasted the soap as it began to bubble in my mouth. Every time I took a breath, I felt soap bubbles in my throat, but no air. I wondered why this was happening. What had I done?
The teacher dropped me on the hardwood floor. I was limp. I could barely breathe. I was crying. I was confused. At six years old, I had never been so mistreated by anyone. All I had done was tell my friends that we were going to learn to read and write. Wasn’t that the purpose of school?
“This is how I will deal with anyone speaking their language!” yelled the teacher. “This is what you will get when you speak your language! This is what you will get when you do not speak English!”
At the time, I did not know what he said because I could not understand English. I got to my feet, still whimpering. And scared and confused.
“Give me the yardstick!” yelled the teacher. An older student quickly complied, his body language speaking fear and trepidation. The teacher walked me to a corner and placed the stick in my hand. “Face the class! Stand here with it, stick it out as far as you can, and KEEP IT THERE!”
An older student interpreted. With tears rolling down my face, I did as he ordered. I stuck the yardstick out as straight as I could. I held it there for what seemed like hours.
DESPITE THIS AND other injustices, my memories of being raised in Shaktoolik are mostly happy ones. I was a boy who took risks, but boys in small villages like ours were closely watched even as they wandered and explored like puppies. “They’ll learn,” was the by-word for us. And we did.
In the spring of 1953, my grandmother Kipo took ill. She was perhaps in her eighties, though no one knew her real age because birth records were never kept until schools were established. She lay in bed and ceaselessly sang gospel songs translated from English to our Native language. Since she did not know how to read, she would write her songs in hieroglyphics — picture songs. One of her favorites was “In the Sweet By and By.”
Grandma Kipo was a frail little woman. She stood about five feet tall and couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds. She never went anywhere without her blot-tuq, a head scarf made of cotton or flannel. And she always wore a dress. Everywhere. Even out on the tundra when she was picking berries.
Grandma was our rock. When our parents went squirrel trapping or hunting in summer, she took care of all of us, a house full of kids. We weren’t sure where she came from. Some said she was born and raised along the lower Kuskokwim River. There was almost nothing she couldn’t do. Once she and I went out on the tundra to place snares for rabbits. After a night, we went back to check and sure enough, there were three or four.
We had fresh snowshoe rabbit soup for supper.
Grandma was a storyteller. Her stories must have been told years ago by her own parents because they all had a reason behind them. At bedtime, her stories were scary and the endings always had a “be quiet and go to sleep” purpose. We all loved her dearly. To sit in her lap was a special treat.
One day in late May, Grandma Kipo asked my brother Floyd and me to go out hunting for fresh game. She looked small and pale and was very weak. As she gave each of us a small hug, she said goodbye.
Floyd and I walked for what seemed like miles. The ground still had patches of snow but the air was warm enough for light jackets. Once we had a few ptarmigan in hand, we sat on a beach log to rest.
“Do you see that?” Floyd asked in Inupiaq.
We were both facing the village and could see the sun glisten on the rooftops of the houses. The sky was bright blue with a few white clouds hanging high. As we trained our eyes on the village, a bright shaft of light slowly made its way from the heavens and touched the top of our house.
“She died,” Floyd said.
We ran home as fast as we could. As we reached our front door, villagers had started going into our home to pay their respects and wish our family well.
Until we were adults, Floyd and I never mentioned that shaft of light to anyone.
After attending the University of Alaska in Anchorage and Fairbanks, John Tetpon was awarded a year’s fellowship at Yale University. A former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and the Anchorage Times, he also worked for the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, and several Native organizations. After forty-plus years in public service and the private sector, he is now retired and spends his time as an artist, writer, and musician.