There was never a plan to go there. Heading for the “final frontier” seemed dubiously Picardian, embedded with the forensic criteria of insoluble differences, weary tribesmen and mystic landscapes. Thoughts of Russia, arctic wilderness, and the American trauma-adventure mindset of Into the Wild and White Fang piqued a series of inner questions. Flying in with Alaskan Airlines’ dubious logo and inhaling the icy air, I squinted up at the mountains whose peaks disappeared into the clouds while the roar of V8 engines muted an ageless Tlingit man, his worn yellow puffer wheeling a shopping cart on a windswept corner of state and emergence.
Recently, two men successfully traversed the Ice Curtain seeking refuge from Putin’s war. While the Bering Strait is only fifty-five miles across at its shortest point, there are several islands and severe weather that make the crossing extremely difficult, so attempts are few. But energetic transmissions still resonate over this Paleolithic crossing; a gift from the collective conscious.
HOUSES and HOMES
As a species, we have more or less arrived at the perception of the earth as round with the exception of one place; the end of the world. The place where paradoxes fall flat, wherefrom no one returns, where truth becomes legend, where bonds break. It is the existential fantasy, it’s what’s over the mountain. Prevalent in everything from epic tales to advertising, humans deal with infinity through markers. If you scan the globe considering each country’s proximity to the next, you see cross-cultural exchange and shared values translated into different contexts, culinary and musical variations on a theme, spiritual enlightenments, the ancient discourse among borders. Here, on either side of the Bering Strait lies an anomaly; two countries at once the furthest from and the closet to each other.
Tucked into the corner of a southern bay lies the tiny port town of Whittier. Hidden along the southern coast accessible only by a tunnel running eleven miles underground through the mountain, it was used by both Americans and Russians after a long and drawn out battle to remove the native tribes. Then it became an American military base during WWII and as a “training” ground during the Cold War. There are only two residential buildings in Whittier, one which currently houses the entire population of about 250 people. The other building, the Buckner Building, looms eerily from the edge of the town in an elevated area of carved out igneous and metamorphic rock (andesitic tuff breccia, volcanic graywacke, siltstone, and argillite). It served as a beta city under one roof, one of the largest in Alaska at the time. It included a mess hall, sleeping quarters, movie theatre, bowling alley, small jail, and tunnels connecting to the rest of town. In 1964, a megathrust 9.2 earthquake hit Whittier, creating a tsunami wave over 25 feet high that desecrated much of the port. But the Buckner stood firm, relatively unscathed. Later, the building was abandoned with several failed attempts at rehabilitation.
When I emerged from the tunnel and the thick fog slowly unveiled the port, a distinctly foreboding shape emerged. The town seemed fixed by its presence, the pendulum broken on its ruins. Leaking asbestos, it is a recognized danger to the community and the environment, but somehow remains cheaper for the town to leave it than raise it.
A girl I met from Whittier who was working at a gift shop overlooking the bay selling overpriced Native Alaskan tchotchkes . When I asked her about the Buckner, the somber pleasantries of her delivery sketched her inner feelings about this place. In her early twenties, she still had baby cheeks and transluscent skin with curly pale red hair, piercings in her nose and eyebrow and a hand-knit hat. She came back after college because it’s home.
I walked up to the building, dripping in a perpetual state of melting solids and the weight in the air sunk my lungs. Militarism and communism seem barely distinguishable when architecture demands complacency, sameness, flat line movements, rectangles and squares by the pairs and dozens.
Enormous sirens posted along the main drag echo of a detention camp but they are to warn the community of future tsunamis or landslides. The everpresent risk of sandwiching between Glacial mountains and Prince William Sound is a global warming mayonnaise.
From the port, you board a ship that takes you into the UNESCO World Heritage site, Glacier Bay. There you will find ice older than any man-made vessel, clinging to the mountains preserving ancient waterways, cascading motionless. Blue hues rich in minerals reflect sharply even under heavy clouds, crackling and snapping in constant micromovements, dry as bone. Crevices shoot outwards like veins in such detail it’s hard to fathom you are still five miles away from the closest point. On this scale, your mind flattens the glacier peeling off a depthless mirage of a timeless entity- an entity that is melting at an alarming rate having receded already ten miles in the last five years.
Something about scales warping sends me into a tactile memory. In the third grade, stickers were the currency at recess. The most valuable ones, the holograms and gels, were worth two smellies and four regular stickies. At one point I had a whole page of jellies, and half a page of silver and green holograms. Shimmering ripples and imaginary dimensions were hallmarks for this 80’s baby. And now in ice I find the origin.
Even from that distance, their power is incomprehensibly sharp. You can endlessly scale the slope and always uncover more information. In the childhood favorite Rainbow Bright and the Star Stealer, the ice planet Spectra (animated by Kimio Yabukia) is a crystal through which all the light in the universe must pass. Coveted by a wicked princess, her plan is to send Glitterbots to weave a black net encasing globe while she wields power through another crystal’s vortex to seize the ice planet, or something like that. Ancient frozen mineral waters are vessels. Ice, crystals, stones, they are the original time travellers embedded with kinetic knowledge, recognized by geologists, hippies, and healers alike.
But what does the moss know?
If natural formations hold collective living memories, without spending time in the forests or mountains or oceans, what is really possible to understand about oneself and others? When I squeeze moss veins and chase the riverbed breaking over rocks, it’s in the eyes sitting on the couch and there you have something too but we don’t know how to speak it though we collect it everywhere.
Fur trade shops carry a disorienting array of sacred items mixed with tchotchkes: totems, mammoth teeth, furs, baskets and animal carvings, blankets, hats, moccasins and then some generic counterparts. Some seemed to resonate more than others, but killing dozens of white wolves, fox, mink and other rare animals for fur or taxidermy window fillers is pillage no matter how coveted. These were once soul creatures; souls sacrificing souls honouring their existence by utilising the gift’s entirety.
The woman at the counter appeared quietly and seemed surprised that I was curious if the artists were compensated fairly for their work. She glanced quickly over my shoulder to the white woman across the room and then said the nice lady had an agreement with a bunch of local trappers and artisans and she enjoys selling their work. Smiling, she asked me where I’m from and said she had never been asked something like that before. We exchanged a long moment of welling eyes. I thanked her and expressed my appreciation for the stone-carved sea otter I bought for a friend.
With such a vast quantity of manufactured goods, is it impossible to offer acknowledgement for each one? Ancestral blanket weaving, wood and ivory carving, beadwork, kayak building, and dancing, where the stories retreat to the natural world preserved untold, fossilized. Indigenous voices. Cracks in the ice. Medicinal moss.
The way parents often do to regain a sense of self, my mother sent me to camp for a few weeks every summer. Based on my interests it was either horse related or, for a few summers with Native American women from tribes around the Northeast. One day we were building tents along the Connecticut river, gathering dead wood and shrubs, when I got my first yellowjacket sting right in the middle of my thigh. When I’m frightened I make no sound, but somehow my guardian noticed I was faint. The bee was still hanging on to my skin. I was terrified, watching it writhe as my leg exploded in a red mountain of pain. She gently removed the bee, and picked me up, cradling me in her robe as she climbed up the steep muddy bank. Some other women joined us on a log and one applied a soothing balm, while my guardian talked to me another held my head gently. They had warned the children to respect the bees as they were also busy making their homes on the river bank. They explained that we are coexisting with them, and if we offer respect they would do so in return. I felt betrayed by the bee. I knew I had felt fear- was this why I was stung? She explained that brother bee may have also felt the fear and may have been defending the same brush I was collecting. It is part of the learning. She told me I was brave. It began to rain. They decided that although the naming ceremony wasn’t for a couple days, they found mine. Blue Corn Woman. Blue corn is sacred, they say it helps open the gateway to different realms.
Do you become your name or does your name become you?
Later after eating, we gathered in the large tipi to rest. We lay on the bare ground, grass and dirt. I remember the sound of the rain on the hide, the shuffling of drops on maple leaves, the calls of animals moving to shelter. The women hummed for a while then sat in silence, and I fell asleep.
Balenciaga just released a new handbag mocking the Lays Classic. A bag of chips, which used to be potatoes, is now post-chip. How do we find self if we are obsessed with reinvention? Concerning the potato, there’s nothing better than the real thing; we cannot imagine what we have not somehow already experienced. When we eat salty chips, we imagine the taste of real potato and “comfy” synapses fire in the brain. The Balenciaga bag is a cellular happiness where we sensationalise the memory of a crinkling bag of salty chips. And so we are found.
People who have lost touch with the land are at greater risk of losing an intrinsic aspect of identity. We may find a house in chips, a peanut butter & jelly sandwich or Eggos, but is it home? Modern food life is in most ways a severe distortion of ancestral methods. The Paleo diet is an example of an attempt to find home, packaged for class-based accessibility. The loss is perpetual for Indigenous communities who have been consciously connected to the earth and endured centuries of being robbed of their land and resources. Without this essential anchor, many fall into situations of abuse, drugs or alchoholism ending up even more disconnected and homeless on the streets, like in Anchorage. For others, the urgency to return to food traditions as a grounding force is gaining momentum.
In Fairbanks, the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center is part of the Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movement, an effort to teach and practice ancestral food traditions and reconnect with the earth, healing on many levels. During the process, they began bringing people together to share their stories.
Once you’re out on the land and you unplug from society, that’s how you connect to the spirit. Thats how you connect to the land. That’s when you realize who you really are. And we began to just be more simple, we appreciated each other, we appreciated being able to put up the salmon…When I put up fish in my grandpa’s smokehouse for the first time in 31 years, that was the most satisfaction I felt in my whole life. No amount of money could measure up to the feeling I had when I was like “my grandpa would be so proud”.-Eva Burke, Nenana Native Village Council Tribal Member
Thanksgiving is the preferred American holiday for food and non-religious polyglomorous friends & family noshing. Without getting into its problematic history, it should be acknowledged that the original bill of fare was much closer to indigenous groupings of the Three Sisters: Corn, Beans and Squash. In which case, North American soils nourish these variations best and pumpkin pie is the truest pie.
Indigenous communities across the US are building their voices through food traditions. The Sioux/Lakota couple who created Owamni restaurant accepted this year’s 2022 James Beard for Best New U.S. Restaurant and Best Chef: Midwest. The menu is made without wheat flour, dairy, cane sugar, black pepper, or any other ingredient introduced to this continent after Europeans arrived. NATIFS Food Lab, which also began in Minneapolis, is establishing a new Indigenous food system that reintegrates Native Foods and Indigenous-focused education into tribal communities across North America, including Alaska.
Apart from reindeer stew and hot dogs, current Alaskan fare does not seem to integrate cultures, past or present. Rather you can choose fast food, an array of Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese, time capsule pubs, curious gems like the Double Musky Inn with their 1970s first growth Bordeaux list, or relax into the budding nouveau American scene where your almond milk cortado and $7 scone will tide you over till sweet potato fries and beer. But as reassuring as it may be to see the trends of local, seasonal and organic emerge at the end of the world, it is in fact a repackaged emergence: these have already been in practiced for centuries by Native Americans.
When doctors told me I was off the charts Celiac, I experienced the hypersonic sameness of grief and elation. Losing gluten was a return to roots, my body was rejecting modernity. Scouring food labels for traces of my bane, I imagine the way it feels to ingest and there I am, soaring off a cliff.
Fear of the bear is bigger than the bear. I am my own child.
A friend with whom I entrust my life invited me to hike Crow Pass. Three hours later, I looked across the valley’s unbelievable depth and everything below my oesophagus dissolved. I had broken bread with the mountain.
We entered the sweat lodge during a growing fog. Then, it began to snow. Jumping naked into the ice cold ravine, puffy flakes built up all around us and melted on moonlit skin. Looking upwards into the vast expanse, we inhaled winter and exhaled the fall.
******************************************************************************The scale of nature and the gravity that keeps it all from floating into the clouds. This, our true Queen, our hero, our God, our original celebrity. This Palpable Grief…will it endure? Receding glaciers, scorching forests, oil trucks running 24hrs, animals eating plastics eating animals. There was a war veteran living in a shack next to million dollar homes. He has a secret that could have same answer, or it could be another. Does a man retreat to the woods out of shame or longing, out of consciousness or blindness?
I’m here to show you what you can do
with this sandbar dialect,
says the humpback whale
and the goatsbeard moss, and the ore
of iron oxide in the shoreline cliff.
You must trust, she says,
your swimming blood, joints
lumbering in shadows, the dolphin
clicking out to you, far above ground.
And we should feed just as much as eat,
says the heart your body formed around.
From “Love Letter to the Future: A Book of the Land in Eight Acts”
BY ISHMAEL ANGALUUK HOPE