It sits on a sand spit off the coast of Alaska in the Bering Straight. Ice surrounds the village
of 700 Inupiat, turning the landscape into a zen painting, stark white brilliance. We stop in at a
small Native store. The only one in town. The proprietor of the store sits behind the counter. Seeing white folks
wandering around their village is a subject of interest. He asks if we are with the school.
No we say we are visiting the clinic. My husband may take the mid-level practitioner job offered here.
Behind the old inupiaq hangs two pictures. One is of a smiling proud inupiat man dressed in a white parka trimmed with fur. The other is of a man dressed with a parka and fur holding on to
a dogsled looking off into the distance. Who are they? We ask. The man nods and smiles looking up at the men. The one is the white parka is his dad who started the store, the other is his uncle. His uncle was a great sled dog racer. He was called the cannon ball of the ididarod. He was the only inupiat named in the top ten Ididarod racers. He never won though, he would not push his dogs that hard. He loved them too much. He did come in 2nd and 3rd. Winning wasn't that important to him.
The proprietor of the store tells us, "I ask him once if he ever got so cold that he wanted to scratch a race. Just quit and go home. Sure my uncle told me. Lots of time. What, I ask him made you continue? When I would get so cold, could not see, thought I was going to freeze out there on the ice I would tell myself I am inupiat and inupiat are tough people. That would
make me forget about the cold and be happy."
Tough and happy, that is this island sitting out in the Bering Sea. Determined, proud, back straight despite, and because of, the harsh conditions of the landscape.
This story continued to play out in my mind as I walked through the streets, or more accurately, the snowmobile paths through town. The houses are shacks. You wonder how they remain standing during the terrible storms that have eroded 1/5th of the island. How can they possibly heat them? There is no water here, no sewer, no trash collection. Piles of bagged trash stand by the front door of every shack. They burn it, eventually. They burn it all; plastic, electronic parts, oil, all of it, except the trash that never made it into the bags and covers the ground.
Spring is signaled by the arrival of the flies and the smell. No sewer means that all human waste is bagged too. Human waste is put into steal dumpsters in front of the houses. The ground was still frozen while we visited. What must it smell like when the summer comes? Already the smell of the burning trash was a toxic mixture of plastic, rubber, and dippers. We found ourselves turning away from the wind involuntarily.
Dogs, dogs chained up outside almost every house for
hundreds maybe thousands of years. Imagine the smell of the island.
For Thousands of years they have lived here. Survived in one of the harshest environments on the earth. They have grown-up, fallen in love, had babies and life continues.
A beauty is created here. Exquisite delicate pieces truly only an
expert carver could make. I imagine the men inside their small over crowded, dark, windswept houses, slowly and lovingly carving a walrus lying on its side or a small seal with all of the fine details. Women here are artists too. Most make beautiful seal skin hats, mukluks, and jackets.
These items can sell for hundreds of dollars providing families with an income to buy things. Eventually those things end up in their trash bags outside their door and burned.
This is their home. This sand spit out in the Bering Sea. Beat by storm, crushed by ice, eroding into the sea. They are proud to be inupiat. What can they do? What is the answer to the beauty and the beast of the island? They are not healthy, not well, they breath toxic fumes and live in filth. They can get few state resources to help them and no health provider practices here, teachers are hard to find, and even harder to retain.
Did we accept the clinic job on the island? No. We justify it by saying it would be irresponsible to subject our daughter to those health conditions. We could say the toxic burning would exacerbate Jeremy's asthma. We could say that the problems that need to be addressed are too far reaching for us to help with. But perhaps the truth is far simpler. We are not Inupiat, and not being Inupiat we are not tough enough, nor happy enough to survive here.